Follow the science?

One of the worst political cop outs I have to listen too is “We have to accept the scientific advice”. “We did this because the scientists told us we had to”. Ministers all too readily resort to this line of argument on vexatious matters like genetically modified food, global warming and moral matters superimposed on medical ones.

I have two principal objections to this lazy defence of an action. The first is that there is rarely any such thing as settled science that will not change or cannot be challenged. The Treasury and economic Ministers have never yet claimed they had to put a tax up or hire more staff because the economics is settled and the economists told them they had to do it. Ministers still just about accept they have to listen to the range of economic opinion and come to a judgement. Even here the so called independent Monetary Policy of the Bank was an attempt to move to a system where the experts ruled. The fact that it has been such a disaster, with the most disrupted monetary policy lurching from boom to bust that any of us has experienced, should help prevent more of the same.

The second is that a given scientific theory may be a good one, and may last for many years, but it is still possible to disagree about the policy consequences that it leads to.

Let me illustrate this from a less immediately contentious area of science and politics, where the thoeory has been round long enough for us to have been through cycles of interpretation of the scientific ideas in policy terms. I will examine Darwinism.

We have just been through an establishment love in with Charles Darwin. They obviously liked the quiet meticulous naturalist who did so much to study new and old plants and animals, and loved the romance of the journey to the fabulous Gallapagos. They kept quiet about the social Darwinism, a set of views that developed from his and Spencer’s thoughts that you would expect them to loathe.

Darwin himself set it out in his second book, “The Descent of Man, and Selection in relation to Sex.” Dennis Sewell’s latest book on Darwin “The Political gene”, quotes one of the most worrying passages from Darwin himself, as well as the even more explicit passages from Spencer on which Darwin probably drew:

“With savages, the weak in body and mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick…..Thus the weak members of civilised societies propoagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man…”

Darwin went on to say despite the consequences mankind did need to minister to the sick and disabled. Others read the implications of his theory differently. On the back of this theory of the survival of the fittest it was possible for evil men to erect a theory of eugenics, taken to its most extreme in Hitler’s Germany. As Alan Bullock remarked in his seminal works on Hitler, the basis of Hitler’s beliefs was a crude Darwinism. In Hitler’s Germany the theory of evolution needed buttressing by strong men and governments deciding to kill the weak and disabled, and then to move on to eliminating races they deemed inferior. These evil acts were to them manifestations of the forces of social Darwinism, their version of the survival of the fittest.

In the US and UK the battle to implement eugenics was in a much less extreme form. In these countries the aim of the Eugenics movement was twofold – to put people they thought inadequate into asylums, locked away, and to prevent “inadequates” from having children.
The eugenicists were often influential and well connected people. Beveridge was a member of the Euegnics society at the time of his pioneering social reforms, and John Meynard Keynes was Treasurer of the Cambridge Eugenics society for a time. Beveridge in an early paper had himself said that in return for state unemployment benefits the unemployed should lose the right to vote or to be fathers.

In 1912 a cross party group introduced the “Feeble-minded Persons (Control) Bill” to the Uk Commons. “The object of this Bill is to regularise the lives,and,if possible, to prevent the increasing propagation of half witted people”. The sponsors of the Bill agreed to let it lapse only when the government pledged its own Bill, which passed into law as the Mental deficiency Act of 1913. This remained in force until 1959, establishing institutions for the segregated living of “idiots,imbeciles,the feeble minded and moral defectives”.

I repeat this research of Mr Sewell here to illustrate my themes. You can erect all sorts of policy structures on “settled science” which might now seem shocking or inappropriate. You can find a wide range of sentences ideas and statements even in the most venerated of scientists and economists with which you might heartily disgraee. No one body of scientific thought, and no one person’s science, remains fresh, morally attuned and accurate, up to modern requirements, however great they were in their day. There is no substitute for forming sensible judgements in the knowledge of the range of scientific veiws there are, and in the wisdom that comes from understanding that sceince, like economics, can change and change rapidly as new minds and new problems are brought to bear.

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47 Comments

  1. John C
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    “…from understanding that sceince, like economics, can change and change rapidly as new minds and new problems are brought to bear”

    I found this quote from Max Planck (one of the giants of quantum theory):

    “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    I think we will have to wait a couple of generations to clear out the man-made global warming evangelists (sorry, ‘scientists’) when another decade or two of evidence shows that their computer models are invalid.

