Monday, 28 June 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: Lord Paul of Oberhausen FRS


I must admit I haven't been following the World Cup closely - despite the BBC cramming the already science-heavy airwaves with Alan Hansen's preachings on the importance of "heart" and "character" in "football". However, one story did happen to catch my eye. Apparently, an octopus called Paul (not Simon, unfortunately - a much better name) has been successfully predicting the outcomes of the German football team's matches in South Africa - including Sunday's game that I understand England (thankfully) lost.

This is, of course, in total contradiction to what "scientists" will tell you is possible. With their "degrees" and their "logic" and their so-called "evidence", these sceptical kill-joys will undoubtedly pour scorn onto this poor, talented creature, whose only mistake was somehow tap into forces far beyond the comprehension of the infallible keepers of knowledge. Even now I can hear "Dr" Ben Goldacre gathering his army of number trolls, issuing forth the rallying cry of "haha srsly, dude, 4 out of 6 correct predictions may occur by chance anyway", before unleashing a statistical hell on yet another misunderstood bearer of the Truth.

But to do so would be to obscure the serious - nay, fundamental - question that the aquarium's research begs: is this not exactly what Sir Paul Nurse, successor to Lord Rees (who I have already discussed at length) as President of the Royal Society, will ask us to do with with the hard-earned money that we are forced to pump relentlessly into "scientific research"?

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Rees's bauble-clad Anointed One hinted that he would identify "100 to 150 excellent scientists in all fields, who would get generous long-term support to pursue their interests". But how will you do this, Sir Paul? How will you "pick your winners"? Scientists have long been running scared from the notion that the value of their research can be quantified or measured, unlike the data they so joyfully harvest. They quake at the mere idea that they should be able to show how their scribblings and tinkerings have had any sort of "impact" on the world. "Science needs more blue sky thinking", they will cry.

"Blue sky thinking"? More like navel-gazing. Perhaps there genuinely is something interesting in their collective belly buttons - like this God-forsaken "God particle" they keep bleating about - but the Truth is this: scientists do not know - they cannot know - that their research will lead to something useful that benefits us all. When they ask us for yet another billion to build whatever flimsy contraption happens to take their fancy at the time, they are asking us to have faith - a word they so despise - in their abilities to make "progress". And more than that, they will soon be asking us to have faith in their ability to pick the right people to make said "progress". We citizens are being asked to put our faith in a colossal cephalopod of self-proclaimed certainty. For all of their so-called rationalism and calls for "evidence-based policy", science ultimately asks for us to take a leap of faith to better understand our world. If only they would admit it.

So may I suggest this, Sir Paul: If you truly believe in the power of science, make your octopus namesake a Fellow of your esteemed Royal Society. Ask him to "pick your winners". Hell, even ask him to award your precious research grants. Because even you know that by the laws laid down by your beloved "science", he has just as much chance of getting it right as you do.

Note: This was not actually written by Simon Jenkins. At least, I don't think it was.