The lunatic fringe

Prospect Magazine

The lunatic fringe

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Politicians’ ignorance of science is disgraceful and dangerous

David King, former chief scientific adviser. Dorries and Tredinnick: a “hazy” grasp of the principles of science  


On the evening of 14th October 2009, David Tredinnick, the Conservative MP for Bosworth, got to his feet in the House of Commons to warn ministers of a serious threat to public health. “At certain phases of the moon there are more accidents,” he gravely informed the House. “Surgeons will not operate because blood clotting is not effective, and the police have to put more people on the streets.” He stopped just short of mentioning werewolves.

So convinced is Tredinnick of the political significance of the movements of the heavens that he charged the taxpayer £755.33 for astrology software and consultancy services (which he later repaid when his expense claim became public). He is also an assiduous promoter of just about every alternative medicine on the market, and recently asked the health secretary to congratulate homeopathic chemists on their contribution to containing swine flu.

Tredinnick’s devoted commitment to the lunatic fringe of science has stirred little embarrassment among his colleagues on the Conservative benches. In fact, they have rewarded him for it: in the summer of 2010, they elected him to a position on the Health Select Committee. They also chose Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for mid-Bedfordshire, who has promoted an urban myth about a 21-week foetus grasping a surgeon’s finger to support her demand for restricting abortion. The story has been repeatedly denied by the surgeon.

The scrutiny of a government department that relies on science had been placed partly in the hands of two MPs whose grasp of its principles can at best be described as hazy. Such enthusiasm for bad science is thankfully rare in the Commons. But that they have been able to win safe seats and build successful parliamentary careers in spite of it illustrates a disconnect between science and politics that serves neither well.

If “anti-science” is rare, then so too are politicians with a deep understanding and appreciation of science: only one of the 650 MPs is a professional research scientist (there are 158 business people and 86 lawyers). Indifference to science and ignorance in the non-pejorative sense of just not knowing, is widespread. How else could two MPs with such disregard for evidence be elected to the backbench committee where they have most potential to cause harm?

Things are little better in the civil service. When David King, as chief scientist, challenged mandarins to name a field of public policy to which science was irrelevant, a senior official from the department of work and pensions replied: “My entire department.” But the challenges this department faces over the next half century will be defined by Britain’s ageing population. While every ministry now has a chief scientific adviser, some wield significantly more power and influence than others. Bernard Silverman, who holds the home office position, recently admitted that he did not consider it part of his job to advise ministers on the scientific implications of the closure of the Forensic Science Service. The media, too, is short on scientific literacy, causing unfounded and damaging scares such as the alleged link between the measles mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.

This under-appreciation of science in politics matters. Without much knowledge or experience of how scientists operate and the conditions in which they thrive, ministers often mismanage scientific research. And without much understanding of Carl Sagan’s dictum that science is more than a body of knowledge, but also a way of thinking, they fail to use it to develop better policies.

The coalition’s immigration cap is a prime example of the first type of error. This policy was not designed to damage science, yet the way it was framed had unintended consequences that would immediately have been plain to anyone who had worked in a laboratory. Science is now an international game, in which the best teams must recruit from and collaborate with India, China, Singapore and Brazil. To restrict the flow of talent from abroad was always likely to threaten Britain’s place as a world leader. What is more, to allocate scarce visas on the basis of salary might work for business, but not for universities that rarely pay postdoctoral researchers much more than £35,000.

Similar mistakes have characterised attempts to regulate medical research. Well-meaning pieces of legislation, such as the Human Tissue Act and the European Clinical Trials directive, were designed to protect patients, but they overlooked the bureaucratic burdens involved. These restrictions mean that once the charity Cancer Research UK has funded a trial, it takes an average of 621 days before the first patient is treated.

Politicians’ indifference means that not only is their stewardship of science poor, but so is their use of it in policy making. Governments and parties of all colours present themselves as champions of evidence-based policy. But often, what they want is policy-based evidence. They value evidence—but only when it supports a decision that has already been taken.

Jacqui Smith, when she was home secretary, was guilty of shopping around for supportive evidence when trying to justify upgrading cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug. Other politicians quote imaginary evidence, such as Andrew Lansley’s assertion that his GP-commissioning plans were based on “a range of evidence” that, on closer scrutiny, didn’t exist. Lansley’s model was new and had yet to be piloted, and so there could be no firm evidence that it would be an improvement. As the medical writer Ben Goldacre has shown, the published evidence about GP fundholding—a broadly similar model—was at best equivocal.