  2. Javelin
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    John,

    A lawyer once told me to take the high moral ground. Wouldn't it be wonderful if politicians claim the high moral ground, above doctors, judges and scientists. I believe they should be there. I believe the public need them to be there. History shows they should be there. The system only works well if they go there.

    But what do we have? Sound bites, spin and constant electioneering. Dividing lines and dark menaces. A Parliament that is side lined and neutered, a cabinet where even senior ministers feel powerless and a leadership cabal of unelected cronies who can't take responsiblity.

    This is a bad monarchy not a good democracy.

    • Javelin
      Posted January 4, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Talking of taking the high moral ground …. the guy sitting next to me just tried to apply for a TV licence and noticed that blind people get a "reduced fee" for a TV licence.

      I'm not an expert on science or on being blind – but I do know enough that TV to a blind person is basically radio and there is no TV Fee for the radio. I also know that's its pretty immoral for BBC bosses to be huge salaries when blind people are paying for TV licences.

      I think Cameron should find out how many blind people there are paying TV licences – add up the total, then publically give the BBC board the option of taking it off their salary so they can have it for free.

      That's the science of a reality check.

  3. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I wouldn't describe it as "a political cop out"; it is far more sinister than that. Politicians deliberately exaggerate and use 'science' when it suits them to further their own agendas. Knowing that few people trust what politicians say and that most people are not trained scientists, they use the terms 'science' and 'scientists' as manipulative devices to convince people that their actions are justified. Science, or the search for knowledge, is a never ending process which should not be prostituted by unscrupulous politicians but it is, on a regular basis.

    • Mike Stallard
      Posted January 4, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      And the best example of this is "scientific Socialism" which will "inevitably" usher in the achievement of Communism and the withering away of the State.

  4. Hawkeye
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    "In 1912 a cross party group introduced the “Feeble-minded Persons (Control) Bill” to the Uk Commons."

    Ah… if only they had succeeded, the Labour Party could have been eliminated early on and saved this country much grief.

    More seriously, John's comment that "there is rarely any such thing as settled science that will not change or cannot be challenged" will not be news to anyone who really understands the scientific method. All theories are always up for grabs, but some have passed more rigorous and numerous tests than other and are therefore more reliable, but never "exact" and never "unchallengable". In science, nothing is EVER truly settled. All "Laws of Science" are really just simplified models of observed reality and in that simplification lies the danger – a crucial factor that could be ignored in 99.9% of cases turns out to be vital in 0.1% of cases.

    Science is a method that allows a continuing, improving, self-correcting model of the real world to be developed, but it is only ever an approximation to the real thing.

  5. English Pensioner
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    How many times in recent years have we heard the phrase "The Science is Settled"?
    Until Galileo came along the science was settled that the sun revolved around the earth which was the centre of the universe. Until Einstein proposed his theories, the Aristotlean concept of the immutability of matter had been accepted for more than 2000 years. How can anyone possibly be so arrogant as to say "The science is settled"?
    And as for advice, I was always taught that I should always listen to advice, consider what has been said, but that the decision as to whether I took the advice was mine and mine alone. Certainly if the advice is given by an expert in the field, it is incumbent upon the listener to take it more seriously, but even so that does not constitute an obligation, even if one has paid for the advice.
    In my case, I have just rejected my GP's advice to have the swine flu jab; he suggested it was a good thing at my age; I suggested that the risks were not worth the reward. We didn't row over the issue and he will continue to give me medical treatment and advise if necessary.

    • Citizen Responsible
      Posted January 4, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      “How can anyone possibly be so arrogant as to say-The science is settled”?

      Step forward the Nobel Laureate Al Gore. His reputation, not to mention his fortune, now rests on the “settled science” of global warming and man made climate change. We understand science to be based on facts from which conclusions are drawn. However Climategate has shown some scientists have been driven by an agenda to manipulate the facts.

  6. BillyB
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    There is real science and social science.

  7. BrianSJ
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    An important post on the relationship between science and politics. Post-normal science has some interesting arguments, and the previous relationship was flawed as you point out. Some sort of structuring by policy analysis sounds part of the way ahead. It is an important area, with issues such as the precautionary principle to be addressed.

