David Tredinnick – a view from inside the committee

Twitter has been making a lot of noise today about the appointment of Tory MP David Tredinnick to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. The response has been a mixture of mocking, anger and deep concern.

Tredinnick, best known for his advocacy of homeopathic medicine, has been a member of the Health Committee since 2010. There was similar outrage at the time, but I’ve yet to see conventional medicine fall to its knees as a result.

Although it’s jolly good fun to jump on the ‘ha ha, crystals’ bandwagon, Tredinnick is an elected representative of his constituents. Whether you like his views or not – I personally believe they’re unsubstantiated nonsense – he represents an electorate with a right to be heard in Parliament.

Tredinnick has the same right to stand for committee positions as any other MP and, according to Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert, was the only Tory to stand. If this is correct, then I would agree with Mark Henderson that it reveals a ‘worrying indifference to science’ within the Conservative party.

I do not, however, share the concerns of those who believe Tredinnick could in any way damage the committee. He is one member amongst many, and it seems unlikely that his views will emerge as the prevailing voice of the committee. To exclude an MP from a committee based on their views would, in my opinion, be anti-democratic; it’s a slippery slope to technocracy. But what do those inside the committee think?

As luck would have it, the position of the moon last June forewarned me that Tredinnick would be appointed to the Science and Technology Committee in 2013. Enlightened, I asked the clerk of the committee, Dr Stephen McGinness, to share his views on Tredinnick. Below are the raw transcripts of our conversation, which I have left as-spoken to avoid editorialising.

I hope that this transcript will help to reassure concerned skeptics that Tredinnick will not somehow ‘spoil’ the committee, and that Dr McGinness is perfectly capable of managing a diverse range of perpectives in its membership.


14th June 2012

Do you think it’s a problem when there are people in the House that are seen as anti-science, such as David Tredinnick with his views on homeopathy?

No, because again, there’s… what it was, last BBC poll said something like a quarter to a third of people don’t believe climate change is taking place, that reflects the country. If you went ‘if you’re a climate change denier, you’re not allowed to be in Parliament,’ what do you stop next, you know, so no, if someone’s anti-science, anti-Western science, it’s that whole thing of saying ‘you’re anti-science’, but that’s not how David Tredinnick would class himself, he’d say he’s pro, he’s very much for looking at the alternatives, and he says he would rather look at the alternatives than just do this very clinical route of science, and so you say well, there’s a lot of people, a lot of people out there, who think that’s the way to go and they should have that voice in Parliament too, and I don’t think science does well if it sits there unchallenged. So yeah, if there’s members who challenge science and challenge scientific truths, then that’s got to be a good thing, because if the truth is truthful enough, it should be able to stand that challenge, and if it’s not able to stand that challenge then maybe it isn’t as truthful as it thinks it is. So, no, I don’t think… I think it’s good to have that breadth as long as members on both sides are open in their debate and willing to hear out the other side, then there’s no problem in having any sort of person in Parliament, they’ve got to come, they’ve got to be able to put their view, put it well and cogently, and argue and debate and vote and come to decisions hopefully that reflect what an informed UK populace would go for, because that’s the whole idea of them, they represent the common people, the population as a mass, as they might be if they’re informed, and what we have with the backup, with POST and with the Library, with the committees, is a way of injecting information into that body of people. Part of it’s science, part of it’s economics, part of it’s other such policy, but it’s that way of injecting that information to bring members up to a level of knowledge that everybody would like to have before they made a decision, and see if we can get informed decisions made in Parliament, and that’s what it’s all about; helping members like anybody else in the country to get into a position where they can make an informed decision. That’s my job, the Library’s job, POST’s job.

So do you feel that before those backups come in, do you think there’s a duty to represent public ignorance in certain things?