Alternatively, you can fix the evidence if you don’t like it, sacking inconvenient advisers such as David Nutt, the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who disagreed with the government’s drug policy. Or you can claim clairvoyant evidence, as when Patricia Hewitt promised to commission research that would show home births to be safe. Sometimes, evidence is simply mishandled: the current badger cull uses a different approach to the one employed in the trial cited to justify it. And there’s secret evidence: the statistics with which Damian Green rejected claims of a border crisis at Heathrow could not be challenged as they’d never been published.

Sometimes, of course, ministers need to act when there isn’t any evidence. But in these cases, too rarely is the experiment that follows properly evaluated. Neither are the rigorous methods of the natural and social sciences deployed as they could be to put policy ideas to the test: randomised controlled trials, for example, could play a much larger role in sentencing or education policy than they do.

These failures to manage science well don’t arise in the main because politicians are hostile to science and its methods. The problem is more usually that they’ve never really thought about these issues. Indifference to science can live on in politics because it rarely carries much of a cost.

A bigger cadre of trained scientists in politics might help to reverse this. The presence of even a couple of dozen would improve matters not because of their narrow technical expertise, but because their approach to problem-solving would rub off on their colleagues. So much politics happens in informal settings, the conversations in the Commons lobbies and bars from which scientific voices are almost always absent.

Those voices, however, must also be heard more often in MPs’ constituency surgeries, in their email inboxes, and even at the hustings come election time. People who care about science and its approach to knowledge need to engage more effectively with politics and policy. MPs who are lobbied energetically may not always be convinced, but they will usually take the time to learn something of the issues at hand.

  1. June 22, 2012

    DAVIDJ_MILLER

    ‘The Science you need to know’ (July 2012 pp 57-59) contained an egregious error that is an annoying symptom of the problem identified in the famous analysis of the ‘two cultures’ and that formed a springboard for part of the article. On page 58, reference is made twice to Homo sapiens. The first (point 7, left column) has this as “homo sapiens” (ital). The second (point 5, right hand column) has “Homo Sapiens”. Well, one would hope that both the writer of the piece and your copy editor would know that neither is correct. The name of the Genus is capitalised, the name of the species is not. Thus: Homo sapiens. And scientific names are always italicised, please. Both CP Snow and e e cummings would be delighted to see these things put straight.

    Of course, this ‘small’ error is too easily dismissed as a ‘trivial’ detail. But it is akin to an Art’s side author (or copy editor) misspelling Shakespeare’s name (OK – something the Bard himself was know to do) or Hamlet’s (no excuse there!).”Homo Sapiens” [sic] and “homo sapiens” [sic] are errors that nobody in a scientifically literate culture should commit without embarrassment- and especailly in an article on this very theme! (An ancillary project might be to get the media to recognise where ‘bacterium’ and ‘bacteria’ are used in cultured speech.)

    Otherwise, a suitably provocative and insightful piece. You were preaching to the converted in my house. I wrote a very similar essay based on SP Snow’s critique to the Sunday Times fully 37 years ago. No, it wasn’t published, but seeing the ideas resurface with only factual details updates merely confirms that no progress has been made, either in politics or the media. But please try to keep Prospect firmly on the ‘side of the angels’ (i.e. sponsoring the human intellectual progress uniquely manifested in science).

    Your loyal subscriber …

    Dr David Miller

  2. June 22, 2012

    Hilary Burrage

    There are degrees of ‘scientific literacy’, and my guess is distinctions between bacterium-and-bacteria / italics / capital-letters-or-not are pretty far down the line, nice though it is to get things right.

    My own view is that politicians and scientists don’t mix well because the latter know how much money (and thereby power to influence) is at stake, and the former don’t really understand that.

    Whilst politicians won’t accept responsibility for much of the decision-making in Big Science the scientists won’t feel the need to be lobby much or be political.

    And of course it’s all much more complex than this, but that’s the crux of the matter. I wrote a piece about this which Science Fortnight in fact did publish, version here: http://hilaryburrage.com/2008/11/05/if-only-scientists-could-remember-science-has-its-responsibilities/ (also written other blog posts with the #BigScience & #KnowledgeEcology tag).

