A bovine bovver boy beats boffin

If gerontocracy is rule by old men and meritocracy rule by clever men, scientocracy is rule by old men who think they are clever.

For years, Britain has been a scientocracy. Parliamentarians may delude themselves they govern, but the true rulers are the scientists. For if knowledge is power, ignorance is weakness, and few come more ignorant than politicians nor more certain of their knowledge than scientists. So when beef is banned, passive smoking “proved”, butter declared by turns harmful and beneficial, greenhouse gases proclaimed deadly, and obesity named a public enemy, you can bet your clotted arteries that scientists are at work.

They are a menace and a scourge. Okay, they gave us such boons as the mobile telephone and with it the bore on the train; they gave us the miracle of computers but forgot that the year 2000 was on the way; they gave us television but took no account of Noel Edmonds; they gave us Sellotape but ignored the inadequacy of the human nail; they gave us the genetically engineered tomato but didn’t say why.

The point being that scientists are not especially clever. And the rest of us, politicians in particular, would be wise constantly to bear in mind the adage that a drug is a substance that, when injected into a guinea pig, produces a scientific paper. In other words, scientists are no more exempt from self-absorption and foolish vanity than the generality of humankind and would benefit from being taken less seriously.

Lest you think this is overstated, consider the case of Paul Foskett, 44, an academic, scientist, and all-round brainbox. One day, not so long ago, fortune found him wondering across farmland near Stranraer, in South-west Scotland. He was making his way to a lighthouse that was being considered as a potential site for a radar research station.

We do not have detailed knowledge of Foskett’s training, but in the light of subsequent events, it seems safe to assume that his was an upbringing that conspired to make him more and more knowledgeable about less and less, which is often the lot of the scientist. Nor do we know what passed through his mind on the fateful walk. Perhaps he pondered the nature and meaning of those strange objects with leaves and branches that cast their shadow across his path; maybe he was startled by the scurrying past of a wee sleekit, cow’rin tim’rous beastie and paused to think how uncannily its shape resembled that of the hand-held device used to control the cursor movements on his computer.

But if such was his reverie, it was soon rudely shattered by what he later described as a “mooing and snorting”. His startled eye looked up and there, blocking the path, was a huge animal with horns and malice in its eye. It is a picture we must imagine, for the precise details are blurred in Foskett’s memory. Perhaps the animal was snorting, exhaling great clouds of condensation from it cavernous nostrils; perhaps it was pawing the ground and lowering its head, body language which the behavioural scientist will tell you denotes that the quadruped got out of the wrong side of bed that morning.

Unhappily, however, Foskett is not a behavioural scientist; his bag is radar, and none of the books on high frequency radio pulses touch upon homicidal bovines. Even so, quick as a sound wave, our scientist recalled something the farmer had told him before he set off across the fields (or rather something he thought the farmer had told him, for this point is the central matter of dispute).

He marched up to the bull, tapped it sharply on the nose and waved his arms at it. Yes he did. You and I, who do not know a radio pulse from a lentil, would have almost certainly taken a different course, namely backwards and at great speed. But not the scientist.

What happened next was that the laws of Nature were enacted with a precision that in other circumstances would have pleased the scientific mind. The bull tossed Mr Foskett over a nearby wall causing him to suffer injuries to his back, thigh and groin. At the time of writing he is suing the farmer for 80,000 damages. For his part, the farmer denies telling him to tap the bull on the nose or wave his arms. Though the question has not been put to him, he would presumably also deny recommending the waving of a red rag as a means of placating a raging ton of Aberdeen Angus.

This salutary tale ought to be borne in mind every time a scientist presumes to tell us what to do, or to advise us on what is good or bad for us. It would of course, have been the sweetest or ironies had Mr Foskett’s discipline been not oceanography but bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Even so, who would wager that the scientists through whose microscopes came the evidence that caused beef on the bone to be banned would know a bull when they saw one?

So here’s a tip for them. Should your path be blocked by an angry bull, do not tap it on the nose, do not wave your arms. Instead, walk carefully to the other end of the animal and kick it as hard as you can in those pendulous spheres between its rear legs.


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