Friday, 9 July 2010

The evidence "badger"

I've just realised that people will be coming here from my profile on Normblog. So here's a quick re-post from Flickr which at least includes a picture of a toy.

Evidence Badger

Meet the evidence badger. Ok, it's a cow.

This is a bit of an in-joke, which I apologise for. But explaining lets me raise a serious point. Badgers are a bit of a knotty issue for science/ agricultural policy. It's just going to get bigger with the new coalition government. I wanted to present the new Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Imran Khan, with a toy Badger as a joke-warning of the fuss that is to come. Sadly, the Early Learning Center on High Street Kensington had run out. So had the one in Hammersmith, and the King's Road branch was shut (cue jokes about culls of West London). So, I presented him with a cow instead.

In some respects a cow is more fitting than a badger, anyway. Badgers are only an issue because of bovine TB. Moreover, the shadow of "mad cow disease" still influences a lot of UK science policy. And there is more. As Imran himself pointed out, if we wanted to, we could trace MMR vaccinations back to cowpox. And then there's all the methane cows burp out, not to mention the GM soya so many are fed on, and foot and mouth... Clearly, cows are running rampant through UK science policy. You have been warned. The broader point though is that the presentation of evidence isn't necessarily the end of a science policy discussion.

Edited to add (6pm): Listening to Willetts' speech at the Royal Institution this morning, this final point is something I think we should bare in mind. Willetts said many things, one being:
as society becomes more diverse and cultural traditions increasingly fractured, I see the scientific way of thinking – empiricism – becoming more and more important for binding us together.
In some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with science, basking in the warm glow of Baconian inductivism. Bless. It'd be all very neat if we could just silence questions and solve our problems with bits of incontrovertible evidence. But science just doesn't work like that. The very "scientific way of thinking" Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate.

Please note, this isn't a criticism of "the scientific way of thinking", I just define it less narrowly than Willetts. Personally I think the capacity for (even encouragement of) debate is one of the good things about science. Long live the evidence badger, in all its troubled glory.

Added 11th Aug: looking back on the last couple of weeks, we're still obsessed.

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