    If, regardless of his ?typos, Mark Henderson can take this really important debate forward, that will be great.

    • July 5, 2012

      David Miller

      Hilary, this is not the place for me to critique your own blog article that you cited, but a starting point is contained in my swipe at the ‘Bob Diamond’ sector (in my reply to Padraig Colman below here). You made the point above that politicos and scientists “don’t mix well” because the politicians don’t know how much money is at stake (for conducting “Big” science, I think you meant) whereas the scientists do – at least that’s how it reads with your former/latter phrasing. The “crux of the matter” that you addressed seems (merely) to be about how to get politicians to understand how science needs to be ‘nurtured’ and funded.

      However, my argument – in sympathy with Mark Henderson’s article – is really not the one you make at all. I would assert that those who are uncultured in science (generically the politicos, ‘meeja’ types, Diamond bankers and those of the accountant, estate agent and ‘garagee’ persuasion) are demonstrably ill equipped even to understand their *own* sectors in the 21st century.

      This is an extended version of the 2008 banking-meltdown notion that ‘they don’t get it’. And in that sense, I don’t think you’re getting it. You seem to see science merely as a servant of society. However, Mark’s article addresses the truth that Society is ill-served when it neglects, or worse, actively rejects science from sitting at is cultural core. It is about wider society’s profound lack of understanding of what science is, what it does, how it does it and who does it, that is calamitous.

      The lights work, the planes fly, the sat-nav navigates, the kidney transplant functions, the frying pan is non-stick … and that’s it? That is science and society? Oh no. Science is a thoroughgoing philosophical method for thinking about how the world might be working and, by dint of experiment, discovery, understanding and innovation, especially for the human world, how it might come to work in future. Uniquely in human cultural endeavours, science ‘delivers’ (or ‘serves’ if you prefer) in a way that is independent of a person’s beliefs, preferences, choices or ‘culture’. In short, it *works* and thus has a unique, universal claim to truth and reality. Unless and until our currently narrow, low-science culture ‘gets’ this message, as Mark’s article makes clear, even in the Western, supposedly long-ago enlightened world, we’re doomed to continuing rule by homeopaths, astrologers, superstitious and otherwise ‘cultured’ people – perhaps even a Mormon.

  3. June 24, 2012

    Francine Last

    Britain’s adoption of American ideology, where money, avarice and religion now are seen as more important than knowledge and understanding is basically going to destroy it. This has been coming for a long time. Anyone who has lived in America and viewed it’s fundamental culture with a critical eye can see how science is constantly undermined in the name of free speech and democracy. Not that I’m against free speech and democracy, but if science becomes a matter of opinion and free speech, then it is no longer science. And that is exactly what has happened!

    • July 1, 2012

      Padraig Colman

      I wonder if Dr David Miller spotted that intrusive apostrophe, Francine?

      • July 4, 2012

        David Miller

        Padraig, that intrusive comma was spotted … but I thought I’d overlook it.

        This debate is running well, but we’re all preaching to the converted, aren’t we? Sadly, this rather confirms that what CP Snow successfully crystallised in his famous piece remains a very rare example of the case being made AND widely heard. Disappointingly, it reflects that there are so few intellectuals (I mean scientists, engineers, medics, mathematicians of course) with sufficient establishment clout to make these points AND command attention. At least in recent years, successive Presidents of the Royal Society have upped their game in this respect. But the ‘meeja’, the political and industrial establishments, steadfastly manage to remain unmoved – even if they listen at all. This serves to reinforce how little influence our leading scientists and technical intellectuals have in Britain.

        I saw for myself, whilst living and working there, how deeply German society involves the science and engineering community. ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ indeed. This recognition is not just apparent in German industrial and commercial sectors, but notably in their cultural sphere too. Even France has long sustained a far stronger scientific-technical culture than Britain, and kept it in tandem with a deep respect for broader intellectual life.

        In a week where Bob Diamante hogs the headlines, the latest penitent joining the incomprehensible clique of hugely over-’compensated’ business leaders, lawyers, accountancy wizards and the rest that Bob epitomises, we will not find that many science-literate ‘operators’ lurk amongst them. The media focus on questions of corporate morality and deficient leadership as they seek explanations. But why do they not question whether UK business ‘leaders’ simply lack the intellectual equipment to be able to comprehend their companies? I mean, of course, the intellectual attributes of science, technology, mathematics and engineering.

