Listen, Rachel. Science is for you, too

Trevor Phillips politics and probabilities
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The Independent Online
If you don't know who Rachel from Friends is, skip to the next bit, or better still return to the cave in which you've been living for three years. Your contact with the modern world is clearly tenuous. However, most of us have seen the television commercial in which Rachel gives you that just-washed-and-dried-my-hair-and-oh-how-gloriously-shiny-it-is look. After a bit of flirting with us, she turns direct to camera and says sternly "Now pay attention. Here comes the science bit." Rachel clearly hasn't a clue what the science bit is about, but it doesn't matter; having gazed deep into her eyes, who could care less about the effect of some unpronounceable chemical on those glorious follicles? We just take it for granted that the science guys are telling us the truth, and the little cartoon molecules really are making each individual hair smoother, silkier, stronger; after all that's what science is about - precision, certainty, uncontestable fact. And no doubt the company's men in white coats have been testing individual hairs to destruction for years, so they must know it to be true.

The essence of scientific method is indeed the experiment. But the point of the experiment is not to discover anything. It is purely to show that we can predict what will happen in any given situation from a theoretical framework; in short, to confirm what our creative imagination tells us to be true. So if we use Rachel's product we'll end up looking like Rachel. Or so the story goes. But science can never be certain; it can tell you what will happen 999 times out of a hundred, or 999,999 out of a million, but there are few events in the real world which anyone can say are 100 per cent predictable.

The problem is that politicians aren't bookies. They only want sure things. But when it comes to risks that involve the possible death of - let's say - a child, few scientists want to be too categorical, for very good reasons. There are reputations to protect, critics to outflank, big research grants to justify - acutely important in these lean times. Yet the public craves certainty; we may have no idea what needs to be done; indeed we may not have a clue what the problem really is, but we demand decisive action, whether appropriate or not. Dr John Cunningham succumbed this week to the temptation to say, "Here comes the science bit" when he imposed yet another ban on beef products on the basis of "new scientific evidence". He defended his decision in exactly the same terms as Rachel uses: the scientists told me what to say, so it must be true. What Cunningham's case comes down to is that the only thing we can be sure about is that - now, pay attention, please - we can't be sure about anything; therefore, to be absolutely sure, we shouldn't have anything to do with bone products.

Let us leave for the moment the question of the millions of tons of bonemeal in gardens all over England, no doubt picked up by assorted pets, and focus on the decision itself. Why should we be more restrictive because we don't know everything about this particular risk? We do know that the risk of any individual catching CJD is almost certainly tiny, compared to the risk involved in the use of the contraceptive pill for example; a random failure of the pill can lead to extreme distress for an entire family, even to a loss of life.

Politicians caught in the mesmerising headlights of expert testimony go gooey and stupid. Over the past decade or two, the scientific evidence on the rise in the planet's temperature and levels of pollution has not been fulfilled; in fact the problem is less than half as bad as the last world conference on pollution suggested it might be. That's not to say that we should ignore it; it is simply to point out that the demand for scientists to simplify everything has allowed some of the worst polluters - the old Soviet Union, for example - to get off the hook in Kyoto this week. Yet huge and expensive plans have been made on the basis of contested "scientific" evidence. You may say that its better to be safe than sorry; I tend to agree - but has the public genuinely known enough to weigh up the choice?

Our collective failure to take notice has also cost vast sums in wasted public money. No one should be against fundamental scientific research. Even Lady Thatcher, the scourge of public spending, was forced to point out that had Michael Faraday's pioneering physics been patented by for the benefit of the nation, the portfolio would be worth rather more than the value of the London Stock Exchange. But do we apply the standards of accountability we apply elsewhere in the spending of public money? In the US, scientists were pounds 3bn into the construction of a $10bn super- collider facility - you use it to find evidence of exotic subatomic particles - before they worked out it was useless. The money went straight down the drain. Heaven alone knows how much disappears in failed attempts at new military or intelligence-gathering technology about which we are not allowed to know.

At the heart of this problem is the simple fact that most of us are scientifically illiterate. With few exceptions - the BBC and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts for example - very little effort is applied to force the British people to come to terms with the fact that the dominant forces in our world at the end of the 20th century are science and technology. Just as during the 1960s, government had to make a concerted effort to get the people to grasp the true meaning of the Cold War, and in the 1980s, Thatcher and Reagan transformed the world by giving economics a popular language, we now need our leaders to offer us a way of understanding advances in science.

This does not mean we must all agree about everything; bringing science into public life does not mean the end of politics, to be replaced by some technocratic consensus. On the contrary, it is only a sound knowledge of the language of science itself that will give us the tools with which to conduct the most passionate arguments of our time properly, rather than in a sort of broad-brush, sloppy, Moral Maze kind of way. Without the right sort of debate we will continue to talk about the problems of the 21st century in the phrases of the nineteenth. If only, one day, instead of turning her back during the science bit, Rachel would just lean a little closer and murmur, "Now let me tell you about this really sexy ketone molecule I picked up last week