Thursday 29 April 2010

Problems in the prop cupboard

Robin Walsh reflects on the rise and damaging effects of evidence-based policy, following his speech on the subject at the IoI's Battle for Politics conference last month

Despite considerable media excitement about the ‘audacity of Clegg’, the real narrative of this election is the massive disconnect between politicians of all parties and the electorate. Much of the focus of contemporary politics seems to be on bridging this gap. It is attempted either through formal attempts at engagement such as the Leaders’ debates, or through new means of ‘convincing’ the public to acquiesce with politicians’ rule in the form of behavioural ‘nudges’, or reengineering some kind of therapeutic connection with voters.

Another tactic politicians use is to dress up their policies in scientific language, and use scientific evidence as a prop to justify them. Every issue from climate change to education is dominated by politicians informing us that ‘the evidence shows…’, that their policy is the correct one. A particularly blatant example is recent report from Ian Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, which justifies its support for conservative family values by reference to ‘the neuroscience’ of parenting.

However, volcanologists and meteorologists recently discovered, to their cost, despite pretentions to the contrary, that scientific input can easily be trumped by other considerations such as expense or convenience.

Other scientific advisers, such as the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, have likewise found their advice falls on deaf ears when it contradicts governmental imperatives; being bullied into banning mephedrone by political pressure. Indeed, some months before that, committee chairman Professor David Nutt found himself sacked for publicly questioning the government’s prohibitionist policies.

But still, politicians persist in claiming that ‘impartial’ and ‘objective’ advice determines their politics. Indeed, sensing that they’d alienated much of the scientific community, the government recently produced new guidelines to avoid the kinds of conflict that characterised the Nutt affair. The problem however isn’t that evidence-based policy isn’t done properly, or is not objective enough – it’s that it simply can’t work. The objective world of natural science isn’t the same as the subjective world of politics, and confusing them has potentially damaging consequences for both.

So why are politicians still so keen on claiming the support of science for their ends? Scientifying politics by calling on ‘objective’ evidence enables politicians to shy away from the difficult realm of political contestation. Any opposition to their political consensus can be dismissed as ‘irrational’ or ‘unscientific’. Whilst the old division between left and right implicitly validated a difference of opinion and allowed for conflict, evidence-based policy removes this equality of opinion.

To an extent, this reflects reality, as politicians themselves are now reduced to managing society rather than representing conflicting groups within it as they used to; the desire for scientific management merely seems a way of doing this more ‘rationally’. The move to evidence-based policy reveals the inability of the political class to make a principled argument on anything any more. Abortion rights are reduced from a dispute about women’s rights and the moral status of life to a technical discussion about foetal viability; discussion on education is reduced from discussing the best way to raise a new generation to a crude facsimile of developmental psychology or neuroscience; and the idea of self determination, to drink, smoke or take drugs, disappears under a barrage of statistics about their negative health effects.

This also runs the risk of profoundly damaging science; both through its potential perversion to political ends (witness government funding going to those academics who can prove a ‘positive impact’ through their research), and the justified scepticism of the public to scientific research that ‘tells them’ they ‘have to’ adopt a particular lifestyle. Ultimately, this way of doing politics demonstrates total contempt for the electorate; it reveals a class of politicians more comfortable with an unelected clique of advisers providing them with unimpeachably objective prescriptions for governing society, rather than having to interact with the people who actually have to live with those decisions.

We should demand that politicians be honest – to make hard arguments when they have to (if they still can); and stop dragging science down into their crisis of legitimacy. And most importantly, we need to defend the radical equality that democratic politics represents; the idea that ‘the poorest He that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest He’, whether He has a PhD or not.


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