Sir Paul Nurse’s excellent programme on the Science-Understanding gap, for the Horizon series, was accessible, human, and very measured. It was a delight to see him trip up journalists like James Delingpole, who exposed the so-called ‘ClimateGate’ story, and accuses others of ‘political’ interests, as if journalists don’t have their own interests too. In the Global Warming debate, which a majority of Americans and 30% of Britains still don’t believe in, he highlighted time and consensus, and there is plenty of both. But if there is a doubt about wider ‘environmentalism’, in a subject that can sometimes become a blinding catch-all, not to mention very doom laden, why don’t scientists just point out the blindingly obvious? If you balance the time they took to create – gas, coal, oil, fossil fuels – are simply finite resources. Obvious fact, that might force us to set our eyes on our children’s futures, and the Horizon. It’s why, apart from dealing with carbon emissions, technologies must change, and as quickly as possible, to generate new and cleaner energy sources, quite apart from the ghastly prospect of BP now joining up with Russia to drill in the arctic. Unless BP truly did learn something from Mexico, with true heart, and not just responding too late to public outrage. Time and again though the lesson is that profits cut the corners, and we learn, but often learn too late. Quite apart from melting Ice Caps though, what are all those drilling platforms going to do to a complex and fragile biosphere, and what can really be protected? It is the same issue with primary rainforests, the massive deforestation of the Amazon that perhaps only united Global political action can stop, and reminds you of the Anthony Newley song “Stop the World, I want to get off!”
Then Paul Nurse turned to more delicate subjects. First the hugely emotive issue of GM products. He pointed out how unreasoned are the attacks on GM, very often, as atavistic as that ‘thou must never meddle’ orthodoxy, in a world and with a species that has always been about ‘meddling’. But more interesting was the New Yorker who tore up the medical prognosis of having just two years to live, after being diagnosed with HIV. Then he treated himself with a diet regime and has been alive for thirteen years. It might inspire the joke ‘Don’t trust me, I’m a Doctor’. In response, Nurse talked well of the complexity theory, the danger of assumed cause and effect, and why in the mysteries of medicine, the New Yorker might have a point. We know the complexity of the immune system, and sense the role the mind takes in it, and there are many people who have refused to swallow the ‘truth’ of a medical situation, and found a way through. Nurse attacked the arrogance of scientists too, who do not engage with the public to tell us what we need to know, and more importantly to understand. They might think like the layman more, sometimes, to be more persuasive. To me the issue with the assumed truths of science is that the whole history of science has time and again been about waking up to new conceptions of ‘reality’, and increasingly complex levels of interrelations and possibilities, but the nobel prize-winning Nurse stressed those vital bulwarks of experiment and observation, and is a very attractive addition to the presidents of The Royal Society.