October 15, 2020
Brian J Ford is a well-respected research scientist, BBC broadcaster, world-wide lecturer and author with books out in over 140 editions. His original Nonscience dates from 1971, and caused a sensation. It was translated, featured on television, and enthusiastically reviewed. To celebrate its fiftieth birthday has been expanded, with loads of amusing new pictures and amusing information . It is available here: https://amzn.to/342F8Rb.
Samuele Lilliu (SL). Brian, thank you very much for doing this. We’ve been in touch since June with LinkedIn, but it was only after I sent you my podcast with James Flynn that we started discussing a bit about how to organize a podcast together…
Brian J. Ford (BJF). There is a reason for that. Podcasts take time and I’ve always known that I’m stuck with no more than 25 hours of the day, there can never be more than eight days in the week and only 53 weeks of the year. So, where I come from, spare time is a rare commodity. I’m just delighted that we could get together today.
SL. Thank you very much. I find the topic of academic misconduct quite fascinating and that’s where I want to start. In my case, one instance of academic misconduct was particularly stressful because I was directly involved. I discovered that some collaborators were cherry-picking and cooking data. I mean, it’s a long story, but after I reported this to the administration, they thought that the best course of action was to fire me. That was actually good because immediately after that I got a better job and then I moved to a serious place. Then I became a fan of a website called the Retraction Watch, where you can track the latest news of retractions, corrections, and so on.
Since you are a biologist, in biology there used to be lots of cases of plagiarism and there used to be cases in which they copied and pasted gel bands from electrophoresis from one place to another one. After reading your book I understood that plagiarism has a long history in science. It dates back to the beginning of the scientific method.
BJF. It does. You speak of cutting and pasting electrophoretic gels. Well, I can give you an example of that. In America, some years ago, there was a forensic case and they turned up with a spectrograph trace of a very slippery floor polish and an identical trace from the coat of the woman who was suing the shop on which she slipped, because she said she’d fallen on their slippery floor. It so happened that in those days this is being shown on an overhead projector. That was on acetate cells. So when you laid the two acetate cells together, you realized that the two graphs were absolutely identical, even the noise was identical. Quite clearly what they’d done was to copy one graph twice and pretend the one came from the coat the other one came from the floor.
Now you’re right. It does go back to the very beginnings. I’ve got here a copy of Robert Hooke’s original book Micrographia. Now, this wonderful book was published in 1665. It’s the first, as it was, science book that there ever was. Robert Hooke produced wonderful drawings, many of which were stolen and he regularly complained about the theft of his drawings.
But I discovered that Robert Hooke himself was a plagiarist. Although he always complained about people stealing his drawings, he stole the drawings of others. One of his most famous plates is of snowflakes. Hooke explains how, yes, it was very cold and inconvenient to go and ‘photograph’ snowflakes in the wintertime but, nonetheless, it had to be done in the course of his investigations. Now, his investigations gave rise to drawings that aren’t much like snowflakes. There’s six raid figures, but they’re rather cartoonish. He has been praised for the centuries for having been the first person to recognize the structure of snow. But in 1661 Thomas Bartholin, an earlier philosopher, in a book on snow, had actually already published those pictures. Now they’re not identical, but if you put the two together… and I published this in an article for… I write a column for a magazine called The Microscope. You can find it online, if you search for ‘Ford Critical Focus’, that’s what the column is called. In one of my columns, I actually looked at this and I compared the two pictures. Indeed if you look at Bartholin’s picture on the left, and Robert Hooke’s picture on the right, it’s quite clear that Hooke pinched Bartholin’s pictures. Now, Robert Hooke began work at The Royal Society in 1663, when the Royal Society had just been born. Really, he was the world’s first ever professional scientist. So when you rightly say that plagiarism goes back to the origins of science, you’re right. It goes right back to the world’s first ever scientist always complaining about people stealing his work and yet quite prepared to steal someone else’s.
SL. I think in your book you also mentioned [Isaac] Newton, right?
BJF. Oh, Newton was a terrible plagiarist. Much of Newton’s work on colour was lifted straight from Robert Hooke. In fact, we didn’t really know the extent to which Hooke was plagiarized until a few years ago when, in clearing out a country house, a big box of Robert Hooke’s original handwritten notes was found after, you know, three and a half centuries of being lost. That has cleared it up. He also invented the escapement for a watch or a clock. [He] has long been denigrated for claiming that there was no proof and now at last we have it.
SL. Is [Charles] Darwin accepted as the person that came up with the theory of evolution?
BJF. Yes everybody says so. Darwin has been celebrated all around the world as the man who came up with the theory of evolution. Most great scientists have said that he was one of the greatest thinkers, that this solved a fundamental problem. Well, firstly it didn’t. Survival of the fittest was not anyway Charles Darwin’s expression. Survival of the fittest was thought up by Herbert Spencer after Darwin had published his book. Secondly survival of the fittest does not explain an awful lot of evolution. It certainly doesn’t explain strange peculiar things like the harvestmen spider or the daddy long-legs [spider] with these great long spindly limbs.
Most important of all, the idea of evolution by survival of the fittest was not Darwin’s at all. It was first published in the 1700s by a Frenchman [Pierre Louis] Maupertuis and many other people since him. I’ve counted about nine or ten published [works] that survival of the fittest was the essence of evolution. Indeed Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, wrote an enormous great long doggerel poem about the evolution of life and described the sort of crystal orbs in the seas slowly evolving and emerging onto lands and all that kind of stuff. When Charles was asked about his grandfather’s views he said yes, he’d read the poem, though the poem had no effect at all on advancing his own theories.
More to the point, in 1831 a man called Patrick Matthews, a Scotsman, wrote a book about naval architecture and timbers. In that he had a little section on evolution, in which he spelled out the theory quite clearly of survival of the fittest, of natural selection.
He wrote to Darwin when Darwin’s book came out and said “Why are you publishing all this stuff? I published it decades ago in my book”.
Darwin wrote back and said “Oh yes, quite true, I’ll make sure I mention you in a future edition”.
But for a long time Darwin didn’t. Darwin was really a plagiarist.
In fact a friend of mine, Mike Sutton, published a book called Nullius in Verba, that’s The Royal Society’s motto. It means more or less “There’s nothing in mere words”, you have to have experiments to prove the point. He’s shown quite clearly that time and time and time again people say “No, the theory was not Darwin’s and Darwin deliberately plagiarized the idea from this chap Patrick Matthew”. It’s been said so many times and yet still people keep saying it.
You’ll see the greatest scientists come up and say “Well one of my great heroes was Charles Darwin, because of his earth-breaking theory”. No it wasn’t an earth-breaking theory, it was already current views. There were scientists at the time who said that the idea of survival of the fittest was common currency was being actively discussed by scientists.
Of course, mentioned in the book, is Russell Wallace, who was out exploring in the Southeast Asia, who originally sent his written up theory on survival of the fittest to Darwin and asked Darwin what he thought about it. When Darwin read this completed thesis he thought “Oh gosh! Well, [it’s] time I write my book”.
So Darwin was a late comer on the scene of evolution and was not the great initiator that everybody says. I find it astonishing that in spite of the facts, in spite of the efforts of people like Mike Sutton, in spite of all of this attention, people still keep saying “Darwin is the person who came up with it and the theory explains everything”. Well it doesn’t explain everything and it wasn’t Charles Darwin’s anyway.
In science, if you have good ideas you are going to be plagiarized indeed plagiarism is a compliment because if a person plagiarizes you it means: (a) that they couldn’t think of any good ideas for themselves and (b) they think your ideas are so good that they’re well worth copying. If you’ve never been plagiarized you’ve probably never done any great science.
I’ve been plagiarized all the time. I mean, quite recently for example, I published the idea in 2012 that dinosaurs evolved in an aquatic habitat and one of the experiments that I mentioned were tests in Italy, where the bones of a dinosaur called Spinosaurus had been examined. It turned out, I said, and this is where I announced my conclusion, that Spinosaurus was an aquatic dinosaur and it caused a lot of interest and of course amongst palaeontologists it caused a lot of animosity because they believed that dinosaurs evolved on land and not in an aquatic habitat. So they all descended on me like a ton of bricks in all directions. I was ridiculed for having suggested “Fancy Spinosaurus as an aquatic reptile, what are you talking about? You must be completely mad”.
About three years later the paper in Science “[Semi]aquatic adaptations [in a giant] predatory dinosaur” and there, but couched in scientific language, they had reprised all of my findings. Indeed only yesterday [21/09/2020] I had a little news update on why some tests on some Spinosaurus teeth have just confirmed yet again that it definitely evolves in an aquatic habitat. Yes, that was my original publication. The reason I’m not worried is firstly because it’s all spelt out in my book. If if you’re looking for a book to go and buy “Too Big to Walk” published by HarperCollins, “Too Big to Walk”, my book on dinosaurs, more than 500 pages long and well worth it in page percent’s terms. So I wrote a great big book about it largely because of all of this shenanigans going on and it’s all in print. That’s the joy of scientific publication. Things are in print and precedent is established in print. Often my ideas and my research have been plagiarized and every time it happens, people ring me up and email me and say “Have you seen what they’ve just said?”. I die now out on it for years.
