back to article Royal astro-boffin to MPs: Stop thinking about headlines

"In politics the urgent seems to trump the important," venerable astro-boffin Lord Martin Rees told a committee of MPs yesterday, saying that it there needed to be "bipartisan consensus on long-term issues" such as energy and the environment if Britain is to haul its sorry ass into the next century. Giving evidence to The …


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  1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Stop thinking about headlines? Headlines _are_ all that's left.

    So in foreign politics:

    "The West’s turnaround [on Syria], its malarial leap from courting to condemning, reveals the lack of any political anchor in Western foreign policy-making today, which leads to a situation where Western foreign policy can become highly suggestible, shaped more by the short-term PR needs of people like Clinton and Hague than by anything so old-fashioned as carefully worked-out national interests."

    The West has lost, get over it.

    1. Scott Broukell

      untitled title

      Long-term thinking - I'm afraid it will take a lot more than that, but it would be a very good start.

      The Wests turn-around on Syria ? - you mean the realisation that no matter what we do there's no chance of assisting in the development of democracy or political pluralism in arab nations. Arabs are held back in this regard by their, religious devisions, medievalism, and tribalism. There is no Arab Spring towards democracy, just a fracturing along tribal, familial and ethnic / religious grounds. Arab nations with strong, (but mostly nasty) leaders are fine - those leaders hold the lid down on all that turmoil - introduce a little freedom from ethnic / religious dogma and it all falls apart. (Sadly there are many young educated secular arabs who would like things to turn out differently but I'm afraid their voices are now lost in the crowd.)

      We (UK) don't have a much better position with regard to democracy either - dumbed down masses fed endless drivel on the telly and completely uninterested in politics. Exactly the way politicians like their masses - dumbed down. Until you realise that in order to drag ourselves through the 21st century we do indeed need to change tack politically. I suggest that we also need compulsory voting and that parliament needs a BIG re-fit - modern purpose-built environment with very modest accommodation for those ministers who need to stay over night etc. Throw in some proportional representation and we might have more coalitions of people prepared to work hard and put their combined heads together to provide that long-term thinking.

      Which brings me neatly back to the question of the arab spring - coalitions are exactly what they need. It's frustratingly close to working in Iraq, but sadly, and mostly as a result of the afore mentioned reasons, struggling to work at all.

      1. perlcat
        Black Helicopters

        Compulsory voting scares the hell out of me

        When you force everybody to vote, you get decisions made by the most easily manipulated and the ones that just don't give a damn. I have a hard time believing that our problems will be solved by slick politicians with nice hair, sponsored by deep pockets that know how to game it so they are the ones that benefit.

        What the world needs is fewer idiots. Not sure how that will work, though.

        1. Scott Broukell

          @Perlcat - I know, it scares me a bit as well to be honest, but, it is the only way to ensure you get the true feelings people can express that way (and the answer "non of the above" is just as important).

          I just feel that so many years of the pendulum swinging between two parties is an anachronism these days. If folk see that even if they vote for a minority party they feel strongly enough about with compulsory voting and true PR, they may get more engaged when they see their vote can actually have a result for them. All this, together with more smaller parties, might just help to re-engage peeps that's all I'm saying. I think it's time for greater pluralism and more parties / groups working together for the electorate - rather than for one or t'other major party to reap the rewards all the time.

          In a true democracy politicians are elected into OFFICE and it is the electorate who holds the POWER.

          1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge


            While I believe compulsory voting (or compulsory turning-up-at-the-ballot-box as it is here in Australia; what you write on the ballot paper is your business) is more harmful than the voluntary alternative because it forcefully engages people who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the electoral process, I'd settle for "none of the above" as an option on ballot papers. At least it gives a legitimate outlet for people who feel that way, instead of forcing them to vote informally and have their feelings get lost in that statistic.

  2. Dr. Mouse

    Anyone with a brain...

    has been thinking this for a long time. Finally someone has told the govt about it.

