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The price of knowledge

Posted by Richard Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Over at the shop this morning, collecting my paper and the statutory Kit-Kat (to eat while reading the paper), I paid over the £1.50 - £1.00 for the paper and the 50p for the chocolate.

I could not help but observe, though, that in 1940, the position was exactly the reverse. The newspaper would have cost you 1d (old penny) while the KitKat cost – as you can see from the advert – twice as much at 2d.

Mind you, a packet of cigarettes would have set you back 1/6d (7½p in new money), something like 18 times the cost of a newspaper. Now, your cigs are about five times the cost of a daily paper. By any measure, the relative price of newspapers has increased massively. Combined with their decrease in value, it is entirely unsurprising that they are losing circulation.

Funnily enough, one of the few stories of interest in today's edition is this one - on the BBC and climate change.

The mighty Beeb is being told to row back from its current position, that the science is "settled". Instead, its new editorial guidelines, published yesterday, say expressly for the first time that scientific issues fall within the corporation's obligation to be impartial.

"The BBC must be inclusive, consider the broad perspective, and ensure that the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected," says BBC trustee Alison Hastings.

Coincidence or not, this morning I got a phone call from BBC Radio Oxford, asking if I would speak on their show tomorrow (at about 10:10am) on ... climate change. Specifically, they are having a debate about the resignation of Hal Lewis, which Dellers did big, amongst others.

I suppose I'm now going to have to take a little more interest in the issue, but at the time, I was distinctly underwhelmed. What particularly grabbed my attention in the transcript of the letter was the comment from the egregious Hal, on the treatment of "Climategate" by his society.

"It was a fraud on a scale I have never seen, and I lack the words to describe its enormity," he says, adding: "Effect on the APS position: none. None at all. This is not science; other forces are at work."

That rather sort of comes under the category, "No shit, Sherlock!" After all these years, only now does he tells us, "This is not science; other forces are at work?" This is either pathological myopia or naivety to a most extraordinary degree.

Anyone who is interested in science, and has even a passing knowledge of science history, will know that the scientific establishments in their various disciplines are driven by politics, so intense and vitriolic at times as to make party politics look like the kindergarten.

Nor has it ever been any different. On my bookshelf, I have a treasured copy of "The Life of Pasteur" by René Vellery-Radot, first published in English translation in 1901 and reprinted several times until 1920, which is the date of my copy.

His life spanned the days of applying leeches to patients and where the existence of bacteria was denied, and infection was a result of "spontaneous generation". Germ theorists, or "deniers" such as Pasteur, were given short-shrift and, at one time, he had to leave the country to continue his research.

One quotation from Pasteur which I treasure, was in response to a question from an admirer about the "attacks and praises" he had endured and enjoyed through his career. "A man of science should think of what will be said of him in the following century, not of the insults or the compliments of one day," he replied.

Another of his more profound statements related to the respective roles of personal beliefs and "acquired science". Said Pasteur, "the two domains are distinct, and woe is him who tries to let them trespass on each other in the so imperfect state of human knowledge".

That rather pins down the Michael Manns of this world, who have difficulty separating the two domains, but in Pasteur's day, no less than now, the purity of science was an issue that had to be fought for. One of the problems we have now, I think, is that the likes of Hal Lewis have been asleep too long in their ivory towers.

Welcome back to the real world, Hal, where newspapers now cost twice as much as chocolate bars – and tell you less.

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