Recently I debated the question of valuing nature with Sir Robert Watson, FRS, a leading advocate of the need for rapid and serious reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, derived from his expertise as a climate scientist. During informal chatting before the debate he let slip a long list of eminent names and told me that at a recent debate at the Royal Society there had been absolute consensus about the issue of valuing nature. Unperturbed by my isolation I asked him whether that meant that everybody agreed it was a misguided notion; you will not be surprised to know that it did not.
I would not challenge Sir Bob's right to patronise me on the question of atmospheric chemistry but I am rather surprised that he should choose to do so on a question of economics, where, in spite of my lowly credentials and absence of prizes, I do have some accumulated expertise and years of study, which he does not. I say this only to raise a question about who is qualified to be making policy in areas of environmental protection. James Lovelock is another whose technological inventions and scientific insights do not qualify him to be the most respected opinion on whether or not we should build more nuclear power stations.
Which brings me to Richard Dawkins, the so-called ayatollah of atheism, who having developed theories about evolution, and attempted to subscribe human society in terms of these evolutionary theories now feels himself the best person to comment on the British constitution. In her excellent book, Evolution as Religion, Mary Midgley began the most fruitful assault on radical atheists, suggesting that they used their scientific authority in a similar way to how other radicals have used divine authority.
What I noticed in my discussions with Bob Watson was that it was necessary for him to find a single, right answer. This is perhaps both what motivates scientists and what characterises their method of enquiry. It is an approach that is, of course, quite inapproriate in the human and social sciences, where the skill rather lies in understanding views you don't share and finding ways to mediate between those who violently and fundamentally disagree - and have an inalienable right to do so. If you can't take that particularly kind of heat you should, perhaps, stay out of the kitchen.
I used to work in the publicity department of Dawkins's publisher and was once entertaining an author for lunch while Dawkins enjoyed his own lunch at the adjacent table, accompanied by either a trophy wife or an equally glamorous assistant. It was a fairly short lunch but during the hour or so we were there I was amazed that he managed to talk entirely about himself. It made me ask a question that I have asked of other scientists: when they develop their theories - in Dawkins's case about selfishness and authority - are they really looking outward or inward?