    All govts these days seem more interested in being seen to be doing something, rather than making good descisions. This is where something like the House of Lords should step in, but they just allow the govt to push through their knee jerk reactions to the latest headlines.

    1. CD001

      It's called democracy - the government is (supposedly) elected by the people, for the people ... however the people are, by and large, a bunch of drooling, ignorant, selfish, bigoted poltroons - and therefore get the governance they deserve.

      I'd take a boffinised meritocracy over democracy personally.

      1. Arrrggghh-otron

        Up vote for use of the word poltroons...

        However, scientists can be intractable awkward gits at times. In fighting in the scientific community can get in the way of a good idea or a bad idea. In short really clever people can be bloody stupid sometimes.

        So I'm not sure a boffinised meritocracy would be any better... still the way things are I'd vote for it just to see what happens!

      2. Chris Miller

        Scientists are only people

        and if you think they don't contain their fair share of "drooling, ignorant, selfish, bigoted poltroons", I'll wager you've never worked in the science department of a university.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Yes but even they don't rely on the opinions of a Big Brother loser to decide how thick to make the sheilding on a reactor.

          1. perlcat

            I, for one,

            welcome the Rise of the Machines

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Right up until...

        "I'd take a boffinised meritocracy over democracy personally."

        Right up to the point where the boffins say "You shall stop smoking (anything) as it is harmful", or "You shall move away from the flood plain", or "You shall move away from the high fire risk, difficult to protect mountain area", or "You shall exercise not less than 240 minutes per week", or some other logical, rational decision that just happens to trod upon your toes a bit. Then you will scream "IT'S NOT FAAAAAIIIIRRR WHO MADE YOU THE BOSS!".

        I loved the conversation from an episode of "Andromeda" that I caught: a guy was bitching to an AI about how awful it was that the AIs stopped feeding the sick on a starving planet. The AI responds basically "We told you to stop breeding - you wouldn't listen. We told you to plant more crops - you wouldn't listen. We did what we could." I suspect a "boffinised meritocracy" would end up much the same way - the boffins would try to suggest the best options, with the least negative effects, and would be roundly ignored by the masses - until the boffins create the mind control rays, the killer enforcement robots, the omnipresent cameras to force compliance.

        Not that democracy will fix this: all it does is allow you to answer the whine with "Who made us boss? YOU DID."

  3. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Ignorance is bliss

    > Ignorance prevented people participating in important debates, he added.

    If only that was true. The biggest problem (he said, not knowing if it's true or not) with public debate on science and technology - or finance & economics - is that people who don't know the facts still feel they have a right to say what they think. We see this every day, not just in scientific debates but whenever a TV news programme needs some cheap filler and goes out on a trawl for vox-pops. Once an opinion gets onto our TV screens it assumes greater importance - as if being broadcast (and being chosen to be broadcast by an equally techno-illiterate studio-person) somehow turns fiction into fact: "Well someone on telly said ... " and is well on the way to becoming accepted wisdom. After that, no matter how many white-coated, bespectacled, bearded, geeks you put up against "what everybody knows" you're on a loser.

    Maybe the first question that Paxo, or any other TV presenter should ask, when opening a conversation with an interviewee should be: "What, exactly are your credentials?" and we should be reminded, frequently, whether the individual speaking does so from a position of knowledge. It could result in much shorter TV debates.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      But people do have a right to say what they think. Or rather, there is no right to stop them saying it. Conversely, however, there is no obligation on the hearer (or watcher or reader) to take any notice.

      But there is some obligation, on the part of people in a position to do anything relevant, to understand enough to discount unfounded or wrong or malicious statements, claims and drunken ravings.

      I agree that those broadcasting or publishing do have a duty, themselves or with the help of somebody knowledgeable, to filter out the clearly uninformed and to be very clear about the qualifications, experience and record of informatin sources, speakers and writers.

      Of course, a good education system would educate rather than train: i.e. give us all the basic tools to assess what we see and hear, rather than blindly accept it because some media chap or chappess broadcast or published it. But education is out, training is in. Training tends to mean blind following and obedience, such as every government, commercial entity and petty official wants.

