#loveHE: Saved from spin by a life raft found in the science lecture theatre

University education equipped Lawrence McGinty with the tools of his trade - curiosity and the desire to discover, along with the ability to question and analyse

April 22, 2010

I'm sitting in the Guild Gazette's office (just a couple of years before Jon Snow was booted out for helping to occupy Senate House). It is the final year of my zoology degree at the University of Liverpool and I'm one of the few science students at the paper. The editor (later to become a Trades Union Congress spin doctor) is desperate to find someone to review Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I get the job because, well, "You're doing science, aren't you?"

My review is full of student pretension (I seem to remember "ultimate banality"), but I fall in love with this writing thing. First, I get to see the movie before all my friends - bragging rights in the Guild bar. Second, I get in free. And third, I get a byline. Can fame be far behind?

Universities are like that. They don't just teach you academic subjects (with varying success), they put you in an atmosphere, probably for the first time in your life, that breeds curiosity and exploration, just like a greenhouse brings orchids into flower. Sometimes it happens in the lecture theatre or the lab, sometimes in the students' union.

What's this Socialist Society and why is it organising a march on the Pier Head against the Vietnam War? Why should common sponges found clinging to rocks on our seashores have the astonishing ability to reform themselves if you smash them into single cells? Why is Beethoven's Eighth the most stirring musical work of all time?

And they're still doing it for me. Fast forward to the 8. from deepest Kent to Victoria. My BlackBerry is overflowing with emails; just the start of the daily avalanche of more than 100 messages and press releases. The journal Nature tells me that scientists at Stanford University have discovered that Japanese diners, but not Westerners, have a gut flora that evolution has adapted for digesting the seaweed in sushi. Scientists from the universities of York and Hull have found that acupuncture disables areas of the brain that process pain signals. And, lo and behold, the Large Hadron Collider (or as The Daily Telegraph website briefly had it, the Large Hardon Collider) is at last producing collisions at unimaginable energies. Good old Liverpool was deeply involved in building the monster that should find the "God particle".

Every single day, something from some university somewhere makes my brain cells speed up and the questions start to form. A couple of hundred years ago, you could write individually to every scientist in the world. It would probably take you a couple of days. Now I see a glittering panoply of scientific research every morning via a plastic box smaller than a pack of cigarettes - a box that resulted from research done largely in universities.

And when the going gets tough, I go back to the science they drummed into me all those years ago. The Lancet has a paper on autism, gut disease and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination by Andrew Wakefield et al.

It's full of unfamiliar specialist jargon from the world of bowels and colonoscopies. I struggle with the words, but eventually I mentally strip it down to the science. Then the ideas instilled at university come to my rescue - temporal association is no proof of causation. Just because you develop autism after the MMR vaccine, it doesn't mean one causes the other. I'm suspicious of other parts of the paper, too.

I make my mind up - I don't believe the clear implication of the paper that the MMR vaccine causes a new complex of bowel disease and autism. I'm going to be sceptical in my reporting.

Perhaps if more reporters had those scientific ideas in their mind, the MMR scare wouldn't have happened. A later analysis of press coverage of the MMR "scandal" shows that papers that campaigned on the issue turned from their specialist correspondents to general reporters unfamiliar with those ideas. The science I was taught at university is my life raft and my sanity. Without it, everything is just spin.

So, long may these institutions prosper. I wish they were still free, like they were for me. I wish today's students, faced with a desperately tough job market, were less conservative and more bolshie. But without universities, I'd be out of a job and without my daily fix of invigorating science. In fact, without universities I wouldn't have started in this job at all.

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