        My opening side-swipe in this thread was intended to take us there. When a vital media organ like Prospect can’t get the simple, centuries-old scientific nomenclature of organisms right, what hope that most media contributors might ask the right questions about our business and financial sector failings? My opening point in this string, after all, was about ‘Homo sapiens’; this means Man (= person) who knows (or is ‘sapient’) – Mankind the Scientist, I would argue!

        • July 5, 2012

          Hilary Burrage

          Um, David, I obviously didn’t get through here to at least some of my readers.

          And I actually couldn’t agree more that decision-makers are not often well equipped to decide how science is run… how can they be, they’re not trained to do that?

          I’d concur with everything you say here: “Mark’s article addresses the truth that Society is ill-served when it neglects, or worse, actively rejects science from sitting at is cultural core. It is about wider society’s profound lack of understanding of what science is, what it does, how it does it and who does it, that is calamitous. … ”

          … except your claim before that, um, I “don’t get it”….. I certainly do, as you’d see if you took a look at what I cited. And as I say above I agree entirely with Mark in the thrust of his argument.

          Science is not ‘just’ a servant of society, but it is quite often paid for by tax payers; and when that happens scientists, like the rest of us, need to learn to get political – at least to the extent of insisting that polticians start to think about science more scientifically. I have argued publicly and to my cost that science in civil society needs to be more open….

          My caveat however is with people who make a fuss about specific, not-really-policy-related nomenclatures and the like, when no-one can have a grasp of every detail of science. (It’s big, you know…)

          Let’s stick to the overall picture, which is that

          (a) scientists do not often have a grasp of where their massive expertise might fit in the much wider scheme of things, nor do they understand the machinations of politics and policy-making; they know how to DO SCIENCE, and that’s where they focus;

          but also

          (b) most members of the public, including a great many politicians and policy-makers, have very little idea at all about what science is and can / could do.

          I stick to my point: “Whilst politicians won’t accept responsibility for much of the decision-making in Big Science [I refer here to issues such as regional economies] the scientists won’t feel the need to be lobby much or be political.”

          I’ve done in some detail the epistemology and the philosphy of science stuff – and CP Snow – as it happens; what I want to see is the politics stuff attended to as well. I’m not sure that worrying about small detail is the way to do that.

          And Mark, once again, is spot on.

           
  4. June 24, 2012

    malcolm whitmore

    The concept of slipping into the morass where might is right overcomes the strictures of a scientific approach is accurately portrayed in Francine Last’s comment.
    We have taken the idea that free speech is sacred so far that we allow inaccuracies and plain lies to be propagated with all the force that the power of money brings such that the scientific facts are obliterated. This is how the inconvenient truths of climate change,population control needs and the consequences of a GDP led economy are ignored to the benefit of big business and its backers.
    Science needs to wake up to the need yo have a powerful political voice as without representation in a political area nothing will stem the advance of the use of unopposed propaganda by media advertising that is destroying our scientific culture .The Church,Business,Law and Military have long contributed to our political arrangements,we are in a time of such complexity and threat that can only be managed by taking account of scientific principles.It is in society’s interest that this gap is filled. China understands what needs to be done in this regard.

  5. June 25, 2012

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    This is a universal diseases when people suffered terrible, uncertainty spread through out society people turn to astrology, magical remedy .Allover world new age movement spreading just like roaring hurricane.When mankind go through tremendous .distress man turn to religion miracle ,some mystic remedy will help us.This phenomenon we can see all over the world,man forget scientific thinking in this situation,After all this is weakness of mankind .Is there any solution for this weakness?

  6. June 25, 2012

    Bart Stevens

    Poplism and fact-free politics are rampant thoughout the Western world. The extremer right and left wings of politics that already know what’s true without the need to research are gaining ground, taking it away from the middle ground who sometimes doubt, have to think things over and think ‘complex’. Those politicians that tell the people what they want to hear get elected, the era of politicians with ideals and the ability to lead and steer is (I assume and hope temporarily) over. If the people are wary of science, so are the politicians, they must be to get elected.