    For the topic you chose, I had the privilege as a student of hearing John Maynard Smith destroy eugenics purely on scientific grounds. As a very well thought-through alternative to the negative horror of social Darwinism, I strongly recommend 'The Genial Gene' by Joan Roughgarden. She proposes social selection rather than sexual selection, and the implications are very constructive.
    Amazon link is http://tinyurl.com/ykfowp5

  8. alan jutson
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Many excellent comments by your posters.

    Just a few very simple points.

    Yes Science does/can change in time, and certainly it does in the world of Diet, Medication and Treatment.

    Dietry advice given many years ago thought to help keep your body healthy, is now in many cases thought to be wrong.

    It may well prove to be right in years to come, as the chemicals and preservatives which are now contained in many foods, may prove in future, to be harmful, and more natural products may return.

    Treatments for certain ailments, thought to be so called cures, can sometimes lead to long term side effects, that turn out to be worse than the original ailment.

    Science is constantly being tested in certain areas, the one thing that you can be certain of, is a difference of opinion, especially over new scientific claims.

  9. David Eyles
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    What a delight this column so often is.

    The point about science being used by politicians as an excuse for some form of travesty; and then as the scapegoat when it all goes horribly wrong, is well made.

    But it is not just a one-way problem. All too often, scientists themselves resort to hyping their viewpoint in order to make a point or gain funding (which is always so perilously short in this country). The result is politics in the making…….by the scientists themselves. And with that politics comes some very unseemly cat fights between different scientific views of the same phenomenon.

    What is needed is better trained and more honest policians who are prepared to take considered views of a subject and its consequences – and have the courage to make a decision and then stand by that decision. And then if it goes belly up; to admit that it was their decision and resign accordingly.

  10. Philip
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    There is an interesting article here http://healthjournalclub.blogspot.com/2009/11/arm
    on how researchers in Australia tried to devise, using genetic engineering a contraceptive virus for mice and instead created a version of mousepox that was incredibly lethal

  11. Kevin Peat
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    We have a chronic problem in Britain. That of welfarism artificially rewarding delinquency – and, in turn, driving away in droves the creative and the productive.

    I frequently question why I bother getting out of bed at 3am to go to work every morning. Darwinist theories of reward and development should have made it obvious that if you pay a person to do nothing then they will do nothing. That if you pay them to replicate even more useless versions of themselves then that is what they will do.

    The reliance on scientific consensus is not 'laziness' – it is mischief. Where the science runs counter to the prevailing political agenda then rest assured that it is ignored.

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted January 4, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      And the silence on this issue in the upcoming election campaign (or effective silence, we may hear some empty sound bites) speaks volumes about the refusal of most of the political class to seriously tackle this.

      • Mike Stallard
        Posted January 4, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

        I think (and I was on the dole for most of the 90s) people who are on any kind of benefit ought not to be allowed to vote. The reason for this is that we/they are taking other people's money without any risk to them/ourselves. It is all too easy to spend other people's money and I do not see why anyone should have a right to do so. I think I would include my own position as an OAP in this too.

        • alan jutson
          Posted January 5, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          Mike

          OAP's not being able to vote !!!!!!!

          Are you suggesting that they have no say in:

          Being taxed on their income on savings, tax on their income from Pension, money they spend on goods and services in the form of VAT, Council Tax.

          The age limitations on being treated by the NHS, the post code lottery on Drugs, etc etc.

          Now if you said Prisoners should not be able to vote, then I may agree.

          If you said only UK Nationals should be able to vote, I may agree.

  12. Norman
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    If historical science has taught us anything it is that anyone who declares that the science is settled on anything is, by defintion, unfit to pronounce on scientific matters.

  13. Brigham
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    While I was reading this blog, I came to the spot where the words "feeble-minded" appeared. David Cameron came immediately to mind. A war cabinet getting the advice of the other parties is his latest, shoot himself in the foot idea. Perhaps he wants to get fiscal advice from "Brown the Incompetent" or diplomacy advice from Millipede. If the Tories get voted in, and it is looking to be, not a foregone conclusion, because of "Dopey Dave." The British public do not want any input from the devious slimy MP's on the other side of the house. What part of voting them out does he not understand?

