Letters: Perspectives on science

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The best way to get to the truth

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown ("Scientists don't always know best", 31 May) is entitled to her views, but she clearly has no understanding of the scientific method, which has time and again proved to be our best – probably our only – way of getting at the truth.

The scientific method consists of using repeatable experiment and observation in order to discover how the universe actually works. This has to be a more sensible approach than deciding in advance how we would like it to work. One aim of the experimental method is to minimise – and preferably eliminate completely – cultural and other biases (which Ms Alibhai-Brown seems to wish to encourage), because it is only by eliminating these factors that we will have any chance of arriving at the truth.

Those medical treatments which survive experimental testing by consistently performing better than placebos are rightly brought into the medical mainstream. Those which don't are rightly rejected. It's as simple as that.

David Love, Torquay, Devon

How can Ms Alibhai-Brown write (presumably with a straight face) about "mysterious physical responses that cannot be validated by scientific methodologies and templates". Does anyone know what she is talking about? If something is physical then it can be tested and observed, and thus is not beyond the realm of science.

It is an absolute contradiction to accuse scientists of being arrogant and certain. Science is built on scepticism and doubt, not certainty and revelation. Why do we peer-review all our rivals' work? Because we shouldn't trust them; they should be criticised and scrutinised until only the truth remains. Why do we do "control" experiments? Because we don't trust ourselves. We are open to bias and misinterpretation as much as any human, so we need to perform negative and placebo-controlled trials to make certain that there is something happening.

If science is so subjective or if knowledge is merely opinion, I wonder why Ms Alibhai-Brown would choose to leave her house by the front door rather than the window on the second floor. Gravity is only a theory, after all.

David Carnegie, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of St Andrews

An out gay man in the City

Of course, viewed on a personal level one has to be sympathetic with David Laws, but only up to a point. Like Mr Laws, I worked in the City, in my case for 20 years, and have been in a gay partnership for 35 years. I have been "out" throughout my professional career, without apparent adverse effects. Indeed, work colleagues appreciated my honesty and the assumption I made that they were enlightened and accepting of my diversity.

Surely, people in public life, especially those standing for election, are under an obligation to be honest and not try to pretend to be something they are not, and sexuality is such a central part of any personality that it cannot be regarded as a "private" matter.

I was really impressed when arranging the reception to celebrate our civil partnership at the Ritz Hotel, just before Christmas 2005. Far from being consigned to the basement, it was suggested we could hold the ceremony on the premises too.

No doubt Peter Tatchell will check David Laws' voting record on gay-related legislation to ensure that he has not been guilty of any hypocrisy, something of which we Brits take a very dim view. I regret the Lib Dems do not have a very creditable record regarding this issue. The anti-gay election campaign they ran against Mr Tatchell in Bermondsey, while fielding a gay candidate, Simon Hughes, really was pretty shoddy.

Anthony Tugnutt, London, WC1

At this time of national emergency it's good to see that the journalists of the right-wing press are right behind the coalition's efforts to avoid our bankruptcy and resultant mass unemployment, with the best-qualified ministers being whole-heartedly supported in their jobs irrespective of their personal traits.

As well as being thankful that the little ships and the Navy saved us at Dunkirk 70 years ago, we should perhaps give thanks that the current breed of journalists were not around at that time. One can imagine the headlines – "Drunken maverick to take over as PM", and later "British tommies to be under command of Yankee adulterer." And as for the wartime coalition – the mind boggles.

Geoff Harris, Warwick

Power goes back to local level

We welcome many of the announcements in the Queen's Speech and, with a coalition government in place, we have a new opportunity to devolve power from Whitehall to local residents and communities across the UK.

We believe that councils should be in the vanguard of public service reform. Most can demonstrate that localism works, and that local authorities are best-placed to respond to the public need on a local level.

As councils, we need to wrest control back from central government so we can have a greater say over everything from business rates and benefits to roadworks and licensing, to increase responsibility and accountability to the local electorate.

By freeing us from the burdens of red tape, regulation and bureaucracy we could go even further, for example, by fully devolving funding for local policing and local housing to give local taxpayers more influence over how their money is spent.

We hope the new administration will trust local government and give councils the powers to make a real difference to people's lives.