My being plagiarized has done me nothing but good.
SL. So it’s a compliment.
BJF. Yes, it’s a backhanded compliment, but it is complimentary when somebody else thinks your work is so majestic, so important, so dignified, so crucial that they want to pretend it’s theirs.
SL. I think there is also another case, which is the case of [James] Watson and [Francis] Crick. If you mention these two people to the average lay person, they would think that these two people discovered the DNA but actually they were awarded the Nobel Prize for the discoveries concerning the molecular structure of DNA, which is very different.
BJF. Yes, if you mention Crick and Watson to people they will always come out and say “Ah yes, the people who discovered DNA”. No DNA was discovered in Germany in the 1800s. They did not discover DNA. It simply isn’t true. It’s fake news. What they did was to study the molecular structure of DNA. DNA had attracted a lot of interest because of the fact that it lurked in the nucleus and was obviously connected in some way with genetics with the transmission of inheritable characteristics. But nobody could work out what the structure was. It was a complicated spiral structure as we now say “a double helix”.
Now the only way you could examine a molecule in those days was by shooting a beam of X-rays through it. The X-rays would then break up into beams and by analysing the beams you could get an idea of what had caused the beam to split up. It was by then found out by a woman at Oxford called Rosalind Franklin and a chap in London, Maurice Wilkins. They had worked out that this was a double helix. But how did the atoms actually fit on the molecule?
Now Crick and Watson became interested because they said to each other and to their friends whoever works that out will win a Nobel Prize and we want to do it. The work was nothing to do with them. They’d never, never, touched, seen, handled, experimented with, had anything to do with DNA themselves at all. The head of department said to them “Leave it alone, it’s been done by the team in Oxford and in London, they’re working on it, just leave it”. But they didn’t. They used to come in at the weekends and secretly worked together and eventually they got hold of some of the photographs that had been taken by Rosalind Franklin in Oxford.
They realized that by fitting the atoms together in a certain way, you could make the molecule work. Indeed it is said that they went into the pub, The Eagle, in Cambridge, where I often go and have a pint myself, I may say. Francis Crick went in and said “James and I have discovered the secret of life, we are going to be world famous”. There’s a blue plaque on the wall to say this is where the success was announced.
Now the work had not been done by them, the calculating, the working out, the breaking of the puzzle of the formula of DNA had been worked out by them. Now that was a great discovery, don’t get me wrong. It was a very important breakthrough, but they did so little work on it apart from just that. And yet they are internationally famous as the people who invented, who discovered, who first came across DNA. But DNA had been known for more than half a century, when they were doing their work on it. The work that they did was based on the scientific research that other people had done anyway.
It’s often been said that Rosalind Franklin should have been one of the ones who won the Nobel Prize. Well that wasn’t possible because by the time the Nobel Prize was being awarded she was dead and you cannot award a dead person the Nobel Prize for anything. So she never could have won the Nobel Prize. But she was discussed in James Watson’s book on DNA as “Rosie” Franklin. She was never called “Rosie” it was Dr Franklin or Rosalind amongst her very good friends. They tried time and time again to do her down. But, in fact, she is the person who got all the data that allowed you to work out the formula. Crick and Watson put the final pieces in the jigsaw together and they certainly deserve credit for having done that but they were not the discoveries of DNA and they were not the main players in the game.
SL. You recently got involved in plagiarism as a victim, including lack of recognition. In the 80s you rediscovered the power of the Leeuwenhoek microscope. You got a huge amount of publications in both top scientific journals and the press. However it seems that after 40 years The Royal Society forgot about your work, especially while being involved in the production of a recent documentary that is now available on YouTube. I saw your rebuttal, the video you published, which is rather shocking. So can you tell me a little bit what your work was about? Why it was so important and what happened with this documentary?
BJF. Well yes, I can tell you. Leeuwenhoek did his research with little tiny microscopes. Here is one. I mean if you just lay it down and look at it, it really is extremely small. His observations were made with this little tiny lens. But he could magnify up to three or four hundred times and that’s quite big enough to see bacteria.
Leeuwenhoek lived from 1632 to 1723. In 1981 I had the immense good fortune to discover that his original specimens, sent to London over three centuries before, were still hidden amongst his letters in the vaults of The Royal Society. The then president, Sir Andrew Huxley, said “why don’t you go and look at the original letters?” I thought well they would be of mere documentary interest. I can read a little bit of early modern Dutch but not much. I discovered, as I turned the pages that his specimens were still hidden amongst the pages. It was extraordinary and it was widely reported in the journals. It was reported in Nature, New Scientists, Scientific American.
A couple of years later, the Science Museum and the Boerhaave Museum decided they would publish an account as though they’d done it. They produced a museum brochure describing all the work. It was called “Beads of Glass”, not that Leeuwenhoek ever used beads. He always grounded lenses. He’d never used bees of glass. They just described it as theirs. No mention of my discovery in the book at all.
The more recent example you’ve mentioned, yes, it has happened again with The Royal Society. You say The Royal Society hadn’t heard of it. Oh yes, they jollily had. Firstly, The Royal Society had published my original paper on the specimens. Secondly, The Royal Society had published my papers, in which I had shown what Leeuwenhoek saw through his microscopes, which they were now claiming they had done for the first time. Thirdly, I had lectured on it in The Royal Society and actually said, I think in 2004, “This is the view that Leeuwenhoek could see through his early microscopes shown in The Royal Society for the very first time”.
“This, for the first time, this is what he actually saw through a lens like that in the 1600s. These little grazing protozoa, they’re a genus called Stalinischia and you can see how they almost move like fast wood lice or little mice browsing over the surface” [from BJF’s talk at The Royal Society]
Meanwhile, this research and you forgive my laughing at The Royal Society’s ineptitude, but this research had given rise to over 400 publications in all the leading journals of the world: Nature, New Scientists, Cell, dozens and dozens of papers, the British Medical Journal, you name it. But it had also given rise to two standard books, both of which are widely known and respected in science and in the history of the microscope.
So to suddenly come along as they did recently and say “We have just taken photographs through a Leeuwenhoek lens and done this for the very first time” was the height of ineptitude. They themselves had shown that it wasn’t true. I’m totally at a loss to think why, if they’re going to pinch somebody’s ideas, why they’d pinch something that was universally known all around the world and then creep up rather lamely and pretend they’d done it. Interestingly, they issued a press release along with the Max Planck Institute and Cambridge University and the Boerhaave Museum, they all issued almost identical press releases claiming this had been done for the very first time. I am at a loss to know why such prestigious organizations would publicly claim that this was research, which they claimed they’d done, which everybody knew they hadn’t.
Interestingly enough although they sent out press releases to all the magazines and journals nobody would publish it. Well there was… one English journal published on their account and said at the end this is a repeat of what Professor Ford had done nearly 40 years earlier. So it really does make you laugh. It is quite an extraordinary episode.
What is interesting is that shortly before this happened, I’d been to see the president of The Royal Society. Now we were hoping to meet at their Summer Soiree, which didn’t work out and so we arranged to meet and he said to me “Do come to my rooms, I’d love to have a chat”.
When I got there he talked about his work and then we were joined by their librarian. Their librarian came in and he said that they’d been looking at various bits and bobs, they’d been looking at the microscope. Then he mentioned going to Leiden, which is where the Leeuwenhoek microscopes mostly are, the surviving ones.
So the president said to me “Yes, yes, yes, we’re going over to Leiden shortly to see the micro[scope]”.
I said “Well do give them my very best regards”.
The president said “Are you researching in this field now?”
I said “well there are hundreds of papers published. It remains a continued interest”.
So at that time, the president and the librarian Keith Moore had both arranged that Keith was going to go to from The Royal Society to Leiden and take these photographs. They, rather naughtily, you might think, didn’t mention the fact. They mentioned they were going, but there was no hint that they were going to try and reprise my work.
So when the press release was published later and people started phoning me and sending me messages and emails from all over the world and say “What on earth is going on?”, you may imagine how surprised I was. Many people have said to me, well you said this to me as well, “I hope you’re going to complain”. And indeed I am. But, as I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t have spare time. This is not an important matter. It is an unlawful matter. They have no business whatever doing it. But, nonetheless, when I get time I shall write and point out their naughtiness. But until then I’m just happy for the rest of the world of science to be perplexed by the idiocies that even The Royal Society and its distinguished president can publicly claim.
SL. Yeah, that’s amazing. I just wanted to ask you a little bit if you could briefly explain what is this microscope and why it’s so important.
