Royal astro-boffin to MPs: Stop thinking about headlines
'Nuclear biz is screwed, chill out about carcinogens'
"In politics the urgent seems to trump the important," venerable astro-boffin Lord Martin Rees told a committee of MPs yesterday, saying that it there needed to be "bipartisan consensus on long-term issues" such as energy and the environment if Britain is to haul its sorry ass into the next century.
Giving evidence to The Public Administration Committee, Rees reprised some of the points he made in his 2010 BBC Reith lecture series, where he discussed how "celebrities and newspaper people" had too much sway over how the public perceived scientific issues.
The committee was tasked with investigating strategic thinking in government – and how to make MPs do it.
Energy came up as biggest area of scientists' anxiety. Both Rees and his fellow speaker, David King of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, said the failure of Britain's nuclear energy plans were a big concern. Rees said that at current rates, Britain wasn't even training enough people to maintain the safety arrangements on current nuclear facilities, never mind making strides in research and development.
"I'm not sure we can underestimate the long-term problem in nuclear power," he said. "When the current generation retire, we will run out of nuclear safety experts".
And then, lamented the boffin, the public tend to worry about the wrong things. The public had "a disproportionate sense of risk" he said:
"We fret too much about carcinogens in food, but don't worry enough about bio-error, bio-terror, cyber crime and things which are far more serious: these low-probability, very high consequence events."
Ignorance prevented people participating in important debates, he added.
Still the Astronomer Royal wasn't advocating some boffin-o-crat science state: "It's not just scientists who should decide these issues," he said, "they should decide it after wide democratic discussion. But for those discussions to get beyond tabloid slogans we need to get wider knowledge of these issues beyond the tabloid slogans." ®
It's called democracy - the government is (supposedly) elected by the people, for the people ... however the people are, by and large, a bunch of drooling, ignorant, selfish, bigoted poltroons - and therefore get the governance they deserve.
I'd take a boffinised meritocracy over democracy personally.
Ignorance is bliss
> Ignorance prevented people participating in important debates, he added.
If only that was true. The biggest problem (he said, not knowing if it's true or not) with public debate on science and technology - or finance & economics - is that people who don't know the facts still feel they have a right to say what they think. We see this every day, not just in scientific debates but whenever a TV news programme needs some cheap filler and goes out on a trawl for vox-pops. Once an opinion gets onto our TV screens it assumes greater importance - as if being broadcast (and being chosen to be broadcast by an equally techno-illiterate studio-person) somehow turns fiction into fact: "Well someone on telly said ... " and is well on the way to becoming accepted wisdom. After that, no matter how many white-coated, bespectacled, bearded, geeks you put up against "what everybody knows" you're on a loser.
Maybe the first question that Paxo, or any other TV presenter should ask, when opening a conversation with an interviewee should be: "What, exactly are your credentials?" and we should be reminded, frequently, whether the individual speaking does so from a position of knowledge. It could result in much shorter TV debates.
I for one...
would welcome some egg-headed overlords. It couldn't be any worse than being ruled by a combination of law, accountancy, politics and media graduates.