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The Double Hell Of Science-Led Policy

Scientists should be on tap, but not on top.
Winston Churchill

A chilling story just published in the BBC News online Magazine shows all that can go wrong when Science is taken as the one-stop-shop for all answers, and all decisions

The ultimate mea culpa – No childhood traumas could be blamed on my parents because they had an alibi – a doctor on the other side of the world, says Laurie Taylor in his weekly column

Mr Taylor, known to late-night Radio4 listeners for his rather peculiar “Thinking Allowed” programme, proceeds with explaining how his mother made large use of “scientific principles“. That is, of the child-rearing notions set up by a Doctor Truby King in New Zealand.

I realise that I’d stumbled upon my mother’s scientific procedures. There, laid out in stark clear terms, were all the rules which had to be followed if you were to produce a child who resembled any of the strong, morally upright offspring who leered out from its pages. The author was a New Zealand doctor called Truby King and it didn’t take me long to realise that he had little time for my sort of childish tantrums.

What was behind Dr King’s push to reach out to parents and help educate the children of the world?

King went on and on about how now was the time when science must take over from such non-scientific matters as a mother’s instinct when it came to bringing up children

And here the core messages:

Children, I learned, must never be allowed to dominate their parents […] Children had to learn that they couldn’t eat or sleep or defecate when they felt like it. There were proper times and places for everything. […] On no account should children be regularly cuddled.

In hindsight, there was little Science, rather something very sinister in Dr King’s thinking, since his “childcare organisation rallied under the alarmingly patriotic slogan: ‘The race marches forward on the feet of little children.’“. The white race, most likely, rather than the rat race…

Was that something Mr Taylor’s parents should have spotted on their own? We cannot be sure. What we can infer is that they were all for what they perceived as “Science”. And that made their child a victim: and their child’s child

When my own son was born I was determined that he should not be subject to such an authoritarian regime. His mother and I embraced a far more libertarian code […] he turned to me one night in the pub […] he’d always resented one aspect of his childhood. “Why,” he asked. “Did you never make me learn things properly? Why didn’t you insist that I learned to play the piano or to speak French? Why did you let me get away with it?”


Note how the abuse of Science as the answer to everything leads also to an avoidance of responsibility

“You can’t blame us for what you are,” [Taylor’s mother] said. “You were brought up according to strict scientific principles.”


There we have it all. Excessive confidence in Science. Disregard of anything not already fully boxed-in to the Science (we may call that “skepticism”). Disregard of people’s aspirations and personalities. Victims all around, sacrificed to a hell-on-earth or a higher purpose. And when disaster strikes, a quick hand-washing, blaming Science. Finally, a backlash in the opposite direction, creating a new kind of hell for even more victims.

Is that what the XXIII century book “A Brief History of the AGW Obsession” will talk about?

  1. Luke Warmer
    2009/07/10 at 13:07

    This one via google news (I’m not a regular PR week reader) is even more interesting. The PR dept for a UK Gov’t cancer screening programme is mounting a campaign of criticism against a (peer-reviewed?) journal paper which critiques screening programmes.


    Thus we see how crazy the science/media/PR scrum is getting.

  2. Luke Warmer
    2009/07/10 at 11:38

    An interesting example, thanks. “Material world” yesterday also had another useful example when it looked at the man-made (!) sperm story. A commenting Prof was clearly a little non-plussed about the claims of his fellow scientist, claims that had been over-hyped by university PR and then amplified by the tabloids. It showed that controversy is the bread and butter of frontier science. not consensus.

    Consequently if you’re able to impose a single interpretation across a wide-range of disciplines (ignoring all of their individual controversial frontiers), selecting only the peer-reviewed stuff that fits and then do this on a periodic retro-basis a la IPCC you can see how it’s possible to distort science in the short run. Then if it fits with a ready-made & waiting activist industry we have problems.

    But Maurizio – 23rd century – surely not. There will be an update to “extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds” well before then. I think we have ‘crying wolf’ until ambitious & ambiguous targets are agreed at Copenhagen (though China & India will hold the aces), a bit of economic recovery, some 2012 olympic crud & mayan bull to come and then by 2015 I think it’ll all become very clear. I suspect personal carbon allowances will be on the table by then, though. So it goes.

  1. 2010/10/13 at 10:14

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