Destroying the Antichrist and other ways science can help policymakers

Let’s cut the science budget again

In 1264 Pope Clement IV wrote to Roger Bacon asking for his help on an issue so grave he had to refer to it in the vaguest of terms in secret letters “concerning the things you recently indicated”. His circumspection was understandable: the problem was the Antichrist and how to deal with him. Unfortunately, as Robert Bartlett explains in The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages, Bacon hadn’t actually written the book describing the new remote-controlled weapons of mass destruction Clement was pinning his hopes on after hearing the savant boasting about it a few years earlier.

The Magic Monk, however, rose magnificently to the occasion, producing within a year the Opus Maius, the Opus minus (a guide and supplement to the quarter of a million words of the Opus Maius) and the Opus tertium, a 300-page summary of the other two. He set out a theory of the universe in which every point emits radiation and is bombarded by it (his weapons would have used optics among other things). In this, he anticipates theories of modern electromagnetic radiation, but he was also using an idea developed by the 9th century Muslim scientist al-Kindi. Al-Kindi also helped Bacon calculate the precise date for the coming of the Antichrist (1294, which turned out to be the year of Bacon’s death) based on the common assumption that this would happen when Islam ceased to exist. It seems astonishing to us today, but al-Kindi and another great Arab thinker Abulmazar had actually calculated when their religion would end, using a combination of astronomical data and astrology. Anyway, Clement was pleased to get the books, and presumably even more pleased not to get the Antichrist.

It’s to Clement’s credit that faced with the end of his world, he looked for a practical solution first, whereas most of us tend to shift from science to superstition as the situation grows more desperate. Of course there was a long history of scientific advice to rulers on risk, stretching back thousands of years to the hydrologists who advised the Pharaohs on the likely severity of the Nile’s floods and the outlook for future crop yields based on the alluvia in upstream waters. It would be nice to think that as scientific knowledge has grown, our rulers have come to appreciate and apply it to the business of government. They haven’t. That’s not to say that science is ignored – many governments have a science ministry or sub-ministry as well as scientific advisors and committees to consult on specific issues.

But widespread understanding of what science is, how it works, and what it can and cannot do is far more rare in government circles than is knowledge of other professions. Writing in Prospect magazine, Mark Henderson pointed out that only one of the 650 Members of the UK parliament for instance is a professional research scientist, while there are 158 business people and 86 lawyers. Henderson argues that politicians’ indifference to science “means that not only is their stewardship of science poor, but so is their use of it in policy making”.

That’s not the case in Britain alone, and the OECD’s Global Science Forum (GSF) is trying to change things. A recent symposium to mark the GSF’s 20th anniversary looked at “New Science-Based Tools for Anticipating and Responding to Global Crises”. The biggest science headlines recently have been inspired by the infinitely small – the confirmation of the Higgs boson (that we discussed here) but as the symposium summary says, researchers have been making significant progress at the other end of the scale, tackling large systems of interest to all of us, such as ecosystems, pandemics, financial markets, energy generation and distribution, and what influences weather and climate, as well as societal phenomena such as urbanisation and migration.

Such systems are open (they exchange energy and information with their surroundings); dynamic (they contain numerous internal couplings and feedback loops – often nonlinear ones, operating on multiple spatial and temporal scales); and they are far from equilibrium (they continually transition between states that, individually, are inherently unstable). A pile of sand is a simple example of the type of phenomenon in question. It’s a “self-organising critical system”, keeping its basic cone shape even as more sand is added, provoking little landslides and other local instabilities. If you only look at the big picture, the sand pile may seem stable, whereas if you look at a particular area closely, you’ll see grains tumbling down the slope in avalanches of sand: lots of small ones, fewer intermediate-size ones and, much less frequently, major events where a significant fraction of the whole cone collapses.  One of the great advances of science in recent years was to discover that the probabilities of occurrence of avalanches of various sizes is not random, but is in fact governed by a strict mathematical “power law”.

Ever-cheaper, more powerful computing allows us to look at different scales and levels of interaction and study problems that more traditional approaches can’t cope with. In economics, this enables us to go beyond models depending on equilibrium and a certain definition of rationality to examine complex systems in a constant state of flux such as financial markets, and even devise ways to predict and prevent crashes in markets where the nanosecond is a useful division of time.

It’s a long way away from worries about the Antichrist, but the medieval scholars were in many respects more sophisticated than us, thinking holistically in terms of a cosmology in which agents and actions at different levels and scales interacted with and influenced each other. And we could probably still learn from their insights about another crucial aspect of the emerging sciences discussed at the OECD symposium: you and me. As the summary notes, the utility of many results “is only as good as the validity of the representations of human behaviour that are incorporated into the models”, going on to recall drily that “This behaviour is, of course, only partially understood by scientists who, moreover, are known to disagree on many essential points”.

So we’ve still got a lot to learn before we find scientific explanations for many of the great questions facing us, but as St Augustine said almost a thousand years before Bacon’s time, “Miracles are not contrary to nature. They are contrary to what we know about nature”. Let’s keep looking.

Useful links

When relations with the Muslim world are so crucial, it’s a disgrace that so few diplomats are trained in Arabic, according to Roger Bacon. Robert Bartlett also tells us that Bacon was critical of Western education’s neglect of science and mathematics, as well as of foreign languages. Nothing much seems to have changed over the centuries, and the OECD is still trying to encourage student interest in science and convince us of the benefits of learning languages in a globalised world.

Patrick Love

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  1. trockeneisbombe - 06/08/2012 Reply

    Reblogged this on trockeneisbombe and commented:
    Couldn’t agree more; would be good to find a way to get more scientists involved in politics and create a better understanding of science…

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