      1. Ged T

        "But people do have a right to say what they think....."

        Unless they are an England Football Team manager...

      2. annodomini2

        "But people do have a right to say what they think"

        Not in the UK they don't!

    2. Keith Langmead

      I agree, I think the biggest issue, and unfortunately it's where the majority of the general public encounter science debate, is on those TV programs which feel a need for a balanced opinion on topics where there is little dissent from the mainstream scientific community. You end up with Prof Jo Bloggs who's worked exclusively in the field for the last 30/40 years having to justify his findings against the views of some random oik they pulled off the street. You end up in a situation where if random oik is better at communicating / hyping up his/her own views then they end up trumping the far more qualified expert, regardless of the validity of their argument. And unfortunately as we're well aware, for many boffins and geeks public speaking in simple language isn't something that comes naturally (major generalisation I know).

      If they can't find someone of at least reasonably similar standing in that field to argue against the prof then they should either not bother aiming for balance, or be far more careful how they tread.

    3. JP19

      Ignorance prevented...

      I was going to post exactly the same thing and it is only going to get worse as more of the product of our current education system become adult.

      The dim and ignorant are not a problem as long as they know they are dim and ignorant , but, dimness and ignorance must be hidden from our children for fear of damaging their self esteem.

      The other problem is politicians and their concept of truth which nowadays is defined as anything you can convince enough people to believe.

  4. jai

    celebrities and newspaper people

    The problem, then, is our scientists are, as Pete 2 says above, "white-coated, bespectacled, bearded, geeks"

    We need more celebrity scientists, who can command space within our newspapers and our tv shows and the public's mind, and from there can push the reasoned scientific arguments and evidence. Who doesn't enjoy the programmes that Brian Cox makes, explaining complex science in a way that non-scientists can appreciate. Science's very own Amy Pond, Dr Alice Roberts, is infinitely watchable and again, able to explain the science without losing the rest of us. We need more celebrity-type scientist to be in our daily lives. Then the public will start listening to what they have to say, and then there's a chance to public also pay attention to what they're saying as well.

    1. chr0m4t1c


      Unless I'm miss-interpreting your post, you're suggesting we put Prof Brian Cox and Dr Alice Roberts into a breeding programme?

      That would certainly redress the lack of focus that's been put on eugenics since the end of the second world war....

      1. Captain Hogwash


        Yes, infinitely watchable. Fnarrr, fnarrr.

    2. Ru

      Of PR and Priorities

      We need to fix the imminent skills absense in our nuclear industry.

      We cannot do this by putting more floppy haired PhDs on TV. The cult of celebrity will not save us; it is a *symptom* of the problem.

      The problem cited in this article is at heart a political one; you cannot fix the underlying issue of a government driven by short term PR demands by using different sorts of PR! We are suffering from chronic short-termism at all levels, and hoping you can educate the citizens of a country to make sensible long term strategic decisions is utopian at best: we are all greedy and selfish after all.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Are you serious?

        Scientists should be chosen and valued for their appearance to look atttractive on television and sell something? Did you forget the Joke Alert icon? Our politicians are all ready selected in this way and look at just how well that works.

        Being trained as a scientist (and even worked as one for a while), I was under the tragic misapprehension that scientists are chosen for their intellect,knowledge and experience in the area needing their expertise. Somehow, my courses lacked the modules on how to apply make up and dress for television. Perhaps we were meant to be restricted to the radio or obscure journals without photographs.

        Boffins should also be humble: too many of us have been proved wrong too often and lack the ability to see our work and ideas in the context of culture, history and society, just like the average television or radio "personality".

    3. DrXym Silver badge


      "The problem, then, is our scientists are, as Pete 2 says above, "white-coated, bespectacled, bearded, geeks""

      Er no, that's the tabloid portrayal of them. If tabloids bothered to go into any bio-pharmaceutical research centre they would discover a bunch of smart people who happened to be scientists.

  5. n4blue
    Thumb Up

    Totally agree.