I wouldn’t say ignorance, I don’t think we represent ignorance, I think we represent perspectives, and what you do is, if a member never wants to make a decision in ignorance, we have all these support networks to take the ignorance away. When you take the lack of knowledge or lack of understanding away, what you’re left with is somebody like that person, but informed. So, you’re representing all those other things, all those drives, all that perspective that they’ve got from their life, from that particular place in the country, comes to Parliament and becomes informed and is able to make an informed decision that’s true to that background, that’s the strength of a local constituency link, that person usually comes from that area and they represent the sort of ways that the people in that area think, and then they come here, and hopefully pick up an awful lot of other stuff that’ll allow them to bring that perspective with a bit of knowledge to policy and legislation.


Agenda bender: how PR is more honest than journalism

Attitudes toward journalists have changed in recent years, particularly with the Leveson inquiry and surrounding controversies. Even so, many specialist science journalists still have loyal followers and enjoy a degree of trust from all but the vocal minority of climate change deniers or anti-GM lobbyists.

Some people view journalists as tireless seekers of ‘the truth’, others as cut-‘n’-paste ‘churnalists’. Idealistic readers may expect articles to have been doggedly researched, while hardened cynics might think the most creative thing journalists do is use the Microsoft Word synonym function on press releases. Within journalism, some think of themselves as truth-hunters while others see it as just a job. Either way, casual readers have no way of telling what a journalist’s motivations are or quite how much time they are able to spend researching each story.

As a result of this opaqueness, it is difficult to know what agenda a journalist is working to. Often this might be something as simple as ‘I want to present this story in a way that appeals to my audience’, but this is certainly not always the case. Some may mislead readers for an eye-catching story; others could inadvertently push the agenda of an institution by failing to look beyond the press release. This could be out of laziness or simply the need to meet a tight deadline.

Beyond these day-to-day factors, there are also wider financial interests to consider. Journalists’ interests are very rarely disclosed in articles, as Guardian writer George Monbiot noted last August: “Accountability has no place in the culture of journalism.” Calling for journalists to publish registers of interest just as MPs do, Monbiot practises what he preaches, maintaining a comprehensive register on his personal website. Monbiot even includes smaller things like books sent by publishers for complete transparency. Yet very few follow his example, and the fortnightly magazine Private Eye is frequently filled with examples of undeclared interests held by journalists and reviewers.

Personal relationships are rarely disclosed either. Someone featured in an article could be best friends with the author, they may have even have lived together; readers will be none the wiser. Many expect journalists to apply a certain level of scrutiny and scepticism to all claims, which simply may not be there. There are other confounding factors too, particularly with event or feature reporting; it is seldom mentioned whether hosts covered journalists’ travel expenses or provided refreshments. Readers are not usually informed if a journalist had a nice chat with key stakeholders over some complimentary booze, for example.

You know where you are with a press office. If you see a news story on an institutional website, you do not expect the same level of scrutiny as might be offered by an ostensibly independent journalist. Many of the influences mentioned regarding journalists may well apply to PR people too, but they will always be secondary to one over-arching goal: to promote the institution(s) paying their salary. This is a clear financial interest, and is inherently declared in anything coming from a public affairs department.

I am not arguing that journalists are all a bunch of liars, or that everyone should just read news direct from institutional sources. Rather, I call for more journalists to follow Monbiot’s example and declare their own interests rather than pretending to be paragons of impartiality. I would also discourage readers from expecting syndicated journalists to pursue the public interest without personal, political or financial agendas.

For the sake of transparency, I ought to declare my own interests here: I am no longer a journalist myself, and am currently employed by a university press office. Does that make this blog post biased? Yes.

Osborne sidles up to science

Getting cosy: Nurse and Osborne smile for the camera

Sir Paul Nurse with George Osborne at the BBC. Photograph: BBC News

Since the coalition took power in 2010, George Osborne has not exactly been the most popular man in Britain. He has attracted criticism from members of all parties in the Commons, been decried by economists and was even booed at the Paralympic Games. Yet despite his widespread unpopularity, team Osborne have successfully courted at least one group over the past few years: the science lobby.

