None so blind as those who will not see

Interesting how things can come together …

For instance, I was delighted to read last week that “The boss of a British company that has sold million of dollars worth of “bomb detectors” to Iraq’s security forces has been arrested on suspicion of fraud.” The “bomb detectors” in question are hi-tech looking gadgets based on water dowsing principles and are, if I may slip into complex scientific terminology for a moment, a scam – a very lucrative scam, retailing at $8000 per unit. Unfortunately they are also a scam that actively costs lives due to their total inability to detect explosives. Not only do they not work, they cannot work, any more than you could make a car engine with a couple of unrelated pipes and bits of metal and a can of petrol.

And they still have their supporters, not that they would have a vested interest in not looking stupid or anything.

I first heard about these things when Ben Goldacre mentioned them on back in November. It takes until now to arrest the creep on the direct orders of the Chief Constable of Somerset & Avon, the Serious Fraud Office having apparently been using a similar sort of detector to smell rats until now.

How was it possible for someone to get away so long with selling this extra virgin snake oil? It can’t all have been vested interests and too many people making too much money to rock the boat. Was it because the “detectors” look exciting hi-tech? Or that they have a convincingly scientific-sounding name, the ADE-651? Or was it the sheer Goebbels-like level of bullshit, no one quite daring to question that maybe they don’t actually work because, well, they’re based on water dowsing principles and that works, doesn’t it, I mean, there must be something in it?

Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, Radio 4’s Sunday morning Point of View was from Lisa Jardine, eloquently advocating a decent scientific education for all: not to turn everyone into scientists, note, but to make everyone capable of understanding science. A handy spin-off of a good scientific education would be the ability to spot bullshit generally. Well, I’m all for that. She would like to start at the very top: she laments the fact that “fewer than one in five sitting MPs has a higher education qualification in science or medicine.”

It would be lovely, so lovely to think that everyone (especially politicians) was able to detect fake science, pseudo theories, unsupported dogma and general BS at fifty paces. The ADE-651, the front page of the Daily Mail, the theological insights of Abu Hamza could all be consigned to the dustbin of history by sheer common sense and humanity. And there’s certainly no reason why it couldn’t start in Parliament.

But here I would sound a cautionary note and draw attention to my current reading, Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. I’m currently on the chapter where he gleefully skewers post-structuralism, which got a stranglehold on intellectual thought in the 70s and 80s and meant that people could criticise the E=MC2 equation for being sexist and still be taken seriously. Earlier he has laid into Thatcher and Reagan’s cheerfully fact-free fantasies about making the rich even richer so that their wealth can trickle down to the rest of us (hence the plethora of Fred Goodwin Memorial Hospitals everywhere) and letting the market solve everything (hence our thriving, dynamic railway system, the envy of the world).

The relevance of this to Lisa Jardine? Well, unfortunately Wheen does make the point that the first British Prime Minister to hold a science degree was M.H. Thatcher, BSc(Oxon). The lady, indeed, whose coat of arms includes an image of Sir Isaac Newton. No slave to blind dogma she, eh? Right. True, she went all the way to Oxford to get that degree and all around the world as PM, but she never really travelled much further than the borders of 1930s Grantham. I have the horrible feeling that, to her, the viability or otherwise of the electronic bomb dowsers would be of secondary importance. What would matter would be if there was a market for that sort of thing.

Granted this is a sample of one, but we may sadly have to conclude that a good scientific education isn’t necessarily going to solve everything.

But it couldn’t hurt.

You’re a star, superstar

In 1572 a new star blazed out in the sky, so bright it could be seen during the day. The astronomer Tycho Brahe described it in his book De Stella Nova, giving us a word we use even today to describe a crappy little Vauxhall. Apparently he caused ripples by proving it lay quite a way beyond the orbit of the moon, which wasn’t officially possible – though even he might have been surprised to know quite how far away it was.

Now, the BBC tells us, astronomers around the world are seeing it again, because light that shot off in the opposite direction is reflecting off clouds of interstellar dust particles and coming back at us.

Is this not utterly astonishing and utterly cool? What an amazing universe we live in.