BJF. The Leeuwenhoek microscope is important because it is such a tiny thing. That’s the size of it. The lens in this area here is absolutely minute. A specimen would be placed on a pin and the eye then brought up very close. The way you’d look through it is by holding it to your eye like that. You look at a very distant point of light. I mean, not to be too technical, but the illumination from a microscope has to be from a narrow cone. If you held it by a window or a large light it doesn’t work. You’ve got to have a fairly constricted cone of light.
In fact, in 1981, when my work had been making international headlines, Sir Andrew [Huxley] invited me to go into The Royal Society and to carry out a demonstration in his room. This, believe me, this was just like something in the 1600s. When I arrived, about eight or ten of the greatest microscopists in Europe gathered in the president’s room. I came in with my replica microscope and I demonstrated and gave my little presentation on the specimens.
Then the president said, “May I have a look?”
I said “Of course” and I put a little specimen of cork cells on the pin. So he held it up to his eye standing very close to the window, where of course the light was just too broad for the microscope to work properly.
He said “Oh it’s very indistinct.”
I said “President, you’ll need to constrict the cone. If you’d like to walk away from the window”.
So he walked back away from the window. So of course the cone of light is now getting narrower and narrower as he walks backwards. When he got he got about halfway down the road and I sad “it should work, about there”.
He said, “Oh my goodness! That’s absolutely wonderful”. So everybody else came and had a look.
That was the first time for more than 300 years that anybody had looked at a specimen through a Leeuwenhoek type lens in those situations. I must admit that that sort of social gathering that Sir Andrew had arranged, really, was so reminiscent of something from the 17th century. I remember that day vividly and so do the microscopists who were there too.
SL. This microscope is so simple. It’s something you can carry with you and the kind of resolution you get is comparable with the modern microscopes, right?
BJF. Ah and now you’ve put your finger on the point. Another example here from my column. Now, let me find that page. Here we are. Now if you’d like to look at this page, you will see the point. On the top left is a photograph taken with Robert Hooke’s microscope. That’s the kind of picture that you’d see. It’s very blurry, there is no detail, it’s got aberration, it’s very hard to make out any significant details. Now the picture on the top right shows you the view through a single lens microscope of the kind that Leeuwenhoek used, just one tiny lens. Just look at the detail. This is a picture of one of the legs of this flea. You can see extraordinary detail, each single hair on the leg. Now, when you look on the bottom left, you can see the engraving that Robert Hooke made of the flea and it has all sorts of detail in, which obviously you cannot see through the compound microscope he normally used. If you use a single lens microscope then you saw the detail in the top right. If you look at Robert Hooke’s drawing, that was drawn and engraved in 1663 and published in 1665. Look at the picture next to it, which is a scanning electron microscope (SEM) study of a cat flea made by an FEI SEM. The two of them are very similar.
So you’re right. By using a single lensed simple microscope, you can clearly discern details, which look much the same as a modern SEM and that’s after more than 300 years. If you tried to look through a compound microscope from the 1600s all you see is blur. So Robert Hooke showed in his drawings things that you couldn’t see through his microscope. Obviously that’s because he used a single lens. Interestingly enough, Hooke is a person who designed Leeuwenhoek’s lens. He actually set out how you make a simple microscope.
I discovered these words hidden in the preface to his book, where he actually says that if you take a piece of Venice glass and you draw it out into a little point, then you melt it into a bead, you grind it to make a lens, and then, he says, that the image you get is much better than the image you get with the compound microscope. So from the earliest days of microscopy, it was known that the best way to get a clear image is by using just one lens. Microscopes made with several lenses magnify the problems, the aberrations within each lens, with each lens that magnifies. If you’ve only got one lens, you don’t have that problem. So one lens always gives you a much clearer view than a lot… until the more modern era, when we can, of course, correct our lenses to overcome these problems. But in those days, a single lens was the only thing that allowed you to see fine detail.
Until I did my research, nobody had realized how important a single lens microscope could possibly be.
SL. I would imagine that they sell replicas, right?
BJF. Yes they do. Lots of people make copies. The trouble with the copies is that they’re mostly much too heavy. I have handled original Leeuwenhoek lenses and they weigh just a couple of grams, they’re so tiny and so small and so thin. But many of the modern replicas are much more chunky and bigger. I think people aren’t quite as smart as making things in the modern world as he was back in the 1600s.
SL. That’s something you can place under a camera, basically, with a macro-lens I guess…
BJF. No, no macro-lens. When I took my photograph, I mean, this photograph, for example, this is a photograph…
SL. Oh you took photographs… analog photographs…
BJF. Yeah, well, I took them on film. The Royal Society’s experiments recently were done with digital, but of course digital has farther resolution than film. The way that I took my photographs, I mean, there’s this lovely picture, which I took of my own blood, I made a blood smear and photographed it under Leeuwenhoek’s best lens, which is in Utrecht, at the University of Utrecht Museum. If you look at the top right, you can actually see a white blood cell, you can see the nucleus like a bead on a little necklace, you can see the nucleus inside that cell, the other cells here are red cells, erythrocytes.
Now until I’d taken this picture nobody ever realized you could see such detail through a Leeuwenhoek microscope. That really is extraordinary. A modern microscope will give you a picture that’s only four times better, four times clearer than that. It’s extraordinary what you could see through those single lenses.
SL. So you just updated your book Nonscience, which was originally published in 1971, that’s almost 50 years ago. I really enjoyed the reading this book. So what do you mean by Nonscience? What triggered the idea of writing this book 50 years ago?
BJF. The original Nonscience came about quite by chance. As a young man I had written two books, one was on the weapons of Second World War, which remains one of my preoccupying spare time interests. The other was a textbook on microbiology.
Meanwhile, they had been published, in London, a whole series of books called the bluffers guides. These were books you’d buy, which allowed you to learn the right buzzwords to talk with authority on something like classical art or music or wine. I thought, you know, of a bluffer’s guide on science. That would be such a laugh.
So I dropped a letter to the publisher Peter Wolf (Wolfe Publishing, in London) and I said “How about a bluffer’s guide to science?”
Now, I was quite well known through my broadcast on radio and television and I used to write for magazines like the New Scientist. So at that time I was quite well known.
So he said to me “Do come in and let’s go to have lunch” and we did.
While we chatted, he said to me very, very, very thoughtfully, he said “You know, this is a much bigger book than a bluffer’s guide. What you’re saying about the way people bluff in science is actually very serious. I think you should write a bigger book”.
I said “Well it could, I suppose, be a satire on science.”
He said “Well, what about it?”
I said “But you publish these little paperbacks.”
He said “I know, this would be our first hardback book, but I’d like you to think really seriously about writing a proper solid book on the subject.”
Well, we talked to, I think, four or five o’clock, it was a long lunch. By the end of the lunch, we had agreed an extremely acceptable advanced payment from Wolfe, which I found very useful. I had agreed to write the book. It came out with the work the longest title in publishing history, let me see if I can find a copy. I think we shall kick it out in a moment. There will be a copy here somewhere I expect. I hadn’t actually got copies of all of my books. Ah here we are. [It’s] a little bit battered but then it’ll be all right.
So there’s the original book and the title is just a nonsensical title made up of ridiculously meaningless long words, which I wrote as a joke, I read it as a joke for his office, just to say, you know, this is what happens when you use long words. They all loved it. So it became the title and therefore it became the book with the most obscure and polysyllabic title ever in publishing history.
SL. Are you gonna read it?
BJF. You want me to read it?
SL. If you want…
BJF. Well the title is:
Nonscience and the pseudo-transmogrificationalific egocentrified reorientational proclivities inherently intracoorporated in expertistical cerebrointellectualized redeploymentation with special reference to quasi-notional fashionistic normativity, the indoctrinationalistic methodological modalities and scalar socio-economic promulgationary improvementalizationism predelineated positotaxically toward individualistified mass-acceptance gratificationalistic securipermanentalisationary professionalism, or how to rule the world.
It was a quasi-official report by Brian J Ford. Can you imagine anything so silly as that?
SL. Yeah and uh so in your book you talk about Experts. So what are these Experts? Are these guys modern day sophists? Like the Greek’s sophists, the philosophers…
BJF. No because sophists tried to grasp at some sort of vague idea of truth, although they did keep people at bay with their long term. No, no, Experts are people who’ve ripped on science. Those of us who work in science use our little brains as best as we can to try and nudge new knowledge from an unwilling universe. It’s not an easy task. We do it to benefit society. We do it to illuminate and broadens people’s minds. We do it to advance the frontiers of knowledge.
Experts don’t want you to find out what they’re doing, they don’t want to make anything clear, they couldn’t give us stuff about benefiting the public, all they want is power and influence and reputation. That’s the reason that I had all the long words in the Nonscience title.
