Current Affairs Blog 

Fundamentalist Scientist Saturday, Aug 16 2014 


It’s time for a change. For too long ignorance and made-up superstition have occupied the foreground. Ignorance has been given a place at the top table because of the notion that it represents the ordinary person’s point of view. Superstition is afforded the same if not a greater privilege because the act of creating thoughts based on feelings and imagined beings, is worthy of reverence.

Scientists have tried to demonstrate the reality using reason and evidence. The resulting work has told us a great deal, but the truth is that it is not effective in the wider sense. Not because the evidence is not there, but because science is not a political cause. Politics is not scientific, and so it does seem perverse to adopt it for scientific ends. However, politics is used for a variety of ends that started off having nothing to do with it–feminism, environmental protection, building large numbers of useless tractors.

Politics is a blunt instrument, and so you might ask why scientists should adopt it in order to do science, when they are used to finely-tuned instruments. The reason is that scientific instruments measure, politics gets things done. We see democratic politics achieve all sorts of things that were not predictable and are not sensible. Various groups of people around the world are given open-ended privileges by governments because long-dead members of their minority suffered even longer ago. It is fair to say we have seen a bit of that for scientists, especially women, but that is about it. Who is sticking up for science and scientists as a whole?

There are a few people who get in under the radar — Dara O’Briain for example. He studied Mathematics and Physics as an undergraduate; it was not until he was a hugely successful stand-up comedian that he could get the BBC to make a programme about science. And that only ran for one series.

There are one or two soft or cameragenic scientists who get in under the wire and give science a good name. Professors Jim Al-Khalili and Brian Cox spring to mind. They are nice chaps, but I do not see either of them wielding a political scimitar any time soon. Professor Richard Dawkins is often cited as a defender of science against the bonkers and the ill- or uninformed. He is also accused as someone who likes arguing. (It’s hard to disagree with that when one considers just how verbose he is. I spent three hours reading The God Delusion; I have no doubt all of what I read could be edited down to 20 minutes, even by an untrained editor like me.)

So we have a vacuum precisely of a politico-scientific shape. We have scientists who are trying to chip away at blind and woeful ignorance, but with no political voice. At the last count we had just one research scientist in the House of Commons, but he is a Liberal Democrat, which is rather a shame.

That is not to say under-the-wire approach has been entirely ineffective. The group of scientists who adopted a political strategy, political language and a deferential manner, got the funding and political backing for sequencing the human genome. That was an immense scientific and political achievement. In the short term it has been something of a white elephant, it has yet to lead to scientific discoveries of the same magnitude, or to the political backing for other scientific projects of the same magnitude.

So, it can be done, but the stealth approach will not work forever. It is time for scientists to go from fundamental to fundamentalist.

An Eye for an Eye… Friday, Sep 13 2013 

Here is a dangerous opinion: murderers should not be killed.

It is an opinion you have probably heard before, and if the statistics I have heard about are right, and you live in western Europe, the chances are you agree with it.

However, in India, they do not. At least, they do not agree with it to the point of changing their statutes to reflect this. We have seen a prime example of this, this week, with the announcement that the four men convicted of raping and causing the death (murder or manslaughter is not clear) of a woman student, have been given the death penalty. Another man who was alleged to have participated in the incident has already died (there is evidence he hanged himself, though his family deny this) and one male who was 17 at the time has been sent to a juvenile reform institution.

This case therefore provides food for thought for those who oppose the death penalty but who also have a strong interest in tougher, and greater, sentencing of rapists. In the UK, current attitude suggests that rape is a more sinister and politically incorrect crime than murder or manslaughter, so one might think that a death penalty should be awarded for that crime, if any, especially if it is accompanied by the death of the rape victim. It seems that international organisations are also starting to take this view. For example, Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, said the treatment of individual women was “much, much more important” than whether or not the perpetrators were put to death. It is not clear under which context these remarks were made, but from the outside it starts to sound that human rights can be picked and chosen.

What interests me more than the human rights angle is India’s use of the death penalty at all. Ghandi said, referring to violent conflict, “An eye for an eye, and the whole world goes blind”. Barely more than sixty years after independence, this appears not to apply within India. Add that this particular case is unbalanced in this respect; justice is apparently served to one manslaughter/murder and six rapes by five deaths and a remedial sentence. This starts to sound more like a state-mediated revenge for the crimes at the behest of public pressure, and less like justice.