    I think the people are wary of science because of science tells them things they don’t want to hear, like evolution is happening and so is AGW and they whink stem-cells are living beings. They stick their head in the sand and simply do not vote for those pliticians that truly endorse science. They learned that science can be a democratic process though the voting booth and funding: just vote for the right politician who cares more for his seat than the scientific method and science is muted.

    In the end the people get the politicians they deserve. Now let’s hope that the concequences will not be too severe and that they will change their mind(set) in time.

  7. June 30, 2012

    terence patrick hewett

    I am afraid this is another article that merely elicits a tired sigh; our political aristocracy live in a 19th century world and they have run out of ideas. They are like First World War Generals of Cavalry, struggling to come to terms with poison gas, aeroplanes and tanks. They are poor dears, blundering about in a 21st century world that they do not understand. It has to be a function of a political class that is drawn from such a narrow set of experience that they do not understand that an enormous part of our life is now controlled by mathematical algorithms, once set in motion chunter on until they reach their conclusion. The inability to understand science and the implications of this is a failure of governance and a failure of leadership at the highest level; financial, political and intellectual. How right C P Snow was when he proclaimed in his lecture The Two Cultures; “If the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.” It is the smallness of vision, the narrowness of intellect, the simple lack of courage and curiosity that shames us.

  8. July 2, 2012

    John Ellis

    It has long been evident that whatever drives politicians, it is not a grasp of basic science (maybe the BBC should pull its socks up and make less dumbed-down programmes such as ‘Horizon’) but some genetic urge to please the more vociferous (and therefore almost by definition, less intellectually-inclined) of their constituents. Populism makes for bad science – the worst of all being religion (vide Dawkins attacks on it). The other toxic ingredient to playing fast and loose with science is money (or greed) and the power of corporations to shut their eyes to science.

    Having ranted about politicians, I can assure you that not all scientific advisers in Whitehall are as clear-sighted as Dr King: when I worked in the MOD I had to explain a basic mathematical principle to the department’s CSO in order to get past his preference for one Service over another.

    • August 16, 2013

      terence patrick hewett

      Religion did not constrain Newton or Leibniz or the Enlightenment or the Renaissance or: anything else.

      • August 16, 2013

        DavidJ_ Miller

        “Religion did not constrain Newton or Leibniz or the Enlightenment or the Renaissance or: anything else.”

        Terence, you must have expected a flurry of criticisms of that set of assertions.

        Insofar as we might accept that Newton and Leibniz were indeed functioning, conventional believers (for their time and culture) they were most certainly constrained. (Their names Gottfried and Isaac offer clear clues to their cultural indoctrinations as a simple entrée.) Their constraints influenced their intellectual scope, their patterns of working and their freedom (or otherwise) to write and enter discourse entirely unrestrained. That neither went to the stake or the rack is not the same as suggesting they were (?thus) unconstrained.

        Beyond his for-the-time typical protestant Christian upbringing, Newton is well known to have acquired profound alchemical and astrological beliefs. These were uncommon, but not unique in his society. He was also strongly influenced by Greek notions in numerology. An example is the extent that the drive for numerological ‘purity’ led him to assert seven colours in the rainbow/spectrum whereas most of us will ‘see’ only six with standard labels (… or indeed a hundred!). There is a significant literature on the features of Newton’s science that reflect the pattern of his odd personal philosophical stance. The clash of his stance with conventional religious belief of the time is often seen as one engine for his largely secretive working methods.

        Leibniz undoubtedly sustained and developed his philosophical perspectives to be informed by, and consistent with, his own religious faith. In a crude summary, his ‘God created the best of all possible worlds’ stance can be ascribed to one then-widespread model of the Christian god to which he adhered.

        Today’s news headline of the ‘Day of Anger’ instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt serves as a reminder of the constraints on free thought widely imposed by that particular religion. Clear example: there is little acceptance, or even tolerance, amongst Muslims of the enlightened ‘western’ commonplace that life on planet earth evolved (whatever the details of the mechanism). Remember that ‘On the Origin of Species’ remains a banned book in several Muslim countries (but not just there!). And we needn’t start on addressing the stranglehold orthodoxy exercised by creationist Christian ‘theology’ on education and public discourse in the USofA.

        Within the Christian tradition alone, the historical list of seekers after rationalism who found themselves condemned by the church authorities as heretics, blasphemers or sorcerers is surely long enough and well enough known? When and where religious authorities hold sway, we *always* see suppression of intellectual freedom (at the very least), and too often incarceration or worse. So please let us not hear it asserted that there were – or are – ‘no constraints’ atrributable to religion.