In December, Osborne announced a £21.5m investment aimed at taking graphene research ‘from the British laboratory to the British factory floor’. This investment contains no new government funding; Osborne is simply specifying the details of previously announced funding commitments. Yet the announcement was extraordinarily well-received by influential figures from the science lobby. Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, gave the announcement favourable comments in The Guardian and was none too critical when interviewing Osborne on the Today programme. Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), described the news as ‘incredibly positive’.

“I think scientists often pride themselves on not being ideological; they are pragmatic, driven by evidence and very practical. Some people say the Prime Minister and yourself are pretty pragmatic rather than ideological, do you think you’re really a scientist in disguise doing politics?” – Sir Paul Nurse interviews George Osborne on the Today programme 

Whether or not Nurse and Khan can speak for the scientific community at large is up for debate, but none could deny that the Royal Society and CaSE are influential institutions. Their responses to the graphene announcement are just one example of a changing attitude towards coalition policies, which I have been following with interest.

If we look back to September 2010, before the Spending Review was announced, Khan was highly critical of a speech on science funding by Vince Cable: ‘Dr. Cable had nothing exciting or inspiring to say about government policy in this area’. As the review approached in October, CaSE teamed up with Science is Vital (slogan: ‘No more Dr Nice Guy!’) to protest outside the Treasury. Khan warned of ‘catastrophic collapse in our science and engineering base’, and compared UK science spending unfavourably with those of other countries.

When the science spending ‘freeze’ (real-terms cut of 10%) was actually announced, we saw hesitant acceptance from the science lobby. A Royal Society report described the situation as ‘bearable’, while Khan described it as a ‘significant cut’ and warned that the UK would ‘struggle to retain’ young scientists. A subsequent article on the CaSE website tentatively concluded that science and engineering ‘escaped severe cuts’ but were in for ‘tricky times ahead’.

Skipping ahead to October 2011, when the £50m graphene funding was first announced, Khan ‘applauded’ the decision to ‘invest intelligently’ but was keen to point out that the investment came ‘in the wake of enormous cuts to the nation’s science and engineering base.’ A month later, Osborne set aside £200m for research infrastructure in the autumn statement. In response, Khan said: ‘It’s really encouraging for the U.K. economy that last year’s cuts are being slowly reversed.’ Nurse described the announcement as ‘good news’, but cautioned that it ‘must be the start of that additional investment rather than just a one off.’

As 2012 draws to a close, we see a marked difference in the relationship between Osborne and the science lobby. Paying lip service to science at the Royal Society in November can’t have harmed Osborne’s reputation in scientific circles, and he went on to announce a £600m investment in science in December’s autumn statement. In an article on the CaSE website headlined ‘CaSE backs Osborne’s science ambition’, Khan is quoted saying: ‘We applaud the Chancellor for supporting not only fundamental research, but also making science a bigger part of the UK’s industrial strategy.’ Unlike the 2011 response, this article made no mention of the Spending Review cuts which will be in effect until 2014-15. Nurse’s response was similarly positive, although he did include a caveat regarding Osborne’s focus on specific areas of science: ‘We must not narrow our focus too much and risk sacrificing the ideas that will create growth decades from now.’

Compared with responses in previous years, recent statements from Nurse and Khan are almost suspiciously uncritical.  Has Osborne simply been unquestionably good for science? This seems unlikely. Chi Onwurah, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation, pointed out earlier this month that what Osborne ‘actually announced was the return of just some of the budget that he cut from the science capital spending.’ Onwurah’s article is well worth a read for anyone interested in science funding, and she articulates many problems with Osborne’s approach far better than I could. So as Osborne takes from the science budget with one hand and gives with the other, why do we have key science lobbyists thanking him with few reservations?

In late October 2012, CaSE and Nesta launched the 4Growth campaign, asking for the ~£4bn proceeds from the auction of the 4G spectrum to be invested into science and innovation. Khan’s stake in the campaign is clear, and 4Growth’s list of supporters includes Lord Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society. There may be a feeling that one catches more Chancellors with honey than vinegar…

Why the Geek movement is bad for science

In recent years, the label ‘Geek’ has shaken off its previous negative connotations and many have adopted it as a badge of honour. The movement has been spearheaded by the likes of Mark Henderson, author of ‘The Geek Manifesto’, along with a whole host of scientists, authors and comedians. Science comedy duo Brian Cox and Robin Ince recently co-wrote an editorial in the New Statesman arguing that ‘politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science’.