Militant feminists reading this will no doubt be angered by that view, but I am not alone in holding it. Tara Rao, Director of Amnesty International India seems to agree. He said that “Sending these four men to the gallows will accomplish nothing except short-term revenge”.

There is no doubt, for me at least, that nothing can justify the actions of rape and murder of any person. However, in the interests of equitability, we must ask ourselves whether death and a painfully unbalanced approach solve any of the problems that come under the spotlight in this case. The upshot of this is that men and women are as separated as much as they ever were, justice has compromised yet again by ignorant and political intervention and the causes and consequences of rape and murder are more unclear than ever before.

What we lack is an even-handed, cool-headed, objective approach. When are we going to get that?

Euphemistic Obituaries Sunday, Sep 1 2013 

I thought of another one of those euphemistic phrases they use in obituaries, last week.  You know the ones – ‘he did not always uphold the highest ethical standards of the city’ means he was a thief, ‘she was a tireless campaigner for free speech’, means she was a crashing bore, ‘he did not always see eye-to-eye with the prevailing political orthodoxy of the time’, means he was a fascist.  The pleonasm I thought of was for an ex-colleague of mine, an academic of sorts: ‘S/he had an unorthodox approach to authorship’.  Authorship, in this case, refers to the process of apportioning credit for work done for scientific publications – journal articles, patents and books.
The Structure of Turnip Yellow Mosaic Virus: X-Ray Diffraction Studies, Aaron Klug, J. T. Finch, Rosalind E. Franklin. 
In case you are not familiar with it, typically, the first author is the Ph.D. or Master’s student who does the lab work and who writes the first draft of the paper.  The last author is the supervisor and the person who wrote the grant proposal that funded the project.  The second author is perhaps the post-doc who re-wrote the paper or the one who was the go-to person in the lab when the student needed to learn a new technique or problem-solve.  The second-to-last author is often a second supervisor, who also helped write the grant and helped out with the supervision occasionally.  Mid-author positions are people who made the smallest contributions, they may have acquired and analysed some data that was included in the paper but does not make-or-break it.

I must admit I thought of the euphuism ‘unorthodox approach to authorship’ only when I was on the negative receiving end of it; I was not included in the list of authors of a publication, where I should have had a reasonably prominent position.  This is not as upsetting or as frustrating as it may sound, it just means I have one fewer publication to add to my list.  In any case, it is far from the only example as virtually every academic I know has been left off a list of authors unfairly at some point.  Some have even written about it and the whole process, including Sylvia McLain.

In this particular case, the euphemism goes a bit further than covering up for someone’s political correctness.  The ex-colleague in question also likes to take first authorship in a paper every couple of years, without having done any lab work or writing much of the manuscript.  This person also likes to include people (sorry, “authors”), who have made no contribution at all to a given publication, as a way of shoring up their perhaps weak, position.   So, it may be an hyperbole of sorts, but it is not too unfair itself.

The argument against this gripe I raise is that these things are really convention.  There is no set rule, they differ between disciplines (authorship in engineering and science are in the reverse order with respect to one another), and there is no one to arbitrate claims of it going wrong.  Authorship therefore has a political and even subjective slant—and so getting what you deserve really requires more effort that just being in the lab and working hard.  You must be memorable to the person who presses the submit button that sends the manuscript to whoever publishes it.

This political element to publishing science leaves everyone open to equally subjective judgement about the decisions made, or the names forgotten.  In other words, I am aware that someone may therefore think of an obituary euphemism for me at some point.  I wonder what it might be.  In a literal sense and by my own admission, I do not suffer fools gladly.  I do not like having my time wasted, less still by people who are stupid or have no idea they have done it.  According to Stephen Fry, where this pleonasm is used, the real meaning is that this person is “a howling shit” (on Youtube, from 10’40”).  I hope I am not that, but I cannot deny that it is not a million miles away from finding stupid people boring.

Railway to Somewhere Thursday, Feb 14 2013 

Is £32bn enough to build a good railway?