But it’s long been said that scientists have to use long words in complicated language to communicate. But I have said, no, in most cases the long words are used to excommunicate. They’re used not just to aid communication among scientists, but they are used to keep the public at bay. There is an awful lot of that in science.
For example, you saw one of my blood photographs with the Leeuwenhoek earlier, I’ve done quite a lot of research on blood and the way in which blood coagulates. So if you go to do research, you’re working with red blood cells, which are erythrocytes from the Greek. You would always talk about them as erythrocytes. But in the lab, when you’re doing research, they’re just red cells. You do a red cell count, you do red cell measurements, you do red cell assays, you stain red cells, you study red cells. What you will call them? Red cells.
But the moment that somebody’s aunt comes into the lab or somebody from the grant committee comes in or you’re talking on the telephone to a journalist, you’d never say red cells you say erythrocytes, because erythrocytes is sort of scientific and keeps people at bay. Indeed it is a principle of Nonscience that you can seem to cure a problem by translating it into Latin instead of doing anything, or Greek.
For example there was a disease some years ago in which ulcers of skin, ulcers of dead skin formed on the surface of salmon. You’d find these wild salmon had this strange disease with ulcers of dead skin dotted across the body. There was a report, I think it was in the Daily Telegraph, you’d have to look it up. There was a report that said “Scientists have at last identified the mystery disease of salmon in which ulcers of dead skin form on their bodies, the disease is ulcerative dermal necrosis”, which simply means a disease where dead skin forms on the surface. So just by translating it, it made it look as though in some strange way you’d cured the problem. There was signs of relief, while everybody said “oh is that what the disease is”. No, no, they hadn’t found out a thing. All they’d done was translate it, so it sounded posh and convincing. That is the secret of being an Expert.
SL. Maybe 50 years ago they had another term, now they call it click bait. Online news now especially titles are written in a way to sort of persuade the readers to click on them so that the publisher can get some money when people click on those annoying ads. A few days ago I did a podcast with one of the authors of the recent Venus paper and we discussed about the business of click bait news. In fact there was one on Sky News that said “Signs of alien life detected on Venus”. The Times wrote “Forget mars scientists find a sign of life on Venus”. So what I want to ask you is what sort of process takes place when scientific findings get distorted by the media? There are so many examples in your book about this way of distorting scientific findings.
BJF. Astronomy is one of those fields, where Experts regularly blind the public with science. They will say “There’s going to be a meteor shower tonight and the sky will be filled with the dazzling display”. No, they won’t. It is a meteor shower on you guys, you may see a shooting star, one tiny quick infinitesimally small little flash across the sky. If you’re lucky, two or three minutes later there may be another one. The picture… and I’ve put examples in my book… the picture of what you see is a lot less exciting than a picture of what people imagine you’re going to see.
It happens all the time when they’re looking for life in outer space. An example in my book was one where a Liverpool professor… I was going to say… this woman in Liverpool should hang her head in shame, but of course she shouldn’t, she actually should get great kudos for being a perfect Expert. She actually said that, I’m not joking, that it is “A racing certainty that there are creatures like octopuses orbiting Jupiter”. Now, I mean, yes of course it’s utter drivel, but it was headlines all around the world.
This later research that you’ve just been talking about is a good example. They found traces of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. Well there’s also phosphine produced through different means in the atmosphere of the giant planets, Saturn and Jupiter. Phosphine is also produced in small amounts by some microbes on Earth and it’s a widely abundant poisonous chemical. There’s nothing mysterious about it. But as soon as they looked at their data, they said “Well first of all this means phosphine”. Now it has to be said that the data they’re looking at, the spectral data, might have indicated phosphine [but] could have been something else. So there may there may be no phosphine there anyway. But as soon as they did they said “Phosphine is produced by microbes and therefore there may be…”. Of course there aren’t any microbes! Venus is twice as hot as the highest setting on your pizza oven. There is nothing of recognizable life likely to be there. It is complete drivel, but this kind of thing works all the time. For example in my book, in the new book, I took a case, which I found quite amazing…
SL. Sorry if they interrupt you. Let me interrupt you a second. When they talk about… the Venus paper… they talk about the upper clouds, so they talk about the clouds, which are at around the 55-65 km, where you have like an acceptable pressure and acceptable temperature. That’s what they are talking about. They’re talking about the cloud levels.
BJF. Yeah, they’ve done that in order to make it look right. Firstly the pressure is irrelevant. People often say “How do creatures live in the sea with all that enormous pressure?”. No, water is incompressible and to a little creature living at the bottom of a 10 mile deep ocean it feels no pressure. People imagine that it must be crushed like a broken bucket or a dented can of beans. No it feels no pressure. Water is incompressible. The pressure question if life had evolved on Venus, then it would have evolved under high pressure, so it wouldn’t need low pressure. This is Venus, dammit, not somewhere else. The idea that microbes would have evolved floating above the Earth, instead of getting down to the ground and walking about enjoying themselves and having a quick… copulating in the bushes, I mean, it’s just utterly bizarre.
It’s possible but then I could perfectly, well, say lots of other things were possible. As an example, I showed that the jelly bean figure in Candy Crush Saga is exactly the same as the germ that causes cholera. The epidemic of cholera in Tahiti broke out shortly after Candy Crush Saga was taken in by relief teams who’d gone in after the earthquake. So yes it is a matter of fact that Candy Crush Saga may well have produced cholera, is perfectly possible.
I’ve also shown that the rate at which autism is increased cannot possibly be related to vaccines because the MMR vaccine, which people say causes autism is not used in Japan and in Japan the rates of autism have been going up exactly the same as they’ve been going up anywhere else. But the rate of autism has gone up exactly the same speed as the installation of satellite dishes on the side of people’s homes to pick up TV programs. I believe this proves conclusively that satellite television dishes are the cause of autism and the figures prove I’m right.
Now there’s just as much sense of what I just said as it is in half this other stuff.
SL. So the other thing… you make fun of black holes. There was a picture of the black hole…
BJF. Oh my god that really made me laugh. They did a great piece of research they managed to link up telescopes from all around the world to point at the same celestial body and get photographs, that’s quite a neat trick. But that’s not the way it turned out. If you look online and you will see the pictures that are available of what they thought black holes are going to look like. All the various magazines publish them. The Daily Mail published this simulation, the NASA published their own view. It’s all terribly exciting.
So they arranged this enormous great press conference. I said in the original launches arranged a press conference and make it sound really posh people will believe what you say. They said almost with a drum roll “We are now going to display this incredible view of a black hole now”. Of course black holes would actually be spherical a black hole wouldn’t look like a black hole this picture does. So then it flashed up and there was just stunned silence around the half-filled auditorium of bored journalists: the most blurry, out-of-focus, pointless photograph ever taken in the history of science. It really is a complete and utter non-starter.
However there was a girl in the audience and she was determined to make this out to be really exciting, yes: young Becky Smethurst. She’s an astrophysicist. So she videoed herself as the news was being released.
This is the strongest for the existence of black holes and it has also consistent the shape of the shadow to the precision of our measurements with Einstein’s predictions. [from the black hole photo press conference]
I took stills from the video. I mean they’re in the public domain, aren’t they. I took stills in the video and put them in the book. You see her in states of orgiastic ecstasy, with a face showing triumph, faces showing amazement, astonishment, joy, happiness, and at the end of it triumph. What she was showing was that this is how you’re supposed to react at such news. If you look past her you could actually glimpse a journalist who’s bored shitless in the background thinking “What on earth is going on?”. When indeed the people stood up to talk about it they got the figures wrong.
We are looking into space… into… towards a galaxy… a giant galaxy 500 billion billion light years away from us… sorry 500 billion billion km away from us. […] It has a diameter of… I forgot the number actually. [Prof. Heino Falcke during the black hole photo press conference]
It was a complete mishmash from beginning to end. But that’s the way to do it, you see. You issue this wonderful looking invitation and you lay on canapé and wine and entertainment and then you just big it all up. It’s been done, done, and done to death.
[Louis] Pasteur did it. When Pasteur did his vaccination experiments, he didn’t just carry them out in the lab. He would inject these experimental animals in the field and he would invite the press along to come and watch it. So it’s very much aimed at what the press would find amusing and interesting and eye-catching.
Young Becky Smethurst has shown if ever you’re going to announce a discovery, would be Experts, you’ve got to make sure that it’s orgiastically exciting. So whilst you’re being filmed, film yourself [otherwse] no one else is going to film it, whilst you’re being filmed about the nature of the discovery, just think of a massive orgasm and then you’ll look all right.
SL. Okay, I want to show you something. Just to Google “The lungs of the world”. This is what you get, when you Google lungs of the world. It shows a forest and then it says the lungs of the planet are on fire. What’s wrong with that, with these lungs of the planet?