  14. MaxVanHorn
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    When contemplating science,politics and a world view,I am reminded of a story I heard about Henry Kissinger.
    Kissinger once asked the Chinese Ambassador whether he thought the French Revolution was a good thing.The Chinese Ambassador replied that he thought it was too early to tell.

  15. Javelin
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    John, my second post !!

    Thanks for reminding us to follow the science, but the reality is people follow the money. And there is a lot of money to be made from natural fluctuations in the climate (sorry I meant Climate Change).

    Here are a few of the top headlines from Google news – when I type in "Climate". The headlines are hysterial and emotional. I have put the reality in brackets.

    * What must be done to save Africa and the Caribbean (Lobby Groups)

    * Govt favours 'energy efficient buildings' to tackle climate change (Oil is running out but have sat on our hands)

    * Scientists warn of rise in diseases spread from animals to humans (But only if globaal warming is true, and global migration causes this anyway).

    * Global pandemics can spread faster (because of global migration)

    * Climate change affecting birds? (It's a question + Pesticides, and garden makeovers do far more damage)

    * Britain could face famine in 20 years (If you listen to the hystrical voices in your head)

    * Brown and Sarkozy's charm offensive secures £7bn for African climate fund (EU is losing influence to China in Africa)

    * Insurance giant warns of rising costs due to climate change (More houses being built in flood plains and insurance companies didn't have the postcode information).

    * Prince Charles warns climate change will drive starvation and terrorism (Keep taking the tablets)

    * Climate change raises malaria risk (If you believe and then project)

    * Climate change gnaws at our growth projections (because we can't really predict whether climate change is real or not)

    * Climate change threatens to starve penguins (Over population aand hunting is a much bigger threat)

    * Frequent fliers could face higher tax says Government climate adviser (we need to find another tax).

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted January 4, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      My own two favourites:

      A Guardian columinst wants to ban grouse shooting because of the heather or bracken (or something I did not take this too seriously) that releases CO2 !

      Some other lunatic wants to ban meat in the NHS because of animal CO2 emissions

      Political agendas and prejudice masquerading as 'save-the-planet'

      • Mike Stallard
        Posted January 4, 2010 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

        I think this can be traced back to the Chairman of the IPCC, Dr. R.K. Pachauri (allegation made)
        He thinks that meat eating ought to be severely curtailed as animals, especially cows, emit CO2.
        Actually, he is a Hindu, so this does not include the hundreds and thousands of Indian cattle…….

  16. John East
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Science, in this case Darwin, pointed out the obvious, that if evolution left to its own devices raised us out of the primordial slime to where we are today, it is no surprise that conscious interference by man on the evolutionary process will effect future evolutionary outcomes.

    What nutters and fruit cakes decide to do with scientific findings is nothing to do with science but, god help us, with politicians.

    Perhaps politicians could limit themselves to controlling the framework in which science is practiced via regulation for impartial research funding, and of the peer review process etc., although I doubt there are many politicians who would like to free science to this extent.

    Science must do nothing to foster politically acceptable theories unsupported by the scientific method because this can only lead to misallocation of resources and society heading down blind alleys. Lysenkoism, eugenics, left wing social theory, passive smoking hysteria etc. appear to have taught us little as we dive in at the deep end of what could prove to be the biggest spender of all time – AGW.

  17. no one
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Certainly the so called "science" which justifies much of the way road safety is organised and driving policed and drivers handled in the legal system is very questionable

    Being a properly trained scientist myself it's easy to see how much nonsense is in the mix and how so much is obviously wrong

    The way the incentives in the system act to keep the road engineering consultancies, the council planning departments, and the dept of transport saying these things need fixing

    The design of road junctions and simplification of signage need lots more attention

    As do the rather questionable way driving licences from countries which barely have a road system or driving test system are able to be used here

    We need to compare ourselves with the best of the rest of the world and radically change our game

    Trendy wine bar fashions amongst the council and government mandarins, their quangos, and the like, gave us council tower blocks to live in which have since been proven to be terrible bad ideas justified on false science, and in the same way now we are criminalizing whole sections of the most law abiding population and failing to improve road safety – there is no question these silly pseudo science ideas will be proven wrong within a decade or two

