Fordyce Maxwell: 'In spite of their giant brains, scientists are lousy forecasters'

WE RECENTLY met friends and the husband began by saying: "You know what I was thinking about ?" Liz said: "Yes – cricket."

How we laughed. He's a lawyer with other interests, but most of the time you'd never know. Two minutes into any conversation and talk veers to batting averages and England's chances against Australia.

My laugh was also guilty, because of the many times when, if I said "You know what I'm thinking about?" Liz could say, correctly, "the garden."

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I'm no stranger to one-topic minds. No-one who grew up in a farming family or spends time with farmers can be. The same is true of journalists and politicians and, dear me, how boring that is for those lucky enough not to be.

But I know a one-track mind can become a closed mind. That's why I try hard to keep what I loosely refer to as my brain active on several fronts and why I've tried to follow the recent series of Reith lectures by Professor Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, on Radio 4.

True, I listened to the last one while weeding, but that's maximising use of time, not being obsessive about leeks and peas. With George Osborne's budget to come later the same day, it was also good to be reminded that our "major" events hardly compare with a universe that has more stars than the number of pounds in the national debt and that the possibilities of science are equally infinite.

Yet it is easier, said Professor Rees, to understand the cosmos than the biological composition of an insect, because a star is simple atoms. It was also comforting to be reminded, because when grappling with musical terms or French verbs I need reassurance that the most complicated object scientists are aware of is the human brain.

And comforting to hear that in spite of their giant brains, scientists are lousy forecasters. For example, its inventor thought there might be a day when every town had a telephone.

Journalists didn't come out of the lectures well because, as Professor Rees said, we prefer the maverick with a catchy idea – the MMR vaccine debate a classic example – to the solid bulk of scientific opinion.

Science is organised scepticism, he said. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. Today's global village will have village idiots – I don't think he meant only journalists and politicians – but scientific findings must be objective.

That's only a start. Think we're clever and know a lot? Here's a thought – we might not be, shock/horror, the culmination of the evolutionary tree. For those species that come after us in the billions of years ahead, said Professor Rees, the most baffling problems that we struggle with now could be as simple as we find basic arithmetic. Which, in an oddly comforting way, brought me to the end of a row of peas and the worst the budget could do.