Willie and his wicked goblin: The strange tale of how the author was entangled in a ministerial conspiracy to undermine science

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NATIONAL Science Week must come as blessedly light relief to William Waldegrave. His other political roles have, in recent years, tended to result in some odd, even surreal embarrassments.

There was his kamikaze intervention in the war of Jennifer's Ear during the election campaign, there is the continuing toe-curler of the Citizen's Charter and, latterly, there has been the futile issue of the limits of ministerial mendacity arising from some superlatively ill-judged remarks he made to the Scott Inquiry. He is a man who appears to have shot himself in both feet before stepping on a rake.

In contrast, being science minister is almost pure fun. All he has to do is tell scientists he loves them, toss in references to the Higgs Boson to demonstrate technical awareness and, once in a while, stage a stunt like National Science Week to show the world he cares.

Best of all, it is a job that provides him with an opportunity to reassert his credentials, lately somewhat tarnished, as the brainiest man in the Cabinet. So, for example, his speech launching the week last Friday at the Royal Institution aimed, Portillo-like, at the philosophical high ground. In one breathless sweep he took in all the greats: Aristotle, Gilbert Ryle, Joseph Conrad, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and Bryan Appleyard.

Yep, I'm up there. But, to be honest, I'm the odd one out - Mr Waldegrave likes all the others. Nevertheless, it is nice to have one's efforts acknowledged in this context. For the truth is that I think National Science Week is my fault.

I apologise for the following brief passage of autobiography, but Mr Waldegrave started this. Two years ago I published a book called Understanding the Present, which questioned the official, optimistic histories of science and poured, I confess, scorn on some of the crass popularisations of the subject in circulation. The book was entirely unjournalistic in that, in writing it, I was not in the slightest bit interested in the current science politics of education and research funding.

When the book came out, the Conservative MP George Walden, a former science minister, wrote a very flattering column about it in the Daily Telegraph. Because, presumably, of the political context of the venue and the eminence of the author, that article caused a stir. There was also the fact, unknown to me, that at the very moment the book and the article came out Mr Waldegrave had just started preparing the science White Paper he eventually published last year.

A few paranoid establishment scientists put all these elements together and concluded that my book was the tool and I was the agent of a Tory government plot to cut science funding, apparently by persuading people that science as a whole was a bad thing.

The documents 'proving' this conspiracy were brandished at Mr Waldegrave, and he subsequently rushed into print, again in the Telegraph, denouncing me and Mr Walden. Ever since, I have been a leitmotif in the Waldegrave oeuvre, appearing, at suitable moments, as the wicked Luddite goblin to be wheeled on and ritually slain before audiences of cheering scientists.

(A slight digression: another Cabinet minister was involved in the fuss about my book for equally spurious reasons. John Gummer, when minister of agriculture, gave me a rave review in another newspaper and was, as a result, abused by farmers for coming out against the use of fertilisers. No, don't ask me, I don't understand either.)

Mr Waldegrave's first problem with all this is, I think, that he has not yet convinced the scientific world that his party was not involved in an anti-science conspiracy. Indeed, this non-existent conspiracy has become official history - and the great American physicist, Steven Weinberg, has even recounted it in his book, Dreams of a Final Theory.

'Recently,' he wrote, 'the minister in charge of government spending on civil science in Britain was quoted by Nature as speaking with approval of a book by Bryan Appleyard that has as its theme that (sic) science is inimical to the human spirit.'

This is badly written and almost entirely inaccurate. The summary of my book is crude enough to be called wrong, and Mr Walden had resigned from the job of minister for science long before he wrote the offending article, not least because he had been driven quite crazy by the sullen irrationality of the scientists with whom he had to deal. Nevertheless, Weinberg is a big name and history is written in books, so the conspiracy is 'proved'.

But Mr Waldegrave's more serious problem is that I appear to have driven him into what I know he would delight in calling a 'category error'.

Being minister of science is a pretty humdrum job involving money, committees and a good deal of very tedious, low-grade politics. Science funding and the teaching of science in schools are important issues, but they do not stir the blood. However, if you can unearth a Luddite conspiracy, hell-bent on starving scientists of cash and turning children against physics, the game can be raised.

The minister can kid himself that he must go on the offensive with big, culturally sweeping speeches, arcane invocations of the magic of the Higgs Boson and national science weeks. This feels more like real politics.

But neither I nor any of the other critics of contemporary science are remotely interested in science funding and education. My own view, for what it is worth, is that government funding probably needs reforming, certainly science should be better and more widely taught in schools - and, yes, there is a sense in which smart culture is unhealthily biased towards the arts. If offered the choice of spending eternity watching repeats of The Late Show or Horizon, I would definitely go for Horizon.

The real point of my book was quite different. It was to insist upon the overwhelming dominance of science in our culture as belief system, technique and moral force - nothing in human history has ever been so successful and so powerful.

This dominance was potentially damaging and destructive and needed to be questioned - as, indeed, it would be if, say, literary criticism were equally dominant. Science could be effective or beneficial only if its claims were carefully limited and its rhetoric made sense within the confines of an intact, wider culture.

Finally, I tried to show how incoherent and just plain wrong are many of the current official histories and popularisations of science.

Mr Waldegrave's brief does not, in reality, require him to worry his pretty little head about any of this. These arguments have no practical connection with any of his areas of responsibility. But the paranoia of the scientific establishment and, probably, his own desire to make a splash with the science ministry have prompted him to take on this wider issue.

Predictably he makes a complete mess of it. Every attempt he has made in public to summarise the contents of my book has been wrong, and his comments on, among others, Wittgenstein and Newton betray that he has neither the slightest real knowledge of, nor feeling for, either.

His overall message is the usual one that science is not to blame because science is just the inevitable forward march of human knowledge and curiosity. Science is objective, neutral and value-free. It does not in itself pose a moral, metaphysical or social threat because it makes no claims in such areas.

Mr Waldegrave fails to notice that he has previously destroyed his own argument by asking, 'Is science good for society?' and giving the answer, 'Yes.' But what if it is morally neutral?

The minister's point is not really an argument; it is a statement of faith, and there are many ways of refuting it. Perhaps the easiest is to ask: if science is so humble and silent on matters that do not concern it, why is Richard Dawkins travelling the country abusing religion; why is Stephen Hawking compounding his metaphysical confusions about the mind of God; why is Peter Atkins assaulting all other forms of knowledge in his dreadful book The Creation; why is Steven Weinberg saying that we shall all stop reading our horoscopes when physics has its final theory? And so on and so on.

The truth is that the real threat to real science comes not from critics but from scientists themselves. They are habitually breaking the rules that have defined the limitations of science and, therefore, defined science itself; they are straying into areas in which they are palpably incompetent, and they are goading the minister into delivering fatuous speeches and endorsing stale, footling, public-relations gestures such as National Science Week.

But, then again, perhaps I have only myself to blame.