Tuesday 8 February 2011

Forest Grump

I’m not intending to get overly political on here, but something has recently been brought into sharp focus. I have been reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Amongst the articles is one in which he bemoans the increasing occurrence of fake science and the lack of experimental rigor applied in much research. This is how Feynman concludes a lecture on scientific integrity and the increasing prevalence of pseudoscience:

“So I have just one wish for you – the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a special need to maintain your position in the organisation, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.“

The integrity he refers to is the opportunity for the scientist to maintain a scrupulous honesty in his work. The argument goes something like this: decide what you want to investigate, test it using approved experimental procedures, and record accurately the results. Then publish the findings – and here is the bit where the integrity comes in – whether or not they support the initial supposition. It is OK to be wrong – you may be on the way to discovering something new instead!

What struck me today is how different the political process is from the kind of approach used in science. In politics, a problem is identified, reports are commissioned to investigate the matter – let us assume for the moment by independent, trust-worthy researchers – and the findings published. Two further processes then occur that don’t really occur in science; the findings are forced through an ideological sieve – to remove anything unpalatable – and the remainder subject to spin, before conclusions are drawn. So the results, it could be argued, may be subject to more scrutiny, but the difference is that that scrutiny is, in one way or another, biased.

So, what has this got to do with walking? Well, I have been thinking about the above and applying it to the proposed sell-offs of both the Forestry Commission woodlands and our National Nature Reserves to private owners.

Although proposals regarding a sell-off of National Nature Reserves have been ditched for the time being, those relating to the Forestry sell-off are now at the consultation stage and input about their future standing is being sought. MPs have recently voted on the issue of the Forestry sell-off and decided to proceed to consultation with an unmodified version of the proposal; this despite serious concerns voiced by experts and professionals in the field. On top of this there is a huge groundswell of public opinion against these proposals: not scientific in itself, I agree, but indicative of the general public feeling – call it a gut instinct, if you like – that it is the wrong thing to do.

But my big beef with the vote – and I appreciate this applies to many situations, not just this one - is that if you examine the results in detail you can see they are split quite obviously along party political lines. I’m not quite sure how, in the fullness of time, this approach will lead to the outcome that is best for the public, the forests or their wildlife. Whatever the results of the consultation, and however strong the public opposition, can we trust our MPs to put aside their political affiliation, judge the evidence impartially and make the correct judgement? I fear not.

There is a serious worry that private ownership will not provide the best future for those forests and will not necessarily maintain the relatively free public access to these spaces that we currently enjoy. Government officials are trying to assure us that all will be fine and that legislation will protect our woodlands, drawing comparisons with the protection we have for Rights of Way. But legislation can be changed: watered down in future parliaments. Governments often drive through unpopular measures claiming that they have a mandate from the people and it was part of their manifesto when in fact all that existed was a vague reference buried deep somewhere in the document. And, as any walker will know, RoW protection is weak – low down the list of priorities for the police and often subject to lengthy court battles by pressure groups or Councils, both of whom have few resources – either in time or money – to bring the culprits to justice.

It has also been mooted that charitable organisations, trusts and community groups might be able to take on the leases and management of these forests, but where the money for them to do that is to come from is unclear at the moment. Until that is resolved, it seems the idea offers no real prospect.

So I am in full support of the campaign. Whether or not the sell-off is halted entirely, whether it results in a re-draft of the proposal, or whether it will be pushed through unchanged despite all the concerns expressed, only time will tell. But I, for one, am hoping that a degree of common sense prevails and the judgement is made in the best interests of the forests and the public.

Go to www.38degrees.org.uk for more information on this and to support the campaign.

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