27 April. When the time came to choose my A levels, I thought that as well as History and English, it would be useful to take Maths. This was immediately forbidden. The school timetable could only cope with science or humanities. No mixing. So my third subject became Latin. This may have helped my prose style over the years, but I have always regretted my lack of any engagement with the world on the other side of the fence.
In the course time I found employment as a history lecturer at Keele University. Keele had been founded in 1949 by A. D. Lindsay, a visionary Oxford philosopher. His premise was that the urgent task of post-war reconstruction would place scientists and engineers at the forefront of change. It was critical, therefore, that they knew how to engage with politics, society, history and ethics if they were to make an appropriate contribution. Conversely, those governing and administering the reconstructed country would need to be able to understand the work of the technicians. The solution, therefore, was a higher education curriculum which required those undertaking specialist subjects to spend time studying, at least in outline, topics in other parts of the curriculum. A physicist would do a first year course in Western Civilisation and take minor subjects in the social sciences and humanities throughout the degree programme. A political scientist would spend quality time in a science laboratory. By the time I arrived, some quarter of a century later, the vision had been weakened by the ingrained conservatism of the schools and the professions, but it still existed as a model which, by and large, the rest of the sector was failing to follow. Its relevance to the forthcoming task of post-pandemic reconstruction can scarcely be understated.
The consequences of this failure are evident in the current crisis. Britain has tended to address the task of politicians communicating with scientists by ensuring that figures such as Chief Scientific and Medical Officers are capable of engaging with non-specialists, not the other way round. Thus it is that Johnson’s cabinet contains just two people with scientific backgrounds, Alok Sharma who studied Physics, and Therese Coffey, who, alone of her colleagues, has a Ph.D, in Chemistry. She has been virtually invisible throughout the crisis.
There are three farmers educated at agricultural colleges – perhaps they have transferable knowledge of rural epidemics such as BSE or Foot and Mouth. Starmer’s shadow cabinet is no better. In academic terms it is decidedly brighter than Johnson’s, but again only two scientists – Valerie Vaz, Biochemistry, and Thangam Debbonaire, Maths. All the rest are social scientists or historians (except three who left school at sixteen). The current debate over running the NHS is conducted by an Oxford PPE student for the Government and a Durham Philosophy and Politics graduate for Labour. Margaret Thatcher has been repeated as a female prime minister, not as a research-level scientists. Angela Merkel has demonstrated just how valuable such a background is in this crisis.
Then there is Dominic Cummings, by far the most powerful figure in Number 10. He is currently in trouble for taking part in meetings of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), then running round to the other side of the table and receiving its ‘independent’ advice. Cummings is, I am sorry to say, an historian. He was taught at Oxford by Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, right-wing newspaper columnist and possessor of other serious moral failings. Stone died last year. His obituary written by the authoritative figure of Sir Richard Evans, recently retired Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, ended with the following paragraph:
‘Journalists often described him as “one of Britain’s leading historians”, but in truth he was nothing of the kind, as any serious member of the profession will tell you. The former prime minister, Heath, was wrong about many things, but he was surely right when he said of Stone during his time in Oxford: “Many parents of Oxford students must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education of our children should rest in the hands of such a man.”’
Whether Cummings’ parents came to regret their choice is not recorded. Its impact on their son seems to have been considerable.
Specialised knowledge still matters, never more so. The point for non-scientists is not to know what scientists know, but to know how they think. Yesterday Brian Cox, the astronomer, was interviewed on the Andrew Marr show in his capacity as a contributor to the BBC ‘Bite-Size’ programmes which are providing curriculum for home-schooled children. He referred to the great populariser, Richard Feynman, and his argument that the chief characteristic of scientific activity was the embrace of doubt. There was no such thing as a monolithic, unchallengeable body of facts, particularly in the case of a virus that has only existed for a few months.
‘The point is’, concluded Cox, ‘that we are facing the unknown … if you hear a politician saying that we’re following the science, what that means is that they don’t really understand what science is.’