BJF. If you’re going to look up “lungs of the world” you will find something like half a million or perhaps not several million sites that use the expression. The Amazon, ladies and gentlemen, cognoscenti, the Amazon is not the lungs of the world and never has been. The Amazon is nobody’s lungs. The Amazon, like all other rainforests, does not bequeath any oxygen to the air. What about that for a revelation? I first said it in this book, in Microbe Power that goes back, oh, 1976 it came out. The atmosphere contains about one-fifth of oxygen and that oxygen came from microbes that lived hundreds of millions of years ago and laid down their remains as fossils. In fact, half the oxygen here around us, like limestone, for example, that’s a super abundant building material all made of fossil microbes and they left the oxygen behind in the air. Now, when trees grow in the sunshine, they produce oxygen. Yes they do. But that’s only part of the story. At night time, when the sun goes down, trees respire, same as you and I do, and they give out carbon dioxide. By the time a tree is fully grown, the average tree contains about a ton of carbon that’s been laid down in its tissues.
But what happens to the tree then? Although, because trees live a long time, we never think of this. Trees die of old age eventually. Then they fall down and they rot away and as they decompose. The microbes that cause the decomposition absorb oxygen and give out carbon dioxide as they break down the tissues of the dead tree. So if you start with a germinating seed and end up with the tiniest speck of the dead tree, when it’s almost all rotted away, no oxygen at all is left in the atmosphere.
If you go to the Amazon rainforest, where I’ve been very many times…
Tropical rainforest is remarkable. They open paths to show people through, but if you’re not careful they’ll grow over again within a day or so. A maturing cocoa bean on a wild tree out in the jungle. I’ve never seen one wild before. Some of the creepers are almost bizarre as they twist and turn and then fall away from the plant on which they originally grew.
You’ll see that there is actually no soil. That’s surprising, isn’t it? You think, well, it’s a rainforest, it must be ankle deep in spongy peat. No, the temperature is so high that all the organic matter that falls down is immediately rotted away within days. You’ll find a few leaves but no actual soil. It’s just sandy clay, if you move the leaves aside with your foot. It’s quite an extraordinary sign.
The Amazon rainforest over its long life doesn’t give any oxygen at all to the air.
It has long been known that if you burnt all the organic combustible material that exists, everything on the surface of the Earth, all the oil, all the petrochemicals, all the coal, everything, it would make hardly any difference. The amount of oxygen in the air would go down by about 100 of where it is. You wouldn’t notice the difference.
So we don’t burn rainforests if we want to keep pristine rainforest full of wildlife, that’s true. But, burning the rainforests is not stopping the production of oxygen and it is not going to use up oxygen we need to breathe.
Now, why are they burning the rainforest of the Amazon? Everybody says what a terrible thing it is. It is a terrible thing. No one’s going to argue with that. But the reason they’re doing it is because they’re copying us.
I lived in Cambridgeshire surrounded by the fens. Three or four hundred years ago the fens were a sort of temperate rainforest. It was yards deep, meters deep, in peat. It was flooded with shallow water. There were swampy plants and trees. The local people, who lived here, used to catch the fish and catch the wildlife and that is how they survived. The whole life of the community was based on living in this swampy paradise.
What happened? Well, the capitalists from London came up, drove everybody out, killed them if they needed, got rid of all the wildlife. We used to have bears, we used to have wolves, we used to have beavers, which they’ve now begun to reintroduce. They killed off all the wildlife, drained all the swamp, and converted it to farmland.
What the Brazilians are doing is wanting to copy our example and get rich the way we did. They say to us “you destroyed your rainforest areas in order to become world famous, in order to become dominant, in order to become wealthy, and in order to become successful. We don’t want to keep on living in a rainforest, even if we’re surrounded by lovely sloths and jaguars. We don’t want to live in a rainforest, we want to live in a nice house with air conditioning and a tele and a car. Why should we stay, like the ancient traditional nation of the noble savage, why should we stay living with bare breasted women and little children running around in the mud? Why should we sit here in our dugout canoes, simply so that tourists can come out and gawp [impolitely stare] at us, whilst you have developed yourselves by spoiling your landscape, eliminating the communities, and decimating the wildlife?”
So they’re not quite as bad as we think they are. In many ways, all they’re doing is following the example that we originally said.
SL. Yeah, but they could learn from our mistakes, they could avoid doing the same mistakes we did.
BJF. Well clearly they need to, in the sense that this is such a valuable resource for tourism not that tourism at the moment scores very highly on anybody’s shopping list, but leaving the forest as it is does give them the possibility of having enormous levels of tourism income.
But I remember the first time that I went into some of the tribal villages up the Amazon, nearly 20 years ago. There they were all in dugout canoes, which is the kind of canoes that we believe you had in the Stone Age. No lots of countries around the tropics still have dugout canoes that they make and use every day. They were paddling about in dugout canoes, the women were all bare-breasted and the children were running around and sometimes put on traditional tribal dress for ceremonies and for tribal dances.
Last time I was there, quite a bit more recently, just a few years ago, the dugout canoes were all rotting in little creeks.
So the traditional dugout canoe lies filling with water and neglected. They’re driving around the little skips without board motors, all the kids had mobile phones, all the villages, and television satellite aerials. The long side, the aerial that brings them every TV channel in the world at the press of a button.
The women were now wearing scruffy looking t-shirts and showing off the sloths to the tourists. Already I’ve seen that lifestyle change from being a real lifestyle to a cameo.
So it isn’t so simple as to say they need to learn the lesson. We destroyed our world in order to become wealthy. They shouldn’t destroy theirs, but at the same time they’re becoming a kind of Disneyfied version of their old life, just to please the tourists and there is no merit in that alternative.
SL. Yeah and talking about environmentalism, in your book you also discussed about plastic. I mean, in the Pacific Ocean there is a massive plastic island, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Micro plastics is a big problem because it enters the food chain. But now everyone is saying “Okay, we should get rid of plastic”, so what’s wrong with that?
BJF. I love the anti-plastics movement. Plastic is a single substance that underpins society. If we hadn’t any plastic, we wouldn’t have any civilization. Our computers, cars, hospitals, factories, chairs, homes, everything relies on plastic. Plastic is a good guy and not a bad one. Plastic is made as a side product of the petrochemicals industry.
What everybody’s talking about now however, and I’ve discussed it in my book, is replacing plastic with paper. So if you go to the supermarket you won’t have those nasty plastic bags. You’ll have nice paper ones. Now, the amount of energy in producing paper and the amount of pollution produced by paper manufacturer is far greater than plastic.
Paper is bad news. Not only that, but paper takes a long, long, time to biodegrade and eventually it does biodegrade thereby adding to the carbon dioxide burden.
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade and we all think “Oh isn’t it terrible? Let’s try and make plastic biodegradable”. Believe me if you discovered a fungus or a bacterium that could degrade plastic it would mean the end of society. Every water pipe, every gas pipe, every piece of electrical insulation would all break down and we will be stuck without any way of continuing our civilized life. Plastic is vital for life. The fact that plastic doesn’t degrade it is greatest benefit, it’s not a problem. When you bury plastic water pipes in the ground, they will stay there for a very, very long time. Make them out of anything else, like iron and within a century or two they’re beginning to leak. Plastic is vital and the fact that it doesn’t biodegrade means that it doesn’t break down and produce slimy waste and it doesn’t pollute the atmosphere with more carbon dioxide.
I’ve explained in my book that you can make buildings and roads with plastic and it’s far better to do that than it is to decimate the landscape and explode our beautiful hills in order to get out lumps of limestone that you then grind up into aggregate and use to make concrete. That despoils the landscape and consumes a lot of energy.
Grinding up waste plastic and using it instead conserves the landscape does away with any pollution and allows you to construct things that otherwise you couldn’t construct so cheaply.
There is only one problem with plastic. It is not the fact that plastic is inherently bad, it is that people throw plastic into the environment. The reason it’s in the ocean is because people put it there. The little granules, the little knurdles of plastic that you find, they have been dangerously and casually spilled by the industry. But most of the danger in plastic is from ropes and nets and they have been thrown there by the people who depend on the ocean for their lives. They have been discarded and rejected there by the fisher folks themselves. The other great damage is of course plastic bags floating around the ocean that cause an incredible problem for creatures. For example those that feed on jellyfish very frequently think the plastic bags are jellyfish and eat those instead. But that’s because some idiot threw it there. We used to, centuries ago, crap in the streets and now we don’t do that, unless it’s very late at night and all the night clubs and pubs are closed. But we learned not to drop our crap in the streets. People need to understand that you do not drop your plastic waste in the streets either because when people stop polluting the plastic problem goes away. It is careless people, who cause the plastic in the ocean, not the plastic itself.
