Martin Parkinson

Letters to the editor - other matters *

Leadership not a panacea

Guardian 16th March 2006

The move towards a US-style system of electing the head of the labour party, (Michael Meacher, 8 March), is part of the drive to make the prime minister more presidential, but it has wider cultural resonance. In all areas of life we have started to put an impossible weight of hope onto the concept of 'leadership' - just get the right 'leader' and everything will work out. It's nonsense of course.

Experimental psychologists even have a name for this fallacy: the 'fundamental attribution error' warns us that though we fondly imagine that personal attributes are always more important than any external circumstances, this just isn't true.


The nature of science

Resurgence September/October 2005

Dear Editors,

I find Resurgence a frustrating read. I started buying it because I was seduced by your gorgeous illustrations and distinctive art coverage and found as a bonus that you include articles by trenchant and precise thinkers such as Mary Midgley (Resurgence 228) who focus on the nature of science, this being one of my philosophical interests.

Yet in Resurgence 230 Satish Kumar allows himself the apparently thoughtless line ‘Scientists learn about nature in order to control it…’. Resurgence authors often talk about ‘science’ in this dismissive way and rarely distinguish the very different senses in which the word is used. Science writer Colin Tudge, who has an article in the same issue, offers an almost opposite meaning in his book So Shall We Reap “… the prime purpose of science is not to change the universe but to enhance our appreciation of it”. This is indeed what ‘science’ means for some of us: an active form of the contemplation of nature. TH Huxley famously framed the scientific attitude thus: “Sit down before the facts as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever nature leads you, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved, at all risks, to do this.”

Scientific knowledge is materially powerful because it can be used to devise technology (the distinction between science and technology, though not absolute, is a useful one and Satish was more properly referring to technologists) but there is a trade-off between power and narrowness. The more powerful the science the narrower its remit. Yet the power of the physical sciences attracts those who don’t understand this and don’t ‘get’ science in the Tudge sense; they just smell the power and claim the authority of ‘science’ as a justification for what is really age-old oppression. This is partly what Midgley’s article was about and it is why Tudge opens his recent Resurgence article by saying that biotech scientists should be very ashamed of themselves.

I almost hesitate to describe myself as having a serious interest in science lest people think I am allying myself with the nasty bullying attitude that trumpets ‘science’ as its mandate but is actually ignorant of it.



Guardian 9th June 2005

Dylan Evans response to Beethoven is most peculiar (Comment, June 6): "sudden key changes...inconclusive cadences...self indulgence". What other music has drawn these charges? Ludwig was a jazz musician before his time.


Learning styles

Guardian (education section) 7th June 2005

The wide acceptance of "learning styles" (Each to their own, May 31) illustrates two points about the public understanding of science (in this case experimental psychology). First, subtle and ambiguous research findings become oversimplified where something as important as education is involved because jumping to conclusions is almost irresistible. One of the important aims of science education should be to counteract this tendency.

Second, we tend to treat things as "scientific" solely because they are dressed up in a certain sort of jargon. The VAK (visual auditory kinaesthetic) hypothesis is just folk psychology, but part of its popularity among educators must be because of its association with so-called "neuro-linguistic programming" (NLP). This is nothing to do with neurology or linguistics but is a massively popular self-help and therapy system. It's a ragbag of techniques, some of which do have some efficacy, but it is not in any sense scientific - it just sounds it to the scientifically uneducated, which unfortunately is most of us.


Leadership, shmoedership

Guardian (society section)18th May 2005

Good to see David Walker taking a pop at the current blether about 'leadership' (View From the Top 11 May). Where has it all come from?

In the 70's and even 80's 'leader' was almost a dirty word. Now it has become a self-evident object of compulsory worship. Psycho-historical speculation is almost irresistible: the world becomes daily more complex and unpredictable so we pine for leaders to take away the confusion and make everything work.


© copyright 2005 Martin Parkinson