Friday 12 October 2012

Here comes the science

The Geek Manifesto, by Mark Henderson (Bantam Press 2012)

Back around the time of the 2010 general election, I wrote a couple of articles on Culture Wars and elsewhere criticising what seemed a slightly eccentric and minority fad for so called ‘evidence based policy’. 

But this desire to use scientific methods and data to determine government policy has been going from strength to strength. Ben Goldacre (of Bad Science fame) has collaborated on a paper on using randomised controlled trials in assessing policy with the Number 10 Behavioural Insight Team, the unit responsible for implementation of all the hippest trends in government, such has the so called ‘nudge’ agenda. A number of books, such as Alex Rosenberg’s The Athiest’s Guide to Reality and Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape have been unapologetically making the case for a predominant role for science in moral and philosophical thought. Meanwhile, the technocratic governments in Greece and Italy have illustrated the tendency for ‘expert’ knowledge to trump elected politicians in the real world.

Mark Henderson’s latest book, The Geek Manifesto, is one of the most coherent expressions of this viewpoint to have been put forward. It’s certainly caught the zeitgeist, with a well orchestrated campaign to have it sent to every MP in parliament, and a considerable buzz on Twitter around its release. Given my previous antagonism to evidence-based policy, I expected to hate the book, but it was interesting, well-written and nuanced, and I agreed with a large chunk of it; although there were still areas of disagreement that I’ll elaborate on below.

An astute previous reviewer of Henderson’s book recognised its key duality – that it is both a defence of science as an interest group, and as a method of enquiry that should be applied to politics. In the former role, as a partisan defence of science and researchers, the book is a great read, and one I can easily endorse. It starts with a rundown of some of the recent political clashes of recent years that mobilised ‘geeks’, such as the Simon Singh libel trial and the ‘Science is Vital’ protest against government cuts. It makes a strong case for defending science funding, arguing that it plays a vital role in promoting economic growth. In this Henderson is more successful than those who make the much weaker case that higher education should be protected for its economic value, but runs close to making the same mistake of focusing on cost-benefit analysis; if economics becomes the decisive factor in where funding goes, obscure areas can lose out. But he is good on making the point that the open-ended nature of scientific research means that funders in government can’t guarantee themselves a safe return – it is about taking a gamble on where new discoveries might lead us. It is also refreshing to hear someone argue unashamedly that economic growth is a good and necessary thing. He makes good arguments about getting organised to counter anti-research lobby groups such as the Catholic Church, whose well-oiled letter-writing campaigns give them disproportionate clout in government consultations on so called ‘ethical’ issues.

But Henderson himself seems a little wary of this role as simply an advocate for scientific researchers, warning about the risk of becoming ‘just another special interest’. Instead, his broader aim is to reshape the way politics is done, replacing ideological perspectives with ‘rational’ ones gleaned from the scientific method.

He starts off well, criticising the ‘policy-based evidence’ of politicians who like using stats to give an aura of authority to their policies, running through a plethora of incidents where politicians have ignored, wilfully misinterpreted or simply invented ‘evidence’ to back up their particular hobby horses. He’s clear that politicians should have the right to ignore evidence, but thinks they should be clear when and why they do this, and be held to account for faking or abusing evidence. He is good on the abortion debate too, recognising that it is primarily a moral issue, but taking up those on the anti-abortion side such as Nadine Dorries who use distorted scientific claims to back up their position. Indeed, for all their bleating about the ‘New Atheism’, Dorries and her ilk can be as guilty of scientism as their opponents.

There are a whole series of other areas where Henderson sees a much greater role for the scientific method, such as properly constructed trials of policies to judge their efficacy. These are superficially convincing, and if I were a civil servant, I might take note. But this is the point – while there might be much to said for better use of evidence in the technical implementation of policy, the political framework that any particular policy operates in is a social and not a technical question.

For instance, Henderson argies that a greater use of randomised controlled trials in education will give a better idea of which techniques will work than the current tendency to follow fads, which seems fair enough. But he goes on to advocate teaching the scientific method as opposed to traditional scientific content. This is an area of considerable disagreement, given the (admitted by Henderson) awful implementation of this change to the curriculum in British schools, and can’t just be resolved by a few trials; what we want the next generation to know is a question for all of society, not just based on pedagogical success rates. There is also the sense that if I were a teacher, it would be slightly grating to be told that all my problems were down to my lack of evidence base; it is probably more complicated than that!