We will have to hope so as that is the proposed budget for HS2, a new railway due to open in about 2033.  The long-awaited route was announced at the end of January 2013, raising a rather inevitable raft of concerns, including some about historical events and some that are more business-based.

There have been a variety of views expressed – generally either in favour of or against HS2.  Those in favour talk about increasing capacity and that trains will be faster, and presumably safer.  Opponents say it is not cost effective, that the evidence does not really support the reasoning proposed and that there are bigger priorities elsewhere, particularly regional railways in the north of England.  There is little doubt that such regional railways would undoubtedly join up that region better than the current system by increasing capacity and lowering journey times.

Increasing capacity on railways means, of course, improving infrastructure such that more people can travel between stations in a day.  I say stations, rather than cities or places, because that is what they seem to be called, inexplicably—either that or “station stops”.  It sounds like the rhetoric of an ignoramus or the result of a botched re-branding, but perhaps there is another possibility.  Perhaps they are just trying to be honest.

In the 19th century, it was often quite difficult for railway companies to cite stations and lines where they wanted them.  Just look at maps of places like Cambridge or Loughborough: the railway stations are barely in the place of the name they bear.  This sounds preposterous enough on its own, but the worst thing is that despite the century-and-a-half there has been to improve the situation, the railway station in Cambridge is still not near big roads, the airport, the centre of town or where most people live.  The same is true of a relatively new station ambitiously named “East Midlands Airport Parkway”.  Easily the nearest thing to that is a power station.  The station is five miles from the East Midlands airport.  No buses are scheduled to stop at the station, and you have to ring for a cab from the one firm advertised at the station; the hardware of a taxi rank is barely evident.  None of this poor planning and execution is helpful for passenger capacity, and thus usefulness of railway infrastructure, on anyone’s terms.  The transport minister in the Lords under the last Labour government summed this up from a different perspective when he said about the HS2 public consultation that “everyone wants the stations but nobody wants the line”.   We start to see why building new railways is difficult.

These points imply a history of a problem that would surely be put at the top of the list of building new railways: how to avoid compromising on the quality of the railway so the thing is useful once it is finished.  Usefulness is clearly the clear over-riding concern: no one embarks on major railway-building projects because they are bored.  Further, there is no doubt that a good railway will pay for itself on that basis alone, as Brunel’s railways have done, if the effort can be made in the first place.

It was therefore with bated breath that I awaited the proposed route of HS2.  They might finally be about to do something really good with this big project, I supposed that they might be about to join up some big places and allow branch lines and other building projects to develop after that.  I wondered if they might avoid the need for the closures of railways in the 1960s and 70s under Beeching, by ensuring that what was being proposed was useful in the long term.  The route published for HS2 was therefore rather disappointing.  Birmingham, and important hub in the West Midlands, appears to be a spur from the main line, rather than any kind of interchange.  It is therefore awkward to connect the northern stations with those in either the East or West Midlands by train.  A station is being built at a place called Toton, with the rather weak suggestion that this will serve “Both Nottingham and Derby”.  It is a good trick if you can do it, currently 20 minutes is a quick journey time by train between those two cities.

The truth is that this sort of thing represents a nasty compromise.  Making transport plans seem big and shiny will only become disappointingly empty if they are not backed up by joining up the planned infrastructure with other transport means and destinations in a coherent manner.  Put another way, there is no point in cutting journey times for distances of 150 miles by 45 minutes, if the 10 miles from the station to the final destination is not only required but then takes an hour because that station is in the arse end of nowhere on a line that is in the wrong place.

So, there is at least one thing that is wrong with HS2 (Birmingham spur) and another (Toton interchange) that is, at best, complicated.  On this basis, it seems likely that HS2 needs a re-think.  Despite these and other prescient concerns, it is quite difficult to be actively against HS2.  Are we are in a position to complain about funding of railway projects, especially when we need to invest in hardware to improve the economy?  The sad truth is that we will probably never be in a position to complain, even though much of the planning is dubious and does not fit with the priorities of what will be useful or workable.  This is why mainline stations get refurbished at a cost of millions, doubtless making their use marginally easier for a tiny number of passengers, but while several other places remain without a station at all.  That said, a refurbishment or a line that nearly goes somewhere useful is something, and something is more than nothing.