Will science training for MPs help?

A report in the Times that new MPs are to get some scientific training poses the question: will this help them to understand why we need to scrap non-scientific imperial units and embrace the modern metric system? (Article based on a draft by Martin Vlietstra)
There was a report in the Times (17th November) that classes explaining scientific method and basic concepts will be included in the induction programme for all Conservative MPs after the next election.  (See http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article5168006.ece).  Adam Afriyie, the partyâ??s spokesman for science and innovation, is concerned about the lack of scientific understanding and expertise in both the House of Commons and in the Civil Service.  Only one government minister (John Denham) and one opposition front bench member (Sir Liam Fox) studied natural sciences, maths or medicine at university.  It is obvious that graduates who studied those subjects are grossly under-represented in government.

Over a hundred years ago, Lord Kelvin (1824 â?? 1907) one of Britainâ??s most noted scientists said:
â??When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.â??

A major problem facing Britain today is the general lack of numeracy amongst our young people.  There appears to be very little incentive to measure things and even less to analyse those measurements even if such analysis is â??Which is the cheapest â?? supplier A or supplier B?â??.

One of the benefits of SI – the International System of Units – is that the actual definitions of the units demonstrate very clearly some basic scientific concepts – e.g. that force is mass multiplied by acceleration (Newton’s Second Law).  Hence, the unit of force, called the newton after the great man, is a kilogram multiplied by a metre per second squared (N = kg x m/s^2).  This is probably double Dutch to non-scientists who only use imperial units.  If people generally, and MPs in particular, had a better grasp of basic science, there would be a greater realisation that continued use of obsolete imperial units is actually a barrier to understanding of the world.
One trusts that if there is an increased understanding of scientific processes , then our leaders will, amongst other things,  realise the clumsiness of the imperial system of measure and promote SI which is not only easier, but  universally understood (outside the USA and UK).

8 thoughts on “Will science training for MPs help?”

  1. Far too many politicians are trained in non-technical professions – such as law, the arts, etc. Some may be trained in such fields as economics, which one would have thought required more than a rudimentary numeracy knowledge, especially with the current emphasis on ‘targets’ and the like, but judging by the current state of the UK’s finances, maybe that is hoping for too much!

    I sincerely hope that some in-depth training in SI will lead to serious consideration in completing the UK’s changeover to the metric system. Perhaps we should write to David Cameron, as leader of the Conservative Party, expressing our support for the proposed induction programme for his MPs.


  2. I have heard politicians argue for single universal standards in accountancy in response to the current financial crisis so that the performance of companies in different parts of the world can be compared on an equal basis.

    Is there a double standard here in not arguing for a single measurement standard whereby consumers can compare, say the cost of apples, from different suppliers on an equal basis?


  3. Margaret Thatcher had a scientific training, and we could have done without the attention she turned to the metric system. In the case of some politicians, once their mind is made up, there’s no point in trying to confuse them with the facts. No amount of scientific training changes that.


  4. John Denham, whose department is responsible for the National Weights and measures Laboratory, may have knowledge through higher education of things scientific. However, when questioned as to why government does not appear to provide more overt support to the celebration of science and engineering, including the system of measurement used by both he, through his department, simply steers around the issue. Clearly then, providing a basic grasp of science, although worthy of applause for its reasoning, can be expected to achieve even less.

    As an ageing professional engineer it is my belief that what is required in the UK is a politically lead cultural shift supported by the media. Since the late 1970’s successive governments have, through free market “laissez faire� and the promotion of a non-technocratic service economy, precipitated the cultural de-valuation of science and engineering to the point where now someone who undertakes minor repairs to a domestic washing machine is described by the general population as an “engineer�. A vociferous and unenlightened section of UK society decries the system of measurement used internationally throughout science and engineering as being inappropriate for universal use, despite many of the UK’s scientific and engineering heroes’ names, such as Newton, Kelvin and Watt, appearing alongside metre and kilogram as names of its units.

