It’s the grey end of term and the dark time of the year when it is easy to feel that too many things have been left undone that should have been done. The Christmas break is fast approaching and most people will have a long to-do list that will be impossible to accomplish before Christmas. Academics are no different. In the back of our mind may be the Christmas card list, the turkey or the fairy lights lurking uninspected in the attic, but towards the front are the responses to the student questionnaires, the grants and papers that never got written, let alone submitted, during 2012 and the lecture notes/handouts for the new term which remain stubbornly un-updated despite the very best of intentions. The short days, the grey skies, the endless dose of Disney and other manifestations of Scrooge and company accompanied by false festive cheer only exacerbate the problem. So I shall put on my Bah Humbug hat and look beyond academia to our government for cheer.
But of course I won’t find it. David Willetts may write on his BIS blog that this has been a fantastic year for science, but as the recent CaSE report made clear, this would be a very optimistic interpretation of funding. Furthermore, the Government’s attempts to inject money into ‘innovation’ and their plans for the future also seem to have been received with little enthusiasm. The gap between their rhetoric and the reality seems large, and the prognosis for the future of this minimal package would seem to be unencouraging (as discussed this week by Richard Jones here). We have, as we rather consistently have had over many years, a government which lacks scientists on the front benches who perhaps might understand some of the more practical realities. We have a Schools’ minister who has a Law degree, an Education minister with an English degree, and a Science minister and a Prime Minister, who share the distinction of having obtained first class degrees in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. (Vince Cable alone started off studying science, even if he moved on to economics for his final degree.) Cameron is unembarrassed enough by his lack of scientific education to stand up and say he got a C in O level biology at the very moment he is announcing grand plans for the life sciences. (I don’t think he mentioned what, if anything, he got in physics or chemistry, but I suppose scientists ought to be heartened he is apparently prepared to devote a couple of hours every 3 months or so to work through the whole of science.) Furthermore, since his education was at Eton, where one would assume teaching was of the best quality, such a poor grade implies he really wasn’t motivated very much by the sciences. This is now the man in whose hands control of anything vaguely scientific ultimately lies. (I have no intention of passing comment on his other attributes, such as appreciating the meaning of a veto or collegiality, although his degree might have been thought to make him something of an expert in economics, despite the evidence of the past week.)
None of the degrees listed above, held by the various honourable gentlemen, are likely to require much of a science component, nor even a significant degree of numeracy. The Royal Society, in its recent report Brain Waves 4: Neuroscience and the Law makes some striking recommendations on this front. I am not going to dwell on some of the aspects of this report which have featured in the more lurid articles in the popular press (the Daily Telegraph was definitely pandering to the lowest common denominator with its headline ‘Brain imaging could pick out benefits cheats’) , but concentrate on one aspect of the recommendations. In particular, Recommendation 3 reads:
University law degrees should incorporate an introduction to the basic principles of how science is conducted and to key areas of science such as neuroscience and behavioural genetics, to strengthen lawyers’ capacity to assess the quality of new evidence. Conversely, undergraduate courses in neuroscience should include the societal applications of the science.
The report is driven by neuroscience, so the need for basic statistics is not spelled out in the recommendations, but of course they lurk in every case where some sort of causal link is meant to be established. The idea of the probability of conjoined improbable events was at the heart of the Sally Clark case (the fallacies and more mathematical analysis really required to understand it are well written up here, albeit this write-up predates the ultimately successful appeal), one of the cases involving so-called ‘shaken baby syndrome’ which is alluded to in the report. In that unfortunate case Dr Roy Meadow made the statement (which clearly swayed the court in the original trial) that
the chance of two children in the same (affluent nonsmoking) family both dying a cot death was 1 in 73 million
Ergo, it wasn’t a natural death because the statistics proved it. The fallacy in this ‘calculation’ was only accepted long afterwards, involving the work of many including my Cambridge colleague David Mackay, now the Chief Scientific Advisor to DECC. Meadow’s made the assumption that the occurrences of two cot deaths in a single family were independent events and hence the probability of both occurring would have been the probability of one occurring squared. This ties in with the so-called Prosecutor’s Fallacy, which involves confusing the conditional probabilities, and is expressed in the Royal Society report, in the following way:
In other words, does the probability deal with the question: ‘Assuming that the accused is innocent, what would be the probability of finding this trace evidence on him?’ Or the quite different question: ‘Assuming that this trace evidence has been found on them accused, what is the probability that he is innocent?’ These sound very similar but they are quite different and lead to different conclusions.
Lawyers – the prosecuting barristers and the judges alike – undoubtedly need to have a much firmer grasp of the statistical approaches which may be relevant to their judgements; the current Stephen Lawrence case is another in which the lawyers (and indeed one would hope the jury) have their minds quite clear about what can and cannot be demonstrated based on the evidence and analysis presented.
So, it would be nice to think the Cabinet, collectively reading this new Royal Society report on neuroscience and the law, will realise their ignorance; and those responsible for legal education will spring into action to ensure the lawyers of tomorrow have a firmer grasp of the requisite scientific methods, enabling them to make correct decisions based on the evidence in front of them. Indeed it simply highlights the fact that science is pervasive, not something that can be squirrelled away in a corner as too difficult for most otherwise-well-educated people to have a grip on. As a community we need to keep pressing for scientific literacy amongst all, not just those the rest of the world sees as unfortunate geeks.