Cllr Colin Barrow, Leader, Westminster City Council

More than 70 per cent of Surrey is green belt land, so I was relieved to read that Eric Pickles has freed local councils to make local decisions about home building ("Labour targets to build on green belt to be scrapped," 1 June).

We don't need the sort of government diktats that could have seen the green belt between Guildford and Woking concreted over. The green belt has a purpose and helps to keep Surrey the special place that it is.

Whitehall decrees threatened to scar for ever our rural landscapes and ignored the blindingly obvious – local councils are best placed to balance sustainable development needs with protecting beautiful and unspoilt countryside.

Dr Andrew Povey, Leader of the Council, County Hall, Kingston upon Thames

The case for a cap on pay

The announcement that more than 170 civil servants receive higher salaries than the Prime Minister reopens the case for a national maximum income.

It is argued that civil servants receive only what they would get in the private sector and what is needed to attract those with the most ability. All this does is highlight that the private sector is also out of control and should be subjected to a maximum pay in the same way as the low-paid are given a minimum wage.

The establishment disingenuously argues that civil servants' salaries have to be made public because they come from the public purse, but in fact all salaries both private and public ultimately come from the public. So everyone, including those working in the private sector, should be subject to a maximum income.

Inequality is not benign. One has only to look at the Cabinet full of public-school millionaires to see that. Those who receive excessive salaries have access to a life that the rest will never be able to attain. It gives them privileges they do not deserve and allows them to circumvent restrictions both legal and illegal that apply to others.

We are a long way from a fair society but the publication of such information is a starting point and should not be accepted with a shrug of the shoulders and a smile.

Malcolm Naylor, Otley, West Yorkshire

It's all very well exposing the senior civil servants who earn more than the Prime Minister – which hopefully is the precursor to cutting their salaries to more reasonable levels – but what about the chief executives of local councils, health authorities (not forgetting GPs), the BBC and the rest, who are also raking in these massive salaries? We can only hope they will be next, and stop bleeding us poor taxpayers dry.

Rob Michaels, Bournemouth

Break the Gaza blockade

An end to the isolation of Gaza is indeed urgently needed, but it is hard to believe that this can be achieved through negotiation (leading article, 2 June).

If the Middle East "peace process" is anything to go by, Israel never sees negotiations as anything other than a delaying tactic to enable it to avoid making genuine concessions.

Unless Egypt can be persuaded to open its border permanently, the only solution is to continue sending aid ships until Israel finds itself forced to abandon its blockade. Ideally, these ships should travel under the naval protection of a country such as Turkey that supports their goals and – one would hope – might be willing to become more actively involved.

James Budd, Manningtree, Essex

I thank both The Independent and Donald Macintyre for mentioning – albeit very briefly – the US-backed failed coup attempt by Fatah to oust Hamas from power following their election victory, which led to a brief civil war and the division of the Palestinian occupied territories into two separate political entities ("It's up to us to lift the blockade", 2 June).

This hugely important chapter in both the story of Palestinian national liberation and international relations has been almost completely written out of the western news media's version of events. For example, the BBC repeatedly describes these pivotal events as simply the "Hamas coup" or "when Hamas seized control of Gaza", without mentioning the US backing, with arms, money and training, of Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan – or "our guy" as Bush called him –with the aim of ousting a democratically elected government.

Benjamin Counsell, London, E5

Jacob Amir seeks to defend the botched Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla with an argument which is both illogical and outrageous (letter, 2 June). The Israeli navy stormed the ships as aggressors and had absolutely no right to be on board. It is perfectly understandable that those already on board should seek to defend themselves.

These acts of aggression, as well as the arguments peddled by Israeli officials to defend them, make a very bad situation worse. If the likes of Mr Amir, and more importantly the Israeli government, can't recognise or understand this fundamental difference between right and wrong then there is absolutely no hope of peace.

Derren Berresford, Nottingham

At least one positive thing has come out of this recent action for the Israelis: they can be assured that our new government will give them little cause for concern on the international political front.

Our new Foreign Secretary uttered not one word of criticism over the storming of ships in international waters, just the usual anodyne references to say that something must be done to create peace in the Middle East.