    Amazes me really, but then the press and political class have so few who studied science in their workforce

  18. A Griffin
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Is the rule of Law any better than one of Science would be? The laws are passed by democratically elected governments and we know how much that reflects the will of the people don't we? We know all about bad laws. We could have an elected government of scientists! The real thing to defend is our freedom of speech and our right to listen to it (without spin or media bias) and then good ideas from all people will be taken up and bad ideas shown for what they are. Darwin married his cousin and his worries about in-breeding may have contributed to his prolonged grief over his favourite daughter's death. He also underwent 'water treatment' for an unknown chronic illness. This consisted of hypothermia induced by sitting in cold water and having cold showers. This seems crazy to us today but I expect most ordinary people of the day thought so as well. The mental subnormality asylums did originally house people who schould never have been there, but for those who were mentally handicapped and unwanted by their family or society, they did, in later years, provide a community where staff cared for them and where they were the same as everyone else. My late father in law was a retired chief male nurse of a mental subnormality hospital. In the 1950's he ruled the whole place and wasn't afraid of telling doctors as well as nurses when they were wrong. His word was law! His overiding concerns for the patients were cleanliness, occupation and dignity of care. The asylum used to function as a complete community with a farm and surgery on site. My father in law could do everything from cleaning a patient up to assisting the surgeon in theatre. The so called 'high grades' contributed by working where they were able. I can remember walking with him in a neighbouring village during his retirement when two elderly ladies, who were pushing a large old fashioned pram with a doll in, greeted him as a long lost friend. They proudly showed him their 'baby' and he carried on as if this was the most natural thing in the world. If only the real world was that kind.

  19. Martin
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Pardon – This government and science? This present lot are busy cutting basic physics research.

    Superstition (a.k.a Religion) continues to get generous tax breaks and free propaganda on the BBC. Also Superstition is allows into schools to indoctrinate children.

    I'd like to see all the waste of money Religious Instruction in state schools replaced with extra Maths, Physics and Chemistry.

    Yes people are entitled to believe in a flat earth and a man with a beard who does miracles but not at the taxpayers expense.

    The Chinese encourage their children to have an interest in Science and Engineering. Our lots get stories about Shepherds and Stars etc.

    Back to the Middle Ages we go!

    • Mark
      Posted January 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Are you another believer in the God Delusion? Dawkins actually supplied the analytical tools to understand religions' role in humans in producing the idea of the meme. Unfortunately, he is so religiously atheist that he fails to appreciate that religions are very successful memes that have survival value (in much the same way as families enhance survival value). Concentrating on wars between religions and on their impact on widespread scientific understanding fails to grapple with why religion is such a constant feature of every civilization in recorded history, and why collapse in religion is associated with societal collapse. You may not believe in a religion, but your genes may not thank you for that.

      Religions as memes tend to adapt to survive. Although there are still Flat-earthers and Creationists, for the most part Christianity is at ease with the ideas of Galileo and Darwin. What is also interesting is the observation of Prof AJ Toynbee (yes, Polly's grandfather) on the process of the demise of civilizations.

      (Summary from Wikipedia)
      He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a "universal state", which stifles political creativity. He states:

      "First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force—against all right and reason—a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation—and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands."

      He argues that, as civilizations decay, they form an "Internal Proletariat" and an "External Proletariat." The internal proletariat is held in subjugation by the dominant minority inside the civilization, and grows bitter; the external proletariat exists outside the civilization in poverty and chaos, and grows envious. He argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism in the body social," whereby:

      * abandon and self-control together replace creativity, and
      * truancy and martyrdom together replace discipleship by the creative minority.

      He argues that in this environment, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, as a Prophet). He argues that those who Transcend during a period of social decay give birth to a new Church with new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form after the old has died.

      Toynbee's use of the word 'church' refers to the collective spiritual bond of a common worship, or the same unity found in some kind of social order.

      Do you recognise any of these features in the society you see around you?

  20. Frugal Dougal
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the quote, John. I have to admit it shocked me – perhaps I had been too ready to believe as an article of faith that Darwin stood above the social Darwinism debate, and to ascribe it to Spencer and his followers alone. A painful but invaluable lesson.

