In this week's New Statesman: The Science Issue

With Michael Brooks, Daniel Dennett, Martin Rees, Richard Dawkins, Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Philip B

Science Special: Dangerous Knowledge

For the New Statesman's annual Science special we asked 13 prominent scientists and thinkers two of the biggest questions in their field: is there anything science can’t explain? And is there anything it shouldn’t try to explain?

Our cast of experts includes Daniel Dennett, the philosopher and cognitive scientist, the theoretical physicist Paul Davies, the epidemiologist Precious Lunga, and the space scientist Carolyn Porco.

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, tells the NS that, however powerful computers become, there will be limits to our future learning:

And even if we could build a computer with hugely superhuman processing power, which could offer an accurate simulation, that doesn’t mean that we will have the insight to understand it. Some of the ‘aha’ insights that scientists strive for may have to await the emergence of post-human intellects.

And the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains why a career in science is so worthwhile:

. . . what we do know is that, if there is a question about the universe that science can never answer, no other discipline will. Science is our best hope for answering the deep questions of existence, but we must be alive to the possibility that the science of the future will be so different from the science of the present as to be scarcely recognisable under the same title. Is there anything science should not try to explain? No.

Also in this Science issue, in an essay titled “Sublime intervention”, Philip Ball argues that an inquiring wonder is what drives meaningful progress in science – and that curiosity must trump passive acceptance of the way things are. Elsewhere, Helen Lewis talks to the palaeontologist Jenny Clack and learns how some of the biggest recent discoveries in evolution were made by accident.

 

Neville Thurlbeck on Tom Waton's Dial M for Murdoch

In this week’s New Statesman, the former News of the World journalist Neville Thurlbeck reviews the MP Tom Watson’s book about the phone-hacking crisis, Dial M for Murdoch. Thurlbeck writes:

To a newspaperman like me, it is a very useful and, by and large, accurate reference book about the unfolding of the phone-hacking saga. It’s what we call in the trade “a cuttings job”, produced by piecing together information that can be found in any good newspaper-cuttings library.

He continues: 

We learn a lot about the toll the crisis took on Watson, on his marriage and on his mental state. But it was Watson’s visit to my home last year that provided him with the book’s most dramatic revelation. The information was given to him confidentially and should not have been made public. However, our quarrel over that need not detain us here.

In conclusion, Thurlbeck says that, for the moment:

Dial M for Murdoch is the only cogent book available on the most important media story since the birth of newspapers and has every chance of becoming a bestseller. It is only half the story because only half the story has been told. Its sequel will be the explosive revelations that will be made in court, should any trials take place. And then the drama of Cuttings Job II will ensure this book is swiftly remaindered.

Cameron's Crises

In the Leader, the New Statesman calls for the Prime Minister to face the pressing issues surrounding the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt that have dominated the past week’s news:

It is entirely inadequate for [David Cameron] to remind voters that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also fell under the spell of the Murdoch empire. In promising to lead the “most open and transparent government in the world”, he vowed to be different.

. . . It is the perception that this government is in hock to vested interests . . . that corrodes trust in our political class. There is no more serious issue. It is time Mr Cameron recognised as much and called Mr Hunt to account.

In his Lines of Dissent column, Mehdi Hasan argues that after the “Omnishambles Budget”, the row over Hunt and the confirmation of a double-dip recession, the political class is realising Cameron has been overestimated for far too long:

Regardless of the outcome of the London mayoral election on 3 May, Cameron’s reputation will not recover. “We’ve been too afraid of the Tories. We assumed Cameron was a Machiavellian figure and a brilliant communicator,” says a shadow cabinet minister. “Turns out he’s neither.” The veil has been lifted; the Don’t Overestimate Cameron Association (DOCA) has had plenty of recruits in recent weeks.

But in the Politics Column, Rafael Behr warns that Murdoch-bashing may not be enough to establish Ed Miliband’s credentials as a potential prime minister and champion of a new political order:

[Miliband] is persuaded that Britain is undergoing a political upheaval that will leave Cameron and Osborne marooned on the wrong side of history, along with Rupert Murdoch, the Liberal Democrats and unnamed Irresponsible Capitalists. Given the scale of the crisis, he might well be proved right. What is missing from the story is an explanation as to why Ed Miliband, loyal lieutenant aboard the last Labour government, scion of the Westminster establishment, shouldn’t be swept away by the very same tide.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • In Observations, Rowenna Davis reports on the crisis in magistrates’ courts, where budget cuts of 25 per cent are bringing the local justice system close to collapse. Yet the courts are a fine example of the “big society” at work – all the judges are volunteers. The present woes of the Courts and Tribunals Service, she writes, “are an indictment of the Tories and David Cameron in particular, who is criticised by his own backbenchers of failing to know what’s worth protecting”.
  • In this week’s NS Diary, the journalist, writer and broadcaster John McCarthy describes a trip around revolutionary Paris, remembers his “years spent banged up in Beirut” and considers the future of radio.
  • Sophie Elmhirst talks to the Chinese author and historian Jung Chang in the NS Interview.
  • In the Critics, the NS’s pop music writer Kate Mossman examines the musician Jack White (formerly of the White Stripes) and the cult of authenticity; Mark Leonard writes an essay on the decline of American power; in her TV column, Rachel Cooke assesses the BBC’s move to Salford and the impact on BBC1’s flagship morning show, and in Real Meals, Will Self tentatively tries eggs Benedict at Patisserie Valerie.