    • August 16, 2013

      malcolm whitmore

      I too would like the BBC to act as our guardian of the truth. But regrettably the BBC is mandated to tell the people what they want to hear provided it does not upset the Government. They will lose their jobs and this applies to whistle blowers too!
      Until the system of control changes to prize the truth above all else, we will not see science serve its role as a pillar of modern society.

  9. July 5, 2012

    David Miller

    re Hilary Burrage’s reply to me farther above above (for some strange reason it has no “reply” box at the end).

    Hilary is right to make those points about the need for scientists to engage with politicians, to recognise the need to explain and justify to the public (and their political representatives) the what, how, why and ‘how much’ of their publically-funded work. But the reason I think Hilary is ‘not getting it’ (in the way I outlined above) is that that situation has always prevailed: of course scientists must ‘engage’. We know that. We are very aware of how the (non-science) world – often amusingly referred to as the ‘real world’ – works and would it could be different.

    What is missed by Hilary is the thrust of the argument that CP Snow made, that Mark’s article revisited and that the other respondents and I have supported. That is that the politicians (especially) and the rest of non-scientificaly literate society continues to ignore science – and to do so actively. They fail to meet us half-way, or indeed to take any single step of the way to recognising the need to add, to include, to expand their enculturation through science. It is the gulf between the cultures that is addressed here. There remains a one-way bridge that so many scientists cross and re-cross in their attempts to engage the science-ignorant. At its sharpest, in the examples Mark highlighted, that ignorance is wilful.

    Snow’s core point remains that the separation between the two cultures is asymmetric. (Amongst other things, that asymmetry makes the metaphor of a ‘gulf” unsuitable). The non-science side has to make an effort too. We on the science side seem condemned to reiterate the horse-water-drink scenario over and over again.

  10. July 5, 2012

    Hilary Burrage

    I do get it, David, take a look: http://hilaryburrage.com/tag/big-science/ – and I’ve done stuff on C P Snow elsewhere as well (and read it ALL, inc the novels, during post-grad… was fascinated; he took me to places I just didn’t know till then existed, so I was thrilled when eventually I worked in them).

    I of course know that politicians in general ‘ignore’ (are afraid of showing ignorance of?) science; and I’ve worked a lot on both ‘sides’ of the science / politics ‘fence’.

    Most scientists (not all) are not very good at dialogue with non-scientists, and there’s a silent complicity here because neither party (with of course honourable exceptions, as ever) is inclined or wants to take the time to find out how. Neither is equipped.

    This is not a criticism of scientists any more than it is of people in general; if you go into either ‘science’ or ‘the arts’ at 14, why should you know about the other lot? CP Snow was absolutely right to warn what would happen when that pertained.

    There are two types of responsibility here: the politicians must as Mark says make far more effort, as our representatives, at the very least to try to understand before they pontificate.

    But some scientists, too, need to stop thinking that because what they do is demonstrably of substance (note my avoidance of the word proven), they don’t need to explain more.

    Let’s try to get a grip on the bigger picture, as well as the short-comings. Then we can see how big science specially has a special place in modern society – and never moreso than in the week when Higgs has just become news. That will excite and encourage many.

    So the next task is to see how this enthusiasm can be channelled positively. Isn’t that a job for politicians and scientists together?

    As I’ve tried to say, when those involved start to move away from perceiving themselves to be on embattled ‘sides’, or trying to demonstrate by detailed criticism why the other lot are lacking, we shall be getting somewhere.

    • August 16, 2013

      terence patrick hewett

      Some scientists are polymathic some are mono-manic, most are head and shoulders above the humanities when it comes to appreciation of the world as it is.

  11. December 6, 2012

    Mnestheus

    Recourse to folk wisdom can help instill scientific commonsense in superstitous MP’s; all that is necessary for a Bosworth member is to recreate the primal circumsatnce of druidic instruction, by winding withes about the trunk and limbs of the MP to create a wicker simulacrum , which when set afire will cause him or her to renounce all such newfangled Roman superstitions as astrology, and revert to the old time reigion that is so popular among members of America’s congress.

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Mark Henderson

Mark Henderson is science editor of the Times and the author of “50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know” (Quercus) 


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