So, I had been planning to write about Paul Drayson, the new UK science minister, and his recent comments about having a “sixth sense”, but it appears that my course mate Tim has beaten me to the punch in saying most of what I was going to. I guess I could use a sixth sense of my own…
Nevertheless, I still have a few comments to make about the propogation of Drayson’s comments through the media. If you haven’t seen the story, here’s the Daily Mail’s offering: “Science Minister has sixth sense“.
What did he actually say? Well, the quote arose from an interview in the Sunday Times, under the headline “Paul Drayson: He’s Buzz Lightyear of the cabinet“. Its a long interview, that ranges on topics from his policies to his private life.
Near, the end, talk turns to his personal belief in God, which leads on to a discussion about intuition. Drayson relays his thoughts on a book on the subject – Blink by Malcom Gladwell – and says “This struck a chord with me because in my life there have been some things that I’ve known and I don’t know why.”
Now, here’s the important bit. It is the interviewer Isabel Oakeshott that uses the phrase “sixth sense”, and she does so “half in jest”. Drayson replies: “Yes, like a sixth sense,” and that he believes “there’s a lot we don’t understand about human capability.”
Arguably, Drayson should choose his words more carefully. If he had spoken directly of “intuition” for example, rather than picking up on Oakeshott’s “sixth sense” phrase, the story probably would never have arisen. If you’re the government’s representative on science, referring to supernatural idea is going to be too hard for your typical journo to resist, and that was the case here. On the same day, the section of the interview was spun out into another article by Oakeshott: “I saw it coming, says minister of sixth sense Lord Drayson“, which is where all these other stories presumably arise from.
These stories include the Telegraph’s “‘I have a sixth sense’ claims science minister Lord Drayson“. The quote in the headline is, of course, incorrect.
Now it has to be said, I don’t think science or scientists are being directly harmed by this reporting. It’s Drayson (and by extension the Labour government) who are made to appear foolish, but on the other hand foreign scientists who read the story might be left with a bad impression of the UK. After all, if we’ve got a guy who can predict the future as UK science minister, what must UK scientists be like? Hopefully Drayson will learn from the incident, and think a bit more about just who he represents!