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Science and Cummings
Rumour has it that Dominic Cummings, the former Vote Leave joint supremo, and ex-Number 10 super-SPAD, has a new Twitter account.
I'm not sure if this is true. But the signs are there that it might be. The account had just a few hundred followers yesterday and now has a few thousand.
The profile pic on the account features a photo of a young Richard Feynman, the Nobel winning physicist and one of the most important scientists behind the Manhattan Project that ultimately gave the world the nuclear bomb. It's clear that Cummings wants to be seen as a latter-day rationalist in that intellectual oeuvre.
This is a handy device as Cummings tries to reengineer his own persona for life post-Whitehall - suggesting that he very firmly identifies with the 'rationalist/scientific' world. He's clearly keen to give the impression that his approach to doing things is to rationalise, then act, based on evidence.
The problem with this is that Cummings is more a science groupie than an actual scientist. Perhaps that's why he was so keen to surround himself with geeks and weirdos at Number 10 who might have provided him with some reflected glory - a bit like being associated, if only photographically, with a young Richard Feynman.
Feynman once said, "Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure — the adventure into the unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it — the humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics — the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual — the humility of the spirit."
It's that humble attitude - a reluctance to be certain of anything - with which Cummings seems to have most difficulty. His approach, unlike a Scientist's, is to come up with a null hypothesis and then search for the data to prove it. No other hypotheses are permitted. The hypotheses are his project brief: to deliver a Leave vote (like he could care less); or to 'deliver' Brexit. His definition of rationality appears to be a lack of any political passion - to collect evidence to justify a course of action, rather than to determine the action.
Perhaps this comes from the fact that he has had no training in science. With his degree in History, Cummings is like most of the Civil Servants in Whitehall sporting liberal arts and social science degrees. Therefore he seems to be dazzled by scientists - and irrational nostrums - especially when they come from scientists.
We had a glimpse of this yesterday when he gave evidence to MPs on the Science and Technology Committee. He took this as a prime opportunity to justify his particular courses of action - making clear, for example, just how hapless he considered the Department of Health to be, prior to the government's decision to implement lockdown as a policy response to Covid-19. He made particular reference to its ability to procure stuff (like PPE).
Presumably he was preparing some of the arguments he might use when he faces the full blown public enquiry into the Covid-19 fiasco. The hint in his evidence from yesterday was that having considered (and rejected) all other hypotheses the only course of action, as far as Covid was concerned, was to help squander public money in ways previously considered impossible by Whitehall. This clearly meant creating emergency, war-time-like, procurement - doling out £Billions to firms without any standard procurement rules in place. No doubt this framing of his answer had something to do with last week's damning report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee Report into Track and Trace that suggested that the £22Billion scheme did nothing to reduce Covid rates in England.
Cummings also used his opportunity yesterday to justify similar arguments for "extreme freedom" for scientists availing of taxpayer funding to do blue-sky science stuff. Perhaps this is why Cummings features Manhattan Project boffins (geddit?) on his Twitter profile - to show his solidarity with super-intelligent people who can be trusted to come up with brilliance that will make the country rich. In Cummings self-justifying world such geeks just need to be left to get on with things and it's Cummings' job to ensure they don't have to overcome any bureaucratic obstacles.
However, the signs aren't exactly great. If Cummings had one job to do at Number 10 as a strategist or thinker it should have been to encourage the Prime Minister and his cabinet to resist a course of action that would rip the living heart out of our economy and to crush the entrepreneurial zeal of our wealth creators.
Scott Locklin, a former physicist, who works on quantitative problems, has this to say about the state of science and innovation in the West.
"Our galaxy brain AI-assisted public health officials have still yet to think of anything more creative for mitigating the [Covid] problem than the medieval technique of locking people up at home where they slowly are losing their minds and are getting sick anyway. We did better at pandemic control before I was born. People were still watching black and white TVs and using slide rules back then and we did a lot better in every way. As in, no totalitarian lockdowns, rapid vaccine development, and similar outcomes: aka lots of sickly older people died, and the disease became endemic. Of course, back then, the people running the place were selected for something resembling competence or in absence of this, at least an appearance of phlegmatic sanity rather than current year which evidently prefers the precise opposite."