Statistical sewage, spin and science.


What connects these men?

Todd Akin: First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Dana Rohrabacher: Is there some thought being given to subsidizing the clearing of rainforests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases? 

Paul Broun: All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.

A) They are all ignorant of basic scientific concepts to hyper-offensive or hilarious extents.

B) They are all current or former members of the House of Representative’s Science Committee, the government body that oversees all non-military research in the USA.

Answer? In fact, both A and B are true.  Think they’re hard to reconcile? Consider that Paul Broun – who doesn’t believe a single thing he was taught about embryology – is a trained medical doctor. Let’s be glad that Dr Broun chose politics over obstetrics.

Casting an eye across the Atlantic, it’s easy to feel pleased with ourselves as a relatively secular, scientifically literate people. We have millions tuning into Brian Cox’s and Dara O’Briain’s TV shows. We even have famous atheists in Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Peek down our own corridors of power however, and problems emerge. A mere 6% of MPs have degrees in science subjects. There is not a single science degree amongst the members of the Cabinet.  Only one MP has practiced scientific research beyond PhD level.

Almost all of the most powerful positions in the country are therefore occupied by graduates of arts and humanities subjects, a gross imbalance.

In the mid-20th Century a man called CP Snow addressed this subject by delivering a lecture titled ‘The Two Cultures’ to an audience of academics in Cambridge.  In his talk, Snow – who combined careers as a chemist, a novelist and a politician – condemned the British educational system as over-rewarding the humanities at the expense of scientific and engineering education.  This in practice deprived British elites (including those in politics) of adequate preparation to properly manage the modern scientific world.

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.

Many of Snow’s arguments are as true today as they were in 1959. I’ve no doubt Dave and his pals can merrily mix foreign policy with Foucault and budgets with Brecht. Ask them what Rhizobia could teach them about coalition though, and they’d struggle. In a web-linked world where 3D printers and synthetic biology will help shape the next Century, I’d argue that our lack of scientifically minded politicians might come back to bite us in the gluteals.

Another area where I believe politician scientists (I avoid using the term ‘political scientists’ deliberately) could make an impact, is in changing the culture that surrounds their treatment and usage of data.

Raised on a diet of PPE and history, our politicians are well versed in making convincing arguments from incomplete or non-existent evidence (do correct me if I’m wrong friends, but remember the number of times you produced well-graded essays without digesting every book on the reading list). The economy’s on the mend. The economy’s knackered. Iraq definitely has WMDs. My wife was driving the car when we were caught speeding. The benefits cap is working.

Spin-doctors have long polished turds, but at least they smelled of shit. Now, if an inconvenient stat smells a bit faecal, they just bury it and make one up to support their agenda. Don’t believe me? IDS recently said that homelessness had barely moved since the change in government in 2010 – it has gone up 27%.

It should be said that scientists are not immune to spin. Recent claims on the promise of ‘Big Data’ projects have undoubtedly been inflated, while the Research Excellence Framework, in forcing academics to demonstrate ‘impact’, has encouraged scientists to over-reach on their hypotheses.

But complete falsification of data in science is rare and efficiently weeded out when it is. As Steven Pinker states in his thoughtful essay, ‘The defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable.’

So I’d hope that scientific training – including statistical analysis, rigorous review of global work in a subject area and careful planning of resources – would make for a moral and effective politician. I’d also like to think that having more scientists sitting on those green seats would stem the flow of statistical sewage.

But then I don’t know for sure. I don’t have the evidence.


If I ruled the (football) world


Every edition of Prospect magazine begins with an article titled ‘If I ruled the world’, written by an assortment of guest writers.  Simon Schama (proposing more history in schools), Grayson Perry (suggesting a blanket ban on suits) and Lord Sacks (advocating observation of the Sabbath by all) have been among the enjoyable and erudite contributors.

I’m not actually completely convinced that wearing a onesy to work and spending every Saturday doing nothing would be the panacea that we so dearly need. But it seems like great fun and I’m keen to exercise the same fantasy.

Lacking the ego and ambition of the above luminaries however, I can’t claim to know how to solve the world’s ills. Fuck knows how to deal with a world ravaged by famine and riven by civil war.

So, while still embracing the spirit of sweeping reform, I’ve decided to narrow my scope and restrict my hypothetical presidential powers. My mission will be to heal the world of football. After all, I know much more about false nines than number ten, way more about Damarcus than Damascus and far, far more about trequartistas than Trident.

While not promising to deliver world peace, my rule will nonetheless rescue football from the spitters, the biters, the racists, the granny-shaggers, the whorers, the tax evaders, the tapper-uppers, the ‘at-the-end-of-the-day-ers’, the badge-kissers and pundits called Alan.

The below is my four-point manifesto.

1.Keepers may no longer use their hands to touch the ball

Goalkeepers have become way too good. Manuel Neuer scares the shit out of strikers with his bear like frame, weird three fingered gloves and impenetrable forcefield of teutonic arrogance. Mark Schwarzer is tediously consistent. Hugo Lloris pace and positioning were behind Spurs’ good run of form last season apparently. Pace? In a fucking goalkeeper? This has to stop before Scott Carson becomes Sports Personality of the Year.

Preventing keepers handling the ball will address this issue, reminding them that their rightful place is Danny Baker’s Own Goals and Gaffs, not shampoo adverts. Also, it would be fucking hilarious. Deprived of their digits, keepers would have to learn how to cartwheel and and karate their way to clean sheets.

West Brom would have Jackie Chan between the sticks, round-housing the ball out of the top corner and into the stratosphere. Pep Guardiola would pack his Louis Vuitton bags and travel to Shaolin monasteries to scout for Buddhism’s best projectile paupers. Can-can dancers would move off the stage onto the pitch. It would be amazing.

2. Football pundits are to be binned

Every year, the terrible tight-suited Skymen meet with the gormless BBC bumchins at a conference centre in Kettering. Between limp cheese sandwiches and warm Carslberg, they discuss how best to homogenise the language of football. The guidelines issuing from the summit are followed rigidly.

Misses must be ‘rued’. Passes must be ‘slide rule’. Successful dribbles by ‘diminutive’ wingers with ‘bags of pace/ pace to burn’ may be one of ‘slaloming’, ‘jinking’ or ‘mazy’.

As a result, football coverage is ultra heat treated, completely devoid of the lyrical lilting of  rugby’s Eddie Butler or TMS’ s masterful balance of banter, bat and ball.

So let’s get rid.

In their place I would suggest one or other of:

  • Sir Terry Wogan. Having honed his detached irony with the camp and deluded madmen of Eurovision, Tel would provide delightful accompaniment to the pantomime prunes of the Premier League.
  • Sir David Attenborough.  Dave wouldn’t be expected to discuss any of the tactical complexities involved in the game.  He wouldn’t even mention players by name.  He would be there to provide a zoologist’s eye view of the chaotic Darwinian mess that unfolds every time Premier League teams meet.  “The Uruguayan rat is known to be a particularly aggressive combatant, using his oversized teeth to terrify its adversaries.  He is also a noted racist.”
  • Daft Punk.  Cos they’re boss.

3.  The following are to become straight red card, backpage filling crimes against football

  • Long throws, either down the line or straight into the box.  Awful, just awful.  10 match ban.
  • Socks over knees.  You know who you are.
  • Shielding the ball out for a corner or throw in.  Why the fuck is this always clapped to the rafters?  IT’S SHIT PLAY.

4.  All games are to be refereed by a man sized/ Crouch sized version of Sir Killalot from Robot Wars