    Maybe Paxo can help solve this? For one week, put the Newsnight guests on University Challenge and the brainy students on Newsnight - I think we'd all learn a lot.

  6. David Harper 1

    The public might take scientists more seriously ...

    ... if journalists stopped referring to them as "boffins". You may think it's amusing, but it's not. It's a lazy shorthand for the tired old stereotype of the "mad scientist" who's not quite like "normal" people.

    1. JanMeijer

      they're not

      why else would we need to put them in these buildings with thick walls and small windows? Practical about these types of priso^H^H^H^H^Huniversities is they assist in creating the correct mental cages to lock up the mad brainage, cages strong enough to allow the body out of the building while the mind stays imprisoned.

  7. Chris Miller

    I thought the Noble Lord

    had already decided we won't make it to 2100.

  8. Red Bren

    I for one...

    would welcome some egg-headed overlords. It couldn't be any worse than being ruled by a combination of law, accountancy, politics and media graduates.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      They'd probably spend the entire social budget on research grants and the UK would probably be bankrupt after a month. With Civil war about 2 days later.

      Most Boffins don't make good leaders, they are typically too focussed on the detail.

      As has been long said:

      "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely!"

      I'm not saying I've got a solution, just the reality.

  9. Code Monkey

    "if Britain is to haul its sorry ass into the next century"

    Let's run before we can walk. How about dragging its sorry ass into the current century?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Or even its arse. Why involve hapless animals?

      1. Code Monkey

        Hapless animals

        The MPs have to be involved. That's the point.

  10. jon 72
    Thumb Up

    +1 for Lord Martin Rees

    His testicles must be bigger than two MPs heads taped together.

    1. Yag

      ... And they probably does not sound empty when hit.

  11. Ben 50

    The Slippery Slope

    Bio Error and Bio Terror are significant risks, but they stem from small groups of isolated individuals which reflect political failings (insufficient investment in infrastructure/protection policies, and long term persecution of indiginous people who are getting in the way of resource extraction, respectively).

    Carcenogens in food are a massively more important issue, because only political will protects us from the thousands (millions) or farmers and food processors from cutting corners, cutting costs, and cutting short out lives. Look to China for an example of that. It's a "thin end of the wedge" issue which isn't so significant right now precisely because it IS being kept under control by the risk of a backlash by an aware and well informed population. It can easily go in a different direction.

    1. Pamplemoose
      Big Brother

      Ruled by science

      I don't know about everyone else but I'd quite like to be governed by scientists using evidence based peer-reviewed decisions!

      1. JanMeijer

        nice to see someone

        still believes in hones peer-review ;)

    2. Chemist

      "Carcenogens in food are a massively more important issue"

      Carcinogens in food ARE an important issue - but are they actually a significant risk?

      Lots of things are easy to measure to measure to extremely low levels e.g certain chemicals and ionizing radiation. Problem is assessing the consequences.

      With carcinogens a 'predicitive' test that has been used widely is the Ames test named after its inventor, which actually show the mutagenic effect of a chemical. Find an active and the supposition was that almost no level was 'safe'

      Years later Bruce Ames published a long review of carcinogenic challenges and demonstrated that biological systems have a threshold level below which almost no damage is important and the system generally self-repairs.

      So carcinogens are important but the risks are probably far lower than the popular perception.

    3. GreenOgre


      Great idea!

      1. Remove all those dangerous additives from the food supply.

      2. With lower quantities of less nutritious food available, life expectancy will plummet.

      3. No-one will live long enough to get cancer.

      4. Problem solved.

      Graph life expectancy for the past 200 years and tell me again how dangerous those food additives are.

      1. Chemist

        "those food additives are"

        Incidently the most dangerous contaminants of food are natural, although generally caused by poor storage etc. Materials like aflatoxins ( must be less than 20 ppb in food) make many man-made poisons, let alone food additives, look quite bland.