 

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Want your team to succeed? Try taking a step back

From the boardroom to the sports ground, managers need to step back for creativity to thrive.

Everyone is in favour of creativity, usually at the expense of creative people. The concept is in perpetual boom. Give us creative midfielders, creative leadership, creative solutions, creative energy. It’s with the “how” that the problems start – with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek. The creativity industry system is at odds with its stated goals.

The novel was an early casualty. Nothing makes me close a book more quickly and finally than the creeping realisation that the author is following a narrative map purchased on an American creative writing course. Life is too short for competent novels. The creativity industry pulls up the worst while dragging down the best.

Something similar happens inside professional sport, even though creativity is so obviously linked to performance and profit. Yet sport, especially English sport, has suffered from excessive managerialism. Perhaps guilt about English sport’s amateur legacy gave “professionalism” free rein, however pedestrian its form.

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control. If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?

So when truly unexpected moments do happen, they take on a special lustre. This month, Olivier Giroud scored an unforgettable goal for Arsenal. Bearing down on the goal, he was already launched in mid-air when he realised that the cross was well behind him. With his body far ahead of his feet, Giroud clipped the ball to the top corner of the net with the outside of his left ankle – a so-called scorpion kick.

It was, in retrospect, the only option available to him. Football, for a moment, touched the arts – not only beautiful, but also complete. Nothing could have been added or taken away.

I once tried to compare the perfect cricket shot to Robert Frost’s celebrated description of writing a poem: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification . . . Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

A great goal, however, fits that poetic model better than a cricket shot. Cricket shots come in many aesthetic grades, but they are all intended as shots. A goal, on the other hand, is more than just a very good pass, only better. There is an act of transformation within the event.

Frost’s acknowledgment of luck (distinct here from fluke) neatly defuses the accusation. Saying that a great goal involved luck does not to diminish it. Many unearned factors must interact with the skill.

“But did he mean it?” some people have wondered about Giroud’s goal. That isn’t the point, either. There wasn’t time. Giroud had solved the problem – to make contact with the ball, however possible, directing it towards the goal – before he was fully conscious of it. That doesn’t make it an accident. The expertise of a striker, like that of a writer, is opportunistic. He puts himself in positions where his skills can become productive. It is a honed ability to be instinctive. “If I’d thought about it, I never would have done it,” as Bob Dylan sings on “Up to Me”, an out-take from Blood on the Tracks.

Pseudo-intellectual? Quite the reverse. There is nothing pretentious about recognising and protecting creativity in sport. Over-literal decoding is the greater threat: instinctive performance needs to be saved from team meetings, not from intellectuals.

Having described a creative goal as unplanned – indeed, impossible to plan – what can coaches do to help? They can get out of the way, that’s a good start. It is no coincidence that the teams of Arsène Wenger, who is sometimes criticised for being insufficiently prescriptive, score more than their fair share of wonder goals.

The opposite arrangement is bleak. A friend of mine, a fly-half in professional rugby union, retired from the game when his coaches told him exactly which decisions to make in the first six phases of every attacking move. In effect, they banned him from playing creatively; they wanted rugby by numbers.

Not everything can be rehearsed. One useful book for coaches scarcely mentions sport – Inside Conducting, by the conductor Christopher Seaman. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal,” Seaman writes, “and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more
to it than that.”

Dan Vettori, the rising star among cricket’s Twenty20 coaches, is rare for having the bravery to echo Seaman’s theory. He believes that cricketers are more likely to play well when they feel slightly underprepared. It’s a risk and a fine balance – but worth it.

As I explored here last month in the context of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, there is a danger of slotting players into false stereotypes and classifications. Giroud, for example, is slow. Slow yet athletic. That’s an unusual combination and partly explains why he is underrated.

We often think of pace as the central and definitive aspect of athleticism. But speed is just one component of total athletic ability (leave to one side footballing skill). Giroud has an outstanding vertical jump, power and great balance. Because he is big and slow, those athletic gifts are harder to spot.

Management systems overestimate both labels and top-down tactics. A braver policy, pragmatic as well as aesthetic, is to be less controlling: allow opportunity to collide with skill, directed by an open, expert and uncluttered mind. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge