Is science becoming a new religion?
Today, I gave this speech at the sceptical QED conference in Manchester.
Throughout history, one of the main arguments against allowing ordinary people to get involved in politics was that they lacked expertise. They didn’t have the necessary expert knowledge to deal with complicated ideas and issues.
So if you look back to the debate about universal male suffrage in the nineteenth century, it was frequently said that, yes, these working men are really cool and important people, good at working with their hands and building cities and all that, but they aren’t cut out for politics. In the words of one Tory, they didn’t have the “expertise and experience” that politics requires.
The same thing was said about women in the early twentieth century. Yes, women are great, they look after our children and keep our homes, and some of them even have jobs, which is fine by us. But they don’t have the expertise for voting or for doing politics. As one author summarises the opposition to female suffrage: women were seen to “lack the expertise in naval, military, commercial, diplomatic and legal matters which is necessary for informed political activity”.
Also, one of the key justifications for having second chambers in politics, like Britain’s House of Lords or America’s Senate, was to allow for expert discussion of commoners’ sometimes fickle political sentiments. These chambers are still held up by some as cool-headed places full of experienced people, who can keep a watchful eye on what less well-informed commoners and their politicians are getting up to.
So the idea that we need more expertise in politics is not actually a new one. It’s been around for a long time, and it has always been on the wrong side of the debate about democracy, in my view. Because it’s an idea which tends to depict ordinary people as not sufficiently enlightened for serious political debate, especially on really complicated matters like war or law and so on.
This outlook survives today, in the widespread belief that we need more expertise and less ideology in politics; more science, less passion; more cool-headed, educated people like David Nutt, and fewer nutters from the mass of the population who think they know everything but don’t actually know very much at all.
The only difference today is that where once it was fat old Tories and stiff American officials who said politics is better done by experts, today it is young rationalists and humanists who say politics needs more expert input and less playing to the public gallery, less populism, less ill-informed passion or wrongheaded ideology.
If anything, today’s call for more expertise in politics is worse than what went before because it is so much more sweeping; it is really serious about elevating experts into almost every sphere of policymaking and giving them a very special position.
What we have today is a situation where evidence and expertise are the main drivers of policy. For many complicated historical reasons, politicians no longer feel they have the moral or electoral authority to make judgements or decisions, and so they outsource their authority to scientists and other researchers. They call upon these people to provide them with authority, to provide them with a good, strong, peer-reviewed justification for taking a certain course of action, often a course of action they had already decided upon but felt too morally denuded to push forward.
When politics and science mix in this way, both of them suffer, I think. We end up with evidence-driven policy and policy-driven science, neither of which is a very good thing.
Politics suffers because it becomes more rigid. It is hard to have a serious democratic debate about a course of action when that course of action is described as the correct, scientific thing to do. Anyone who challenges it is written off as anti-science, a heretic, a denier. Moral debate dies, or at least suffers badly, when authority becomes increasingly scientific and expert-led.
And science suffers because it inevitably becomes polluted, I think. It seems absolutely clear to me that the more politicians call on scientists for evidence and stats, the more science will feel pressured to do the right thing, to provide the kind of info that will allow politicians to do what they want to do. People often complain about corporate-funded science and how that can influence the outcome of science - but what about when Iain Duncan Smith goes looking for evidence for his illiberal family intervention policies or the Home Secretary goes looking for evidence to justify a public smoking ban? Doesn’t that potentially corrupt science, too, especially over the long run?
The worst thing is that politicians’ increasing reliance on science, and some scientists’ willingness to go along with this, shrinks the space for public, mass engagement in policymaking. The more politics becomes an experts’ pursuit, the less room there is for the public’s ideological or passionate or angry or prejudicial views - they are unscientific and to listen to them is to play to populist sentiment, as David Nutt and others say.
But all these things being discussed are not just or even primarily scientific questions. Whether certain drugs should be banned is a moral question. Whether the government should have the right to say how parents should raise their children is a political question. Ordinary men and women fought for centuries for the right to do morality, to do politics, to be the authors of their own and their nation’s destinies. And while they might not be as clever as some of the people in this room, they do have desires and morals and a yearning for autonomy, and, really, that is all you need to do politics well.
The above is an edited version of a speech I gave at the sceptical QED conference in Manchester on 13 April 2013.