    As for the Civil Service, my experience leads me to believe that it mirrors general society in its view of science and engineering.

    On the issue of elementary mathematics and knowledge of units of measure in the UK, this now seems to have degenerated to a point where broadcasters, on the pretext of a lack of understanding by their audience, have devised their own system of measures; the unit of area is the football pitch, volume is the bathtub, length the London bus, height is Nelson’s column. A city council near to my home has taken to measuring distance in units of time, which is meaningless without reference to speed (velocity). This suggests that there is also a need for local government officials to be schooled in basic science and mathematics. Similarly for journalists, from the slick be-suited newsreader to the motoring presenter who gabbles on in ignorance about horsepower, miles per gallon and pounds of torque (“cos big figures sound good; the audience love it�) whilst at the same time refusing to accept that all power, not just electrical, is measured in watts, that fuel is purchased by the litre and CO2 emissions are recorded in grams of CO2 per kilometre.

    Finally, it should not be forgotten that it was David Cameron’s party that to their enduring shame killed off the Metrication Board. If they really want to move things forward, why not state that it is their policy to re-instate it if they are vote into government. Conversely, where is the Labour Party’s re-affirmation of the concept of the “white heat of technological revolution� described by Harold Wilson in 1963 that at one time fired so many imaginations? Why do they not appoint a metrication czar to get the job finished?


  5. i wont be holding my breath for any change i was taught the metric system in school! because we were told thats what we will be using by the 21st century, world wide? i think we will see it happening around about 2050 in the uk? can someone explain why children taught in 1976 when only metric was taught are more inteligent than those taught today according to recent newspaper reports ?


  6. The idea should be welcomed in principle. It makes no sense that politicians should be debating issues connected with scientific research and the environment on the basis of ignorance.
    There’s not much evidence though that it will lead to progress in metrication. That requires a fundamantal shift in attitude and perspective. Part of the problem is that the metric system is seen as a being the prerogative of scientists and not relevent to “ordinary people”. Even some scientists go along with this. There is no reason to suppose that scientifically informed politicians will discard their fear of losing votes or embolden them to take on the press over an issue they don’t care that much about.
    Still let’s wait and see. It won’t do any harm even if, in the end, it wont do much good.


  7. I don’t entirely agree with phih. While it is true that scientifically trained politicians will not lose their fear of losing votes (Margaret Thatcher has been mentioned, and John Denham is the latest example), it is also true that politicians with no understanding of science are unlikely to appreciate the TECHNICAL superiority of metric units. While this is not the only or even the main argument for scrapping imperial units, it is still an important argument – but one that is lost on the majority of people with little understanding of science, of whom MPs are probably fairly typical.


  8. I have no doubt that the painfully slow progress in bringing metric measurements into use for everyday activities must have had, and continue to have, some effect in the lack of scientific awareness of not only MPs, but many other people. I certainly found it somewhat confusing when growing up that many adults would burble away in strange old measurements that I did not understand and which were supposedly on their way out as we moved forward into a progressive society.

    It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that this confusion must have contributed to science seeming strange and complicated to many people, whereas if everybody was referring to metres, kilograms, litres and kilometres, etc, in everyday life, all children would be able to more clearly see the connections between what they were taught at school, and how the world works, perhaps sparking their interest in science.

    However, also to blame is the negative or minimal coverage of scientific topics in the media: politics, the law, the emergency services and celebrity are seemingly all that are deemed newsworthy, and it’s perhaps no wonder that growing children find their attention turned to other possible choices of careers.

    A further issue is perhaps the English education system, which forces young people to make choices that will likely steer the direction of the rest of their lives at the young age of only 15 or 16, when they have to choose only 3 subjects to study at A-level. Compare this to Scotland, where the norm is to sit 5 (or even sometimes 6) Highers, and consequently it’s far from unusual for a more social-science-focused pupil to continue to study at least one ‘hard’ science that also interests them (or indeed for a science-focused pupil to continue to study a language or another social science), leading to a more balanced education overall.


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