These tensions are also present in his chapter on the environment. Henderson starts by highlighting the irrational and conspiratorial thinking of many climate sceptics, but then goes on to note the mirror image mentality of many in the green movement, hysterically suspicious of GM crops and nuclear power. He astutely recognises that while the science of climate change ought to be a ‘matter of physics and chemistry’, the entire scientific debate has become so politicised that it has ‘invited those who disagree with the political solutions advanced by the green movement to go after the science as well’.

Henderson recognises that much of the green movement’s hostility to technology is a deeply held ethical and political viewpoint. But his solution is that they undergo a ‘Clause 4 moment’, and just accept the evidence that these technologies aren’t harmful, and sideline those who don’t. This is like demanding that Catholics accept the evidence on fetal viability on abortion – it is deluded, and attempts to collapse a legitimate social and moral schism between ideological opponents into a technical discussion. Henderson is following a trend amongst prominent environmentalists such as Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, both of whom he cites, in trying to spruce up the green movement’s scientific credentials and strip away its more radical aspects, which has been criticised by other deeper greens such as Paul Kingsnorth (who have also been guilty in their time of using the supposed irrefutability of ‘the peer reviewed science’ as a tool to attack opponents).

And for all the claims of objectivity, there is still a political framework that any policy, however much evidence there is to back it up, works within. For instance, in his discussion of drugs policy, Henderson sees politicians ignoring the evidence on harm reduction as simply down to Daily Mail-style moralistic pressure. But even if the evidence were totally overwhelming, there is more to the discussion. Drug policy is a form of social control that enables the state to regulate individual behaviour; politicians are not going to simply give that up because ‘the science’ tells them to. A liberal drugs policy needs to be founded on liberalism, rather than evidence; the former is what is in short supply, not the latter. Conversely, the most effective anti-drugs intervention ever conducted was Chairman Mao’s brutal stamping out of opium addiction after the Chinese revolution. No Western politician thankfully would dream of doing such a thing, despite the evidence of this policy’s success, because of the unspoken moral assumptions they hold to.

But this ability of evidence-based policy to obscure social conflicts, to make political rule seem objective and managerial, and to give ideas-lite politicians some guide as to what to do is precisely what attracts the political class to it. The desire to use science for political ends is nothing new. But while previous schools of thought that used or abused it – whether the Social Darwinists of the 19th century, or the epidemiological turn of the remains of the left since the Black Report in the 1980s – were keen to call on the supposed positive findings of science for a pre-existing political end, evidence-based policy is a desire for the method or process of experiment to tell us what to do. It is a deeply demoralised response to the collapse of the traditional political divisions of left and right.

I’m sure Henderson would reject this characterisation of the call for evidence-based policy. To be fair, he generally caveats what he has to say with a nod to democratic legitimacy, but he occasionally slips, at one point talking of using science to “resolve the great questions of the day”. But more broadly, where the call for ‘science’ in policymaking is legitimate – in deciding between different policy options within an already established political framework – it is technocratic and mundane; elsewhere it rapidly becomes either eccentric or authoritarian, closing down the scope for political action. Any big step worth getting excited about, whether overthrowing an unjust government, a colonial master, or a radical change to society such as establishing a welfare state or extending the suffrage, will always be a leap of faith, which people will take in the absence of a peer-reviewed cost-benefit analysis.

In addition to this misunderstanding of politics, I think there is a misunderstanding of science. The undifferentiated term ‘science’ used by Henderson and others collapses together a whole plethora of different forms of knowledge. Even in the natural sciences there is a considerable variation between ‘hard’ experimental sciences such as particle physics or molecular biology, and softer observational or modelling-based sciences such as ecology. When we enter the realm of human beings, things become even more complex. Their ability to choose things other than the ‘correct’ or predicted course of action is what separates the practice of medicine from its scientific basis, and causes the ‘softness’ of the social sciences that many contemporary science enthusiasts so disparage. But their foray into politics and society will lead them into the same problems, without the circumspection and self-awareness of sociologists and political theorists; Henderson doesn’t even mention the hundred year history of experiments in social management such as Taylorism. Despite this manifesto, evidence-based policy enthusiasts’ demand for hard answers in the realm of politics and society is very likely to go unanswered.

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