What was it that so tugged the heartstrings about the news that doctors had successfully communicated with a man thought to be in a vegetative state? For me, it was partly that my husband had taken the best part of three days to regain consciousness after a major brain operation, so I was reminded of the chilling sense of what if ... But it was surely also the glorious simplicity that shone through the complexity of what the neurologists had done.
They had established, through brain scans, the pattern for "normal" responses to common experiences, then applied it to the seemingly comatose individual before them. The result – with the otherwise powerless patient told to think "tennis" for "yes" – calls into question judgements made hitherto about switching off life-support systems and looks set to change clinical practice in the future. It was all so elegant, so epoch-making, and so cheering. And so different from the scientific confusion into which we lay people increasingly find ourselves mired.
In the space of just a few weeks we have learned of doubts – significant and serious doubts – attending some of the data supporting the hypothesis that climate change is largely caused by human activity (and can therefore be reversed by human action, too). Aspersions have been cast on some of the research methods and findings, as well as the attitudes of some scientists, at the Institute for Climatic Research at the University of East Anglia.
Scarcely had we non-scientists registered that there might be problems with the data than the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, admitted that one of the most memorable forecasts for the malign effects of climate change – the melting of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 – was wrong. Now maybe, to the real scientists and climate-change cognoscenti, such doubts and mistakes are mere details at the margins. But for us, the wider public, they are not. They are the eye-catching alarms that convinced us – or were used to convince us – that climate change was an urgent threat each and every one of us needed to tackle.
But it is not just climate change where supposed certainties seem to be dissolving. Or, indeed, even more confusingly, vice versa. It is only now, after 11 years, that Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who posited a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism in some children, has been reprimanded by the General Medical Council; only now that the article that gave his theory credibility has been retracted by The Lancet. Why so long?
Then, earlier this week, a fundamental aspect of the way scientific research is validated was called into question. Some leading stem-cell scientists, the BBC reported, were challenging the fairness of the peer-review system, accusing some of the scientist-reviewers of blocking or delaying publication (and so qualification for funds) by rivals or researchers they disagreed with. One award-winning scientist is refusing to offer his research to Nature.
Deadly rivalry in any specialist field is nothing new, and academia is no more civilised than any other sphere. Nor is it the first time the peer-review system has been questioned. But all this leaves us non-scientists flailing. The trouble is, we think we can recognise honest advance for what it is. Like the brain experiment, it positively radiates authenticity and benefit. We get worried when arguments about data and methods and validation erupt around hypotheses that never rang quite as true as a self-appointed scientific establishment had pressed us to believe. Which, in fact, may be no bad thing.
A vivid reminder of the kind of politician we could do with today
One of the dubious privileges of being Washington correspondent for a British newspaper is the periodic embassy breakfast with a visiting minister. Only one of these full-English occasions sticks in my memory. The guest was Mo Mowlam, still in the Cabinet, but some time after – I think – she had been removed as Northern Ireland Secretary.
There was still a splendid turn-out, with – unusually for such political breakfasts – a reasonable gender balance. Americans, especially American women, adored her candour and upfront informality. That morning everyone somehow recognised that this was a farewell. The breakfast ended in emotional applause.
I recalled this when we had a straw poll in the office about Mo, the television drama screened last weekend. It was the female staff of a certain age who, slightly reluctantly, admitted to having seen it, before enthusing about Julie Walters' extraordinary performance in the title role. The drama attracted huge attention in advance, largely for its revelation that Mowlam had dissembled the gravity of her illness. Afterwards, it was treated, albeit generously, as just another TV programme.
The figures, though, say something else. Mo gave Channel 4 its highest audience for a drama for more than eight years, with 3.5 million viewers. Maybe the attraction was Walters, but I bet it was also Mo herself – a politician who was more popular with the voters than with her government or her party for being a one-off and a bit rough around the edges. The sort of politician, in other words, we could do with a lot more of.
Pluses and minuses of online government
Along, it transpires, with a good number of The Independent's letter-writers, I filed my tax return online a day or two before the 31 January deadline. And some of what struck our indignant correspondents struck me, too, not least the sometimes shaky acquaintance of www.gateway.gov.uk with English spelling and grammar. But you do feel, at least I feel, that its scribes try to make themselves comprehensible, even when they fall short.
So I couldn't decide whether to be amused or irritated when gateway declined my first attempt to enter my password, reminding me that it was a password I had myself selected. Failing, even then, to log in, I found something on my handwritten notes called "password". It had the desired effect. I'm pretty sure, though, that even at my most inventive, I would never have devised the 12-character combination of letters and digits that eventually let me in.
Talking of official websites, there is one I have come to know and – almost – love: the one for the DVLA. No longer do you have to trek to the Post Office, only to find that one key document is missing. The operation is joined up: your insurance and MoT are automatically attached. And, in a nice touch, a little car makes its way across the top of the form to chart your progress.
I recently overheard a young man you would not have described as either a City or a hi-tech type, telling his mate all about it. The conversation would have been perfect, uncut, as a promotional video for the DVLA. If only he had mentioned the little car.