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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.