  12. DrXym Silver badge

    Science is done a disservice

    The major issue for science is that tabloids really cannot be arsed to report stories in a fair and accurate way. Headlines are mangled summaries of stories which are mangled summaries of press releases which are mangled summaries of research papers. If the research is on something "controversial", they'll invite someone to comment for "balance" and give equal weight to both points of view even if the other person happens to be a crank or nutcase.

    Some fact checking as performed by a science literate journalist would nip the most grievous mistakes in the bud. But it doesn't happen. You get humanities trained journos attempting to simplify and sensationalize hard science to appeal for the people who read their paper. Look how many times Daily Mail has said substance X causes cancer, cures cancer or different occasions causes and cures cancer. Look at the massive damage caused by breathlessly hyping immunization scares which had no basis in fact.

    And then MPs (who can be ignorant as anybody else) use these botched articles as the after the fact justification for policy decisions.

    It's no wonder scientists get exasperated.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Indeed just look at how many people don't beleive in global warming in spite of overwhelming evidence. A couple of dodgy emails which in no way invalidated and of that evidence and the public sway to the idea that it was all a big conspiracy and they can carry on as normal and not worry about it anymore.

  13. Graham Bartlett

    Tabloid reporting...

    Oh boy, yes. Like that open letter about climate change the other week which El Reg was so pleased with, signed by a bunch of people who don't know anything about it, and in some cases by people whose name has been put to something that wasn't what they agreed to.

    Or all the vaccinations which are proven to save lives. Back in the 70s, my mum believed the "controversy" about whooping cough and didn't get me and my sister vaccinated. We caught it (aged 3 and 1 respectively), and we both survived. We were lucky. Plenty of folks say "oh I got that when I was a kid and it didn't do me any harm" - well if it had, you wouldn't be here to spout yer nonsense, would you?!

  14. KBeee

    Government - For the Ignorant, By the Ignorant

    When you see the Government Minister responsible for energy being interviewed on TV, and having had it pointed out to him that due to Government policies electricity costs will pretty much double over the next few years and he replies "Yes, but your bills will go down due to higher energy efficiency in your home" with a straight face, you wonder if he's a really good liar, or if he's really that stupid!

  15. Old Handle

    BIO-ERROR! Feeeear Ittttt!

    "We fret too much about carcinogens in food, but don't worry enough about bio-error, bio-terror, cyber crime and things which are far more serious: these low-probability, very high consequence events."

    Sounds like he lapsed back into headline-think mode for a second there.

  16. Neoc

    Government by the entertainers.

    To paraphrase Sir Humphrey Appleby in "Yes, Minister":

    -- Government should be about surviving the next Century; Politics is about surviving the next election. --

    What sort of political decisions can you expect from a bunch of elected officials who know that a good long-term decision is likely to be a short-term vote-loser? We don't have Democracy(*) in the West, we have Entertainmentocracy: "s/he who pleases me the most gets my vote." Is it any wonder it takes almost a year for the American public to pick a President? They should sell the DVD after the election under "America's Got Presidents" or "So You Think You Can Preside?"

    But then again, what do you expect when you have a society who is hanging on the every words of (for example) an actor or sports-person, as if their ability to act or play sports somehow gives them greater insight into the rest of Life in general. <sigh> We truly are sheeples.

    (*) yes, yes, I know. Technically we *never* had democracy in the West except for a short time in ancient Greece. A Democracy would require everybody to vote on every decision. Instead we elect a bunch of people who make the day-to-day decision from that point on. That's a Repubic, not a Democracy.

    1. Sweep

      You obviously *don't* know.

      We have a parliamentary democracy in the UK. It is not a Repubic (sic), but a constitutional monarchy.

      I would also argue that there was no pure, direct, democracy in Ancient Greece either. Certainly not "everybody" voted on every decision- you didn't get a say if you were female, or a slave, for instance.

      Imagine if all the Daily Mail readers in this country had a say in every single decision o_O

    2. The Original Cactus

      @Neoc's Presidential TV challenge

      Great idea, they could call it the X-ecutive Factor.

  17. Gannon (J.) Dick

    Not an El Reg Commentard, then.

    "Ignorance prevented people participating in important debates, he added."

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