Jeff Smith, Lincoln

Scots who kept Nazi might at bay

The sacrifice of the 51st Highland Division at St Valery is one of the untold stories of the Second World War (letter, 31 May). Even in Scotland it has largely been forgotten that the 51st were still fighting in France 10 days after the evacuation of the main British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk.

The Highland Division are the unsung heroes who kept the might of the German army at bay while more than 338,000 British and French troops boarded ships across the Channel to England. No attention has been paid to the bravery of men from many Scottish regiments who played a vital part in defending the perimeter of Dunkirk. Thousands of Scots also crewed naval and merchant ships at Dunkirk. Neither they nor their officers were pleased when ordered to abandon the 51st to their fate.

One Isle of Lewis seaman took command of his vessel after the captain had been killed and rescued many soldiers from the beaches. His two brothers serving with the 51st Highland Division were among those left behind at St Valery, and were captured by the Germans and spent five years as prisoners of war.

Donald J MacLeod, Aberdeen

On the subject of forgotten 70th anniversaries, my father, Colin Donald, was killed on 23 May while in command of the destroyer HMS Vimy in Boulogne Harbour.

Two battalions (Irish and Welsh Guards) and supporting arms had been landed on 22 May to hold the port or prepare it for demolition. Late on the following afternoon German troops had penetrated the town, and it was decided to evacuate the Guards using seven destroyers.

By that time German snipers were installed in hotels and warehouses on the east side of the harbour, and tanks had occupied high ground closer to the sea. My father, his officer of the watch and the flotilla commander, Captain Simson, in HMS Keith, which was also alongside at the Gare Maritime, were all hit by sniper fire.

The second in command of the Flotilla, Commander Edward Conder, in HMS Whitshed, took charge and due to his efforts at destroying tanks and rearranging the Boulogne harbour front the ships were able to bring off 4,400 troops.

Frank Donald, Edinburgh

Ways to pick the Upper House

Mark Thomas writes "one man, one vote seems to work for all the world's democracies" (letters, 28 May). On the contrary, straightforwardly elected Upper Houses are comparatively rare. Italy has such a system, where the two houses are elected on the same basis, guaranteeing the government a majority in both. This is hardly in the public interest, although I'm sure Nick Clegg and David Cameron would disagree.

Most countries with an elected Upper House (including France, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands and Canada) adopt less straightforward methods of appointment, and for good reason.

The advocate of any system must answer two questions: how can you prevent the Government wielding undue influence over the Lords, and how do you maintain the level of expertise needed to review new legislation? To anyone who wishes to bring the axe down on the present system, I say this: spend some time watching the Lords debate on BBC Parliament, and compare it with the Commons, then tell me you want the former to be more like the latter.

Chris Gilgallon, Ascot, Berkshire

Finding a job after university

It is a real concern that young people who have invested their effort, money and dreams into higher education are finding it increasingly hard to find jobs that meet their aspirations after graduation ("Sixth of students regret going to university", 27 May). But they must not lose sight of the overwhelming evidence that having a degree gives huge relative advantages in the labour market.

Unemployment for those aged 16 to 24 without any qualifications is at a terrifying 46 per cent, for those with GCSEs at 25 per cent, and within six months of leaving university is still only 6 per cent for graduates.

There is a definite need for universities to continue to improve the support they offer students in developing employability and careers-search skills to help them progress after graduation. It would be very dangerous and irresponsible to give young people the idea that they would be better off without higher qualifications. They will not.

Dr Graeme Atherton, Executive Director, Aimhigher WECAN Partnership, London W2

Weary Chinese

Correspondents have rushed forward to share their anecdotes of how it is perfectly normal for Chinese workers to sleep during their work breaks. This may be so, but it does nothing to justify the fact that people are working 12 hours a day for 30p an hour in order to make cheap goods for us to enjoy. It seems that we would rather clutch at any straw of justification than face up to the manifest injustices behind our prosperity and start to do something to put them right.

Julian Gardiner, Elstree, Hertfordshire


Michael O'Hare claims that Simon Carr's sketch about politicians wives would be rendered meaningless without its possessive apostrophe (letters 1 June). If this is true, how come my partner laughed out loud when I read it to her on Wednesday morning?

David Williams, York