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Stating the obvious
Friday 20 April 2012 by Jonathan Rayner
Here’s a worthwhile research project: what would you do with £12m? A vineyard in France, with an Aston Martin in the garage? Or would you spend it on a piece of research that concludes, surely to nobody’s surprise, that the law is not the best instrument to settle disputes about religious freedom and equality?
That’s a no-brainer, Mr Rayner, my imaginary audience choruses.
But is it really a no-brainer? Apologists for apparently pointless research claim that even the most speculative projects sometimes produce gold dust. They point to penicillin, the medicinal properties of which were discovered quite by chance. The same serendipity applies to such established scientific theories as relativity and evolution, apparently.
Now don’t hold your breath, but linguists everywhere are hoping that research published in 2007 revealing that rats can’t always tell the difference between Japanese spoken backwards and Dutch spoken backwards might also take its place in the roll call of findings that changed the world.
Scientists are similarly optimistic about 2003 research into pressures generated when penguins have bowel movements, not to mention the 2006 finding that malaria mosquitoes are as attracted to human foot odour as they are to Germany’s famously smelly Limburger cheese.
There are even annual prizes for improbable research projects. These are called the Ig Nobel (‘ignoble’ - geddit?) Prizes and the next awards ceremony is on 20 September this year.
On past Ig Nobel performances, these projects add immeasurably to human knowledge. In 2011, for instance, an international team of European researchers was honoured for a study showing that there was no evidence for contagious yawning in red-footed tortoises.
Two years earlier, a Dr Elena Bodnar won a prize for inventing a brassiere that quickly converts into two protective facemasks. And then there was the 1996 prize-winning structured theory of procrastination and the 1983 discovery that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.
Or maybe you would prefer the Ig Nobel Peace Prize-winning Lithuanian mayor, who demonstrated on video that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars could be easily solved by running them over with an armoured combat vehicle.
But as I’m sure some research somewhere revealed to a startled world, bloggers frequently digress - and I am no exception. Let’s get back to that research about the law and religion.
The press release, headlined Law can't resolve religious disputes, say legal experts, reports that two ‘leading scholars of law and religion’ claim that, according to their research findings, most disputes about religious freedom and equality are best solved out of court. They call for ‘common sense, respect and restraint’ when dealing with such disputes.
One of the leading scholars, Kings College London law professor Maleiha Malik, says freedom of religion does not exempt people from behaving with respect towards those with whom they disagree, ‘including gay people’.
Freedom of expression should not be used as an excuse to insult religious people, the other leading scholar, Newcastle University emeritus professor of political philosophy says.
This research, which many would say states the bleedin’ obvious, was supported by the £12m ‘Religion and Society Programme’, which is funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.
Perhaps the press release was written in a hurry, which is why the research findings sound so facile: don’t behave disrespectfully to gay people, don’t use religion to justify insulting others. But at least programme director Linda Woodhead speaks sense. Equality law and appeals to freedom are being hijacked by the aggressive fringes of religion and secularism to fight their ideological battles, she says.
‘These groups don't represent the majority of religious and non-religious people. Yet a string of recent cases, often pushed by campaign groups, has created a needless sense of polarisation in society. We're descending into a politics of mutual loathing and self-righteous indignation, and issues which could be solved with a bit of common sense and mutual respect are becoming unnecessarily divisive,’ she says.
That quote alone should be enough to disqualify this particular piece of research from the Ig Nobel Prize 2012.
So my money for a prize, particularly in the light of the forthcoming local government elections, is on this month’s research showing that democracies would be better off if citizens chose some of their politicians at random. Apparently, the scientists made a simple calculation model that mimics the way modern parliaments work, including the effects of particular political parties or coalitions…
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