I saw a documentary. This couple were going to live a plastic-free life. Two points. Firstly, the bamboo toothbrush will be chucked out after a year or two and therefore cause pollution. Secondly, the bamboo is not actually pure bamboo. The toothbrush is made into its shape by being moulded out of phenol formaldehyde resins, plastics. That toothbrush is largely plastic anyway. So by throwing it away, they’re damaging the environment, they’re completely buggering up their poor little kids, and they’re totally misunderstanding the point of plastic in society.
Mina’s not keen on clearing away her plastic toys so her mother does it for her... she might need some persuading. Mina let’s clear away that too. […]
It’s really very sad. So they took all the plastic toys from the kiddies and threw them away. The kids were desolate and the mother said that it’ll go.
And the next time you have a bath you can play with the stainless steel bottles or spoons shall we do that?
Poor little kid not only that, but think of the amount of energy involved in making the stainless steel mug and the metal kitchenware. Plastic should never be misused but, believe me, within a hundred years there will be opening landfill sites, digging out all the plastic, washing it, grading it chopping it up into fragments and using it to build highways and thinking what a valuable raw material this is.
If, meanwhile, we can stop people from throwing plastic into the environment, because that’s the only way that it ever ends up in the ocean, the sooner that happens the happier life will be.
SL. The other thing I wanted to discuss is “blue sky science”. You seem to be particularly critical of places like CERN, which requires massive public spending and often doesn't produce any particularly exciting discoveries. At page 140 of your book [Nonscience] you mentioned a paper on the Higgs boson with 5000 authors. So, what's the public view on the Higgs boson? What did they get wrong?
BJF. Peter Higgs is the person, the professor who came up with the idea of the Higgs boson and it's a very simple concept. I know it seems terribly complicated, but it's not, it's really easy. The point is that if you add up the mass of the particles that we know that exist in an atom, the atom weighs too much. It's as though you've got, I don't know, two ounces of this and four ounces of that. You put them together and you've got 12 ounces, when you should actually have six. There is something heavy in a nucleus, in an atom, and we don't know what it is.
In fact a Japanese scientist was the first to write about it and then peter Higgs picked up the Japanese work and he coined the idea of there being a boson, some strange particle inside each atom, which confers the mass upon the atom. Well, that's a great model and it's a perfectly logical idea, but the trouble is nobody could work out what this boson was, nobody had ever seen it or had any evidence of it. Now, that came to the attention of the physicists at CERN, when the Large Hadron Collider was being built. That itself is a separate story.
Ever since the 1930s, people have been building colliders. These are circular vacuum tubes shaped like a ring donut in which you shoot particles against each other, subatomic particles, in the hope they will fuse together and create fusion energy, like a hydrogen bomb now. The first of those colliders was built in the 30s and within months they claimed they had observed fusion. They hadn't, it was a scam. It went on. I remember, it was in my teens, it was ZETA (Zero Energy [Thermonuclear Assembly]). ZETA was going to solve the world's energy problems, it was going to fuse hydrogen like a hydrogen bomb and create unlimited heat energy, with non-polluting masses of amounts of free electricity for everybody forever. It never worked.
I wrote a report. I was the author of a report for the European Commission on the experiments at Culham, where they also had a torus [Joint European Torus] that was going to do the same thing.
Every time they build one of these colliders, it's bigger and bigger and more and more expensive, until you got to the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider, which cost billions to build and costs hundreds of millions and billions to run and employs thousands of people.
Now, by this time, everybody realized that the quest for fusion power seemed to be a dead end so they didn't even say they were going to look at fusion power they just said “It's a collider, we're going to see if we can see smaller particles and create a new version of physics”. They said “We're going to discover a whole raft of new particles”. People discuss what the new particles might be, when they smashed subatomic particles together to get what lay inside. All the evidence they've come up with in that field simply supports the standard model of physics. This revolution in physics has not happened. It has been a complete waste of money.
A couple of years ago they produced some evidence, which could be interpreted to suggest that they might have seen something compatible with the Higgs boson. It only happened once, but it was said “We have discovered the [Higgs boson]”. No, they hadn't discovered the Higgs boson. They had observed evidence that could be interpreted to indicate the presence of a Higgs boson. But it wasn't actually the discovery or the unambiguous demonstration. As a result they published this paper, utterly bizarre, a complete and utter con. What they should have honestly said is “Well, we may have had a hint that the Higgs boson is there”. If the Higgs boson had been discovered, then they'd have repeated it a thousand or a million or a billion times since. Once they discovered that they could demonstrate this boson inside an atom then every time you looked at an atom there would be this little lump of heaviness and people would say “Ah yes, at last you got the Higgs boson”. But it was just these chance random observations that could have been interpreted that way.
Meanwhile other scientists I've spoken to, have said that their teams have been working far cheaper with much smaller equipment and they have also got evidence about the existence or not of the Higgs boson. Some people have said the Higgs boson doesn't exist. I mean it remains a complete area of controversy and that discovery was an enormous confidence trick or, if you want to be polite, a massive exaggeration.
We can't afford things like the LHC just so that thousands of airy fairy theoretical physicists can enjoy themselves and spend their time looking at meaningless data, which they have no real means of understanding and computer models, which they can hardly interpret it. It just is wasteful to indulge people, unless they're on the verge of something big.
Meanwhile, they're going to build a TOKAMAK reactor, which might actually demonstrate fusion and that's been done by a completely different international group anyway.
As far as I can see the entire Higgs boson and the story that came from the Large Hadron Collider is almost a fairy tale and it gets worse. Their director says “We demonstrate our whole raison d'être, our purpose of being, by being the biggest and the best, and therefore we need to build a new one”. So they go they're now planning to build yet another of these circular colliders, miles, like 20 or 30 miles or something in diameter, at a prodigious cost and it will keep them all happy and employ thousands and thousands of these people having a great time looking at their figures and scratching their heads and wondering whatever to do next.
It is farcical and it should be nipped in the back. We need our scientific money for something serious. Not just to indulge fantasists.
SL. But there are some cases in which, I mean there have been collateral discoveries and innovation from these places like CERN. In 1989 they [people working at CERN] invented the HTTP protocol, which is at the basis of internet. So maybe something good came out from this.
BJF. Now that's not really quite fair, it was Tim Berners-Lee who invented the idea of the World Wide Web and the Hypertext Protocol, by which you could send annotated text linked text from one place to another. But he happened to be working at CERN and he thought that it was a rather neat idea. But he could have been working at Woolworths, he could well have been on a till in Tesco's, he could well have been studying genetics in Cambridge, he could have been anywhere it was Tim's inspiration and his idea.
CERN always say “CERN created the World Wide Web”. No, CERN happened to be employing the person who created the World Wide Web, but it was nothing to do with nuclear power, nothing to do with CERN, and nothing to do with Switzerland.
SL. At page 23 of your book [Nonscience] you say:
“Experts […] say: […] ‘I work on space rockets’, hoping you never find out the fact that all they do is sit at spreadsheets all day […]”
So do you think hands-on scientists are more valuable than data scientists?
BJF. No, I don't think that's the lesson. The lesson is that people just big up what they do. I mean, I've known people very well who just sit and work on spreadsheets or who write and try and iron the bugs out of code or indeed who simply transport tubes around and run up cultures. But when somebody says to them at a party “What do you do?”, they say “Oh, I'm in cancer research, you know”. Well, yes, okay they're in cancer research, but they probably have cleaners who are thoroughly professional and do a jolly good job and if they're asked what they do, they're going to say “Oh, I'm a cleaner”. They're not going to say “Oh, I work in cancer research”, you know.
I spoke to the director of one of the big cancer research institutes some years ago and he actually said to me “Our plea for charitable funds is so successful that we have far more money than we know how to spend. At the moment for example” he said, “the latest project we started is a survey of transmissible virus diseases in laboratory animals” and I said, “Well, that's nothing to do with cancer”, and he said “Well, no but laboratory animals have to do with cancer and we haven't anything else to spend the money on, we have to spend our funds, we can't just accumulate the money or we're in trouble, we're supposed to spend our funds on research, but”, he said, “all the research that we can fund is being done”.
The way in which cancer is now treated has improved enormously in recent decades, but the way in which it's cured hasn't changed that much.
SL. The student loan crisis in is a big subject in the USA, a bit less in the UK, where fees are a bit lower. I don't think the university is a good system. I still believe that PhD [programs] have their value, but when it comes to universities, you're just studying things that are already in books and you're essentially buying a degree certificate. So what do you think is wrong with the university? What's your view?
BJF. Well, it not things in books, it's things online. The way that education started was, where you would have a very clever person, who was the only one who could read and write and who had access to books and could teach you things. The reason that school terms ended up the way they are… you have a long summer holiday because the children were needed to work in the peasants farms, in the field, to bring in the harvest. You'd have a long one at Christmas, a fairly long one because, of course, they need to prepare themselves to worship the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. You'd have another one at Easter, which is also to do with the religious celebration of the Crucifixion. So that all came about in the 1600s and 1700s. But we still have it now. Our holidays are still the same, but you don't need to go to school. The wise man that you used to find in school is all over the internet. The greatest women scientists, the greatest male professors, the greatest young geniuses, the most wonderful child prodigies, they're all over YouTube. You don't have to go to school, you don't need to buy any textbooks, it's all online.