With a physics degree and a love of data, I could easily be described as a ‘Geek’ myself. Yet I find the Geek movement to be highly troubling, and would like to distance myself from it. Many Geeks also self-identify as ‘rationalists’ or ‘skeptics’, and Mark Henderson has spoken at countless Skeptics in the Pub events to preach to the choir.

I have a number of problems with the Geek movement, not least of all the implicit arrogance of the thing. In the New Statesman article written by Ince and Cox, they compare science to ‘mere opinion’ in the headline, and continue to assert that science provides the only valid form of evidence, and is ‘the only way we have of exploring nature’. This fundamentally closed-minded attitude appeals to badge-wearing Geeks, but will only alienate the audiences who don’t already agree.

The Geek movement also seems to have subsumed the atheist movement, with some rather unhealthy outcomes. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a well-known darling of the Geek movement, found himself ‘constantly claimed by atheists’ and had to publicly distance himself from the atheist movement. The commonly-claimed link between science and atheism is harmful to the image of science, and to scientists such as DeGrasse Tyson.

It is worth noting that many proponents of the Geek movement such as Mark Henderson and Robin Ince are not themselves scientifically trained. This is not to say that they are not qualified to comment on or campaign for science, but there is a tendency for Geeks to worship an idealised notion of ‘science’. As a result, science and scientists are elevated to a privileged position of assumed authority, and Geeks will happily promote anything with a whiff of ‘science’ or ‘rationalism’.

At a Science Communication conference in September, sociologist Steve Fuller described the Geek movement as the ‘new petite bourgeoisie’. Although the session drew to a close before the concept was discussed in depth, I would be tempted to agree with Fuller’s assessment. The term petite bourgeoisie refers to a social class who seek to emulate the traditions and values of the higher (upper-middle class) ‘bourgeoisie’. We might therefore label a Geek as a ‘petit scientiste’, since many Geeks lay claim to some idealised version of the scientific method. As Fuller pointed out at the conference, many Geeks are ‘computer jocks’ with no real experience of science in practice.

So what’s the problem? If we have this movement of Geeks, rationalists, skeptics, atheists – whatever they choose to call themselves – are they really harming anyone? It is my view that the movement is inherently damaging to science as it becomes characterised by the more sneering, self-righteous elements. The tone of superiority adopted by many Geeks, including Ince and Cox, does little to persuade those who are not already ‘converted’. Instead, it fosters a thoroughly masturbatory environment in which Geeks congratulate Geeks for promoting Geek philosophies. I do not find such circle-jerks particularly constructive, but they are all too common in the science communication world.

Following that rant, you could be forgiven for thinking that I am in some way against evidence-based policy, good scientific advice or anything else championed by the Geek movement. I am not. I am strongly in favour of improving the handling of science in Westminster, but would like to see more reasoned discussion around the issues. Scientific evidence is not the only type of evidence that politicians should consider, and to dismiss anything else as ‘mere opinion’ prevents any meaningful dialogue. No ‘anti-science’ politician is going to be won over by derision; insulting their intelligence is more likely to cement their position. I would like to see a more measured response, where Geeks present evidence in a more measured and tolerant way.

In November, I organised an event with the Society of Biology to question the notion that Parliament would be improved if we stuffed it full of scientists. In an online poll before the event, 96% of people wanted to see more scientists in Parliament. Following a measured discussion between the panellists, the final percentage was closer to 60%. Jack Stilgoe and Evan Harris argued against the motion, and Stilgoe subsequently posted an excellent summary of the arguments on his blog.

This is the sort of discussion that I would like to see more of in the mainstream media. Give me Stilgoe and Harris over Ince and Cox any day.  To me, those who make reasoned arguments to doubtful (or even hostile) audiences are far more valuable than those who bask in the approval of a homogenous Geek community.