School has become a state-funded babysitting service for working parents that teaches kids almost nothing about what they need to know when they are in the greater outside world. They're saturated with things like algebra and Shakespeare when they ought to be learning about how their bodies work, where their pancreas is, how it's nice to be kind to other people and your purpose in being alive, which is to create enjoyment for others. When you go to university it's even worse.
When I used to go to the communist countries back in the 60s, they'd brag about the fact that half their people went to university. When I came back to British universities and told this fact in lectures, people laughed and said “How ridiculous!” What percentage of people is academic? 2%, 5%, 8%? I don't know, but it's not 50%. Now, Tony Blair once said I want 50% of young people to go to university and in 2019 it happened, 50.2% percent of young people went straight to university.
The parents think they go to broaden their minds. They go to be educated. They'll get a degree, which will guarantee them a job. That's all complete tosh [nonsense] from top to bottom. The reason students go to university is because it's the most painless way of leaving home. If you go to Oxford and you get a nice little job in a company, a subject you really like, you're on a fast management stream, you've got a car, you've got overseas holidays, you're earning money, and when you tell your parents this is your plan, they will say “Oh our little one is leaving home, what have we done to hurt you? Why are you walking out on us?”.
Now go to Oxford Brooks University instead, that's nothing to do with Oxford University, but your parents won't know that. So you apply, you get accepted, and you say to your parents not “I'm going on a management training course in Oxford”, but “I'm going to University at Oxford”. Then they're not sad, they throw their little hands up with glee “going to university, first in the family”, they ring gran “Going to university… Oxford… isn't it wonderful?” Do the other thing and gran will never speak to you again. You walked out on your parents, who went to Oxford and had a bedsit [a room in a shared house]. The difference is that in three years’ time you've got money in the bank and a car, you may all be married, and you might have kids on the way. The other poor sucker has spent three years in university getting laid, getting high, getting drunk, playing loud music all night, and is now £60,000 in debt and only owns a rusting bicycle, and doesn't have a job.
There is utterly no point in most people going to university. Most of the jobs that important people in our lives have, have nothing to do with universities: mentors and business people, company directors, designers, web designers, all of these, even estate agents. You don't need a degree to do these jobs. You'd be far better off out in the outside world enjoying yourself, earning money, and creating a career rather than hiding in university. The results in university is really bigger belief.
Of course you've got to be trained to be a doctor or a vet[erinarian] or an architect. That's no problem. But kids just going and doing aimless Mickey Mouse degrees and paying through the noses of privilege and ending up heavily in debt is utterly iniquitous and it doesn't do them any mental benefit at all, except that it's delayed the day when you had to get a job. So by the time you're 21 or 22 you're suddenly faced with the real world.
I'd let people leave school at 15 if they wanted and come back when they felt like it and wanted to learn something more. Older kids, youngsters quite like school because it's good fun, but teenagers hate school, by and large, can't stand it and it's because they're never taught anything relevant.
We need radically to revise our syllabus. For example teachers ban mobile phones in class. No! You should welcome the mobile phone in class and teach little buggers how to use it. That's the whole point of going to school. You start the whole day, you start the school week by listening to what's high in the charts and looking at the bands and the people who made the music and how the music was made. You can start every day by looking at the news websites and checking up on what the Telegraph and the Times and the Mail and the Sun have to say about the news. That's the way to get kids enthused with the world, not seeing them in class and making them learn all this rubbish they have to learn.
No, school is a babysitting service and university is a convenient way of postponing the day when you have to go and get a job. But they are out of date. As it is we have 21st century children being taught by 20th century adults on a syllabus delight from the 19th century and a timetable derived from the 18th century. It is high time school was radically changed.
As for universities, most of them just calm the kids if you give them money and teach them very little of any use at all. Unless you need to go, don't go, get out in the world, get a job, enjoy yourself!
I went to university, I never wanted to, I thought it was a bad idea. But in the summer of 1959 I was persuaded that getting a degree would be a really neat thing to do. So I went to university. It was a very irregular way of going. I was already, at that time, a newspaper columnist and I was playing twice a week in a nightclub, playing rhythm & blues piano. I was earning some money and I was quite well known before I was a student. So I went to university and I found it the most stuntifying [useless] experience. There was no intellectualism. There was no mind broadening. You just had to learn stuff and reproduce it for exams. This is mostly stuff about fungi and bacteria that I learned when I was 15 and 16 anyway. So in my second year I just stopped going and I never graduated. The highest qualification I ever had in orthodox academia would be two A levels: botany and zoology. I sat chemistry three times and failed each time. That's pretty bad really.
But, No! Get out in the world and enjoy yourself. Don't follow my example, please don't try this at home. What I did was completely irresponsible, really badly thought out and should have failed miserably. The fact that it managed to succeed is pure chance I'm sure. But go to university, if you must, otherwise get out into the world, make yourself a career, earn some money, and enjoy life.
SL. Talking about the academic world, it's kind of sarcastic, of course you make jokes about this, but I wanna talk about the business of getting research grants. So how can I get a research grant if I'm within university?
BJF. When you fill in the form of a research grant, you have to more or less list what you're going to discover and when. Penicillin and jet engines would never have happened on that basis. So the thing to do when you're at university or in an institute, you do a few experiments to prove some theory, let's call it the Green Hat Theory.
And you say to your friends “Hey, look what I've done”.
They say “Hey, that's brilliant! What's that the Green Hat Theory?”
“It is totally new.”
“Yes, I am”.
You then send off your grant [application] and you say that you hope to prove this, and you hope you can prove it because you've already done it, but you tell them that you hope to do this and you hope to do that, and you might be able to prove this and say three years’ time if you get a couple of million quid. Dress it all up in hugely long words. Don't write any simple words, it's got to look enormously complicated, a bit like the nonsense words on the title of my book.
Then you'll get your grant.
So as long as it's got keywords in like the fact that it's going to rid the world of plastic, lower sea levels, control global warming, do away with the need for genetic modification, going to feed the starving millions, anything like that, get rid of pollution, that sort of thing, and you are bound to get your grant.
Then you spend your grant by traveling around the world and going to conferences and having a whale of a time. Meanwhile, you write up, at great lengths, the research that you've already done and presented and everybody then puts you in line for the next one. That's how the system works. Grant funding is incredible.
You mentioned earlier the way that The Royal Society, bless their little hearts, had made much fun by pretending they had made the discoveries that I'd made 40 years earlier. It was actually published by a woman called Sietske Fransen from University of Cambridge. She put her name to the paper. By the way, that paper had a reference to a bibliography with 400 of my publications. So they carpeted they didn't know. I mean, it's really wonderful. They had a grant, I think it was a million dollars or, was it, several million dollars, anyway, something like that, to do some trifling piece of documentary research. It was research on the early illustrations of The Royal Society and I would happily have done that for I don't know. What would I have charged them? Perhaps, I don't know, £15-16,000 over a couple of years, something like that. But I know it was a six figure, seven figure grant and, as far as I can see, a complete and utter waste of money with nothing of any scholarship in it. The fundamental basis of it stolen from somebody else anyway.
It really is ridiculous the amount of money available for grants.
In the old days you'd get vaccine enthusiasts. There was a chap called, I think his name was [Maurice] Hilleman, who worked on the M.M.R. vaccine and he developed four or five important vaccines. He was just… he was a vaccine scientist. That was his job. That he was paid for.
When these new vaccines came up in Britain, the government was persuaded to give tens of millions of pounds as seed call grant funding to Imperial College London and to Oxford University to start their work on viruses, massive amounts of money.
You see, we've lost sight of the fact that the government is providing us with all this money for things like fellow, employment, all that kind of stuff, as though, in some way, the government is just releasing money. They often say that the chancellor is going to provide funds. No, he's not he's just applying for another international credit card and running it up to his limit. We as a country currently owe, I think, it's over four trillion pounds to the international governments of the world, to the international banks, four trillion pounds. If you put up the rates of income tax as high as you've ever put them up it would probably take a thousand years for us all to pay it off. I mean, the amount of money that the government is squandering is utterly scandalous and, of course, they keep acting as though we'll spend the money and, you know, the virus, the pandemic will go away. No, it won't. We've got to deal with it, not just hand out money.
The amount of money that's swallowed by academia is terrifying and a large proportion of it let's not be too silly, say 70% or 80% is a complete waste of your money and mine.
SL. What shall I do if I want to become a professor? You talk about this in your book.
BJF. I have the handle “Professor” from the University of Leicester, where some years ago I was involved in developing online learning, internet learning, the kind of thing that the Open University began. That was a very interesting project. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was honoured to be asked to become a visiting professor. I've been very happy with the title. I only hope that I live up to it.
But, in the ordinary way, once somebody has achieved a level of eminence, then they will be called Professor. I must admit I've met a right bunch of scallywags in recent years who are professors. They seem to be turning them out almost by mass production now. It's quite extraordinary. Degrees have gone up and up and up, just as job titles have. People are very happy now to be suddenly called Professor rather than Lecturer, even though their pay hasn't gone up much. Their self-esteem has and that's what they really like to boast about.
It's terribly true that in universities they give out First-Class Honours degrees now, far more than they used to. In fact, it has been calculated that a couple of universities will only be awarding first-class degrees if the rate of increase goes on over the next few years. Now, the way that people are qualified, has been devalued steadily year by year. The amount that people are paid has been going up, hundreds of people in British universities earn more than the Prime Minister does. But it has now become an industrialized scam and my studies of Nonscience suggests that there is good evidence now to start to pull in our horns, get realistic and return to the real world.
You mentioned blue skies research. Well blue skies research doesn't appeal to me. You can easily see blue sky just by looking up. I'm more interested in virgin snow research, where you find snow when nobody has ever trodden before, because that requires hunting around to find it. I have often had people say to me that I seem to love to explore the areas of science where there are unanswered questions, but that's not strictly true. What really interests me are the questions that have never been asked.
SL. Now there is also a big deal about titles. I want to show you something. I'm going to hide the name, so that you don't see the name, but I will show you one thing… now can you see that… so this is a person that has all these titles: FRS, FMedSci, MD, PhD, DSc, MRCP… what's all this thing?
BJF. In the old days the polite thing to do is to put your most senior qualification. So if you're a Doctor of Medicine you would put MD after your name and if you got a PhD you would put PhD after your name. But I remember one of my student friends, bless her heart, decades ago, she put everything on her letterhead. I mean it actually started with her first degree, then her Master's, then her PhD, then everything else that she'd ever had, all the fellowships, all the membership, it was… it was worse than the example you've just shown. She almost had under 13's second place egg and spoon race at junior school, it almost had that in it. It had everything you could think of.
Really that's just people showing off. Anybody who puts all the letters after their name is not a person to trust.
SL. And you spoke about people that change names. So how do you think I should change my name? My name is Samuele Lilliu. Maybe it's already exotic, so I don't need to change it.
BJF. That name of yours is fabulous, that's exactly what you want. You can always adopt a middle name like Grosvenor or Hamilton. Imagine, you know, John Hamilton Jones or Peter Grosvenor Davis you know. That that sounds really spiffy and really good. You need to be careful about your choice of name because the name has got to sound posh. I mean a name like mine, Ford, that's ridiculous.
I had always written as Brian J. Ford. I mentioned that before I was a student, I was a newspaper columnist. So when I went to see the editor of the newspaper and he said “I like the idea of a science column.” This is in 1959, and he said “We'll pay you for the first five that you write even, if we don't publish them. If they're any good, we will publish them and we'll keep paying you there after”. That was, you know, really quite a good deal. I wrote the articles and I signed them B. J. Ford as you would. He rang up and he said “Hello, lad”, he said, “What's your first name?” and I said “Brian”, he said “Right, okay thank you”. The next Friday, when the first article appeared, it said “This is a new series of articles especially written for the Echo by Brian J. Ford”, because he'd added the Brian and left to J. So once that happened I was known as Brian J Ford. No problem. Well, I don't say to people “Hello, my name is Brian J Ford”. It's just what I was stuck with. Now, when I started writing books, I had a problem because two of my early books, one of them came out as written by Brian J. Ford, but the other one came out written by Brian Ford. To this day we get requests from librarians saying “We assume that this is the same person because of course Ford Brian is not indexed in the same place as Ford Brian J., there are other letters in between”. So my one book would be indexed in a separate place to all the others. So I've been stuck with Brian J. Ford ever since. Personally Ford is a rubbish name. That's no good at all. Yours is exotic and romantic and Italian and it's sort of endearing and it's embracing and it's encompassing, it's a lovely name, it's a sexy name. Brian J. Ford, that's a rubbish name, nobody wants a name like that anybody with a name like that will never be a success.
SL. The last thing I wanted to ask you is… you mentioned artificial intelligence in your book and there is the Turing Test… you spoke about the Ford Test, what's the Ford Test? Because now everyone is talking about artificial intelligence…
BJF. There is no such thing as artificial intelligence. When nylon was first discovered they called it artificial silk, when cars came out they called them horseless carriages, when Formica was invented they called it artificial wood.
There is no intelligence, whatever, in artificial intelligence. It is simply digitized automation. That's all it is. It can learn from its experiences, but there's nothing at all strange about that. That is what a digital system can easily be written to do. If it was intelligent, it could help you find your car keys or mend your marriage or choose a good school for your kids. It is not intelligent.
They said how this supercomputer beat the world's champion at playing Go. They also had that computer in Russia that beat the world champion at chess. Of course a computer can do it. The computer has every single bit of knowledge about that game programmed into it by the people who made it, but it's not intelligent. I've done research with algal cells and if you take an algae called Antithamnion, which is the cells growing in chains like the carriages in a railway and you cut one of the cells in half and all the cell content spills out, what happens is that the cells next to it reoccupy the space and rebuilds the cell. They intelligently work out something they'd never had to do at all before. They'd never ever had experience. The alga can't have experienced it before. If that filament of algae had broken in nature because a dinosaur trot on it or a rock fell on it or there was a flood water rush that came down and broke it, the two ends would ping apart and be yards away from each other, I beg your pardon meters, but no! These cells intelligently calculate how to rebuild their broken brother and they recreate the cell themselves. That is intelligence in an alga. These is intelligence.
They talk about robot surgeons. No! Robot surgeons don't exist. These robot surgeons, as they call them, are micro manipulators controlled by computers so they can be more delicate and more carefully controlled by the person who built them. But they're not they are absolutely not intelligent. People keep saying that a computer could do something that no human can do. Well, so can a stapler, so can a hole punch, so can a drawing pin, or a clothes peg. The fact that something could do something no human can do, is no recommendation of it being intelligent at all.
They've been building robots, anthropomorphic robots, you know, automata that look like people since the 1700s and there is nothing mysterious about that. These robots, anthropomorphic robots, robots that look like people, they walk and talk… they're dolls, they're great big dolls, but they are dolls. They're toys. There's nothing serious about them. I saw one on the Jimmy Fallon show, where he was actually saying to the man who'd invented it “this is really alive”. It was a robot he called Sophia.
Sophia is a social robot and she has artificial intelligence software that we've developed. [David Hanson]
I mean she's basically alive? is that what you're saying? [Jimmy Fallon]
Oh, yeah, yeah uh she is basically alive? [David Hanson]
Of course Sophia isn't. She's a toy. That's all she is. Now there is, as you implied, a test for computer intelligence, which was jumped up by Alan Turing, the coding pioneer, the computer pioneer. The test is that if you're on a remote line to a computer and you have a conversation with it and you cannot tell whether it's a computer or a human who's responding then that computer has passed the Turing Test, because it's equivalent to a human brain. That's tosh [nonsense]. I've never heard anything more ridiculous in the whole field of computing. Of course that doesn't mean to say that it's intelligent. The questions you could ask it to prove whether it was intelligent or not whether it was a computer or not are desperately easy what you say is “Hello, how are you?”
The computer will say in this positively manicured voice “Very well thank you, how can I help you today?”
You say “Tell me did you come out of a womb or a cardboard box packed with polystyrene?”
If it says “a womb” then it's probably a person, if it says “a box” it probably isn't.
If you want the Ford Test to prove when a computer is really intelligent, then think back to the experiment I mentioned to you with the Antithamnion, the alga right. So what you do is this. You get three computers and you put them in the middle of your lab and you join them up on a local area network so they're all working perfectly and beautifully. Then on Friday evening, before the lab closes, you get an angle grinder and a saw and a hammer and a crowbar and you smash the middle one up you rip the casing apart, you make sure, like the Antithamnion cell, you make sure that all the ends are spilled out across the floor and then you lock up the lab and you go home. If on the Monday morning when you come back into the lab that middle computer has been completely seamlessly repaired it's as good as new, it's little LEDs flashing away, and it's hard drive whirring contentedly, then you have and at last created a computer that is as intelligent as a single cell of an alga. If on the other hand, when you come back it's just a pile of crap, then you realize it's just a machine and it was not as intelligent as a single-celled alga after all.
SL. Yeah, the Turin Test is way too easy to crack, your test is way harder crack. Okay Brian, thank you very much.
SL. Have a great day.