  21. Mark
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    The 20th century saw many experiments in genetic manipulation of populations. Perhaps some of the more extreme occurred in Russia, where the population more than trebled between 1860 and the 1917 revolution (60->163 million), before suffering purges of the intelligentsia, bourgeoisie, Kulaks, Jews and other minorities, and the famines and other mismanagement (including of war itself) that saw the population reduced to around 100 million after the Great Patriotic War (WW II) and the Stalin purges. Yet it still managed to produce Andrei Sakharov – at first the father of the Soviet H bomb, and then the citizen with a moral conscience who won the Nobel Peace Prize. Among his thoughts is this:

    "…intellectual freedom is essential to human society — freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such a trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economics and culture."

    I am sure he would recognise the developments in Britain today, and see the dangers of "bloody dictatorship" ahead. Of course, he might also recognise the exiling of the intelligentsia and the championing of the Heroes of Socialist Labour – although he would be puzzled by the lack of Stakhanovites. At least so far it has not been at the point of a gun.

    • Mark
      Posted January 4, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      1860 population was 50 million, not 60 million – mistype, not arithmetic error.

  22. Matt
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    So good solid science is not to be used in forumlating policies?

    What should we use then? Astrology? Actually as you seem to think there is a relationship between economics and science then possibly you do think that the astrologers have the answers.

    Heaven forbid we should use empirical evidence when there is opinion forumlated from the comments on a blog and twitter!

    • Kevin Peat
      Posted January 5, 2010 at 3:18 am | Permalink

      No one is questionning 'good solid' science here. But my rule of thumb with the Met Office is to ignore their advice and go walking anyway – usually it's a good call and I've avoided wasting many a beautiful day on the say-so of leading meteorological experts armed with empirical evidence and the most powerful computers.

      Admittedly there is some truth in the fact that truly great leaders are able to read the runes. And who can deny the almost mystical abilities of top drawer investors to place bets that no one ever thought could come off – and to do so repeatedly counter to what the analysts say.

      Britain needs a visionary of the calibre of Churchill right now. Science is our servant, not our master.

  23. Pat
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    re Matt- of course we should use good solid science in the formulation of policies.
    And in determining whether the science is in fact good and solid we should look at the data, and look at the calculations- at least to the extent of checking that they have in fact been published so that others can trawl through them, and check whether they do in fact lead to the stated conclusions. When neither has been published it is not science- whatever journal it's published in, whatever the editors anonymous mates are alleged to have said and whatever letters the author has after his name.

  24. Pat
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Further point- its not just the science, which simply means knowledge, its what you choose to do with it.
    Darwin was probably right thus far- that incompetent and weak Hunter gatherers would die without reproducing, leaving only competent hunters and gatherers to inherit the earth. But we aren't hunter/gatherers any more. Darwins theory tells us how hunter gatherers evolved, but fail to tell us which characteristics are best for a modern society, which is far far more interrelated- so we had people making their own guesses, often guided by ignorance and prejudice, plus of course self interest, as to who should and should not be allowed to breed. The truth is that no-one yet knows.
    Similarly with anthropogenic Global Warming- even if you are prepared to take entirely on trust the conclusions of a group of scientists (all of whom are in regular contact with each other, and therefor may not be independent) you also have to accept that this is net a bad thing (there certainly are benefits- a longer growing season will increase food and timber production, especially in higher latitudes and the more so if accompanied by an increase in CO2), the unfreezing of the Arctic would if it happened greatly facilitate trade in that region, we currently get an excess of deaths in cold weather compared with warm weather, Heating would become less necessary and therefor cheaper, etc), Whether these benefits outweigh the claimed disadvantages and by how much is difficult to say- but this area needs close examination also.
    There are economists who accept AGW theory, accept that it's a net dis-benefit, but calculate that its better to adapt as necessary, rather than close down western economies (since on present technology an 80% cut in CO2 equates to an 80% cut in living standards- hopefully new technology will mitigate that, but I want better for my grandchildren).

  25. William Grace
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    “We have to accept the scientific advice”

    “We did this because the scientists told us we had to”

    Right, so we still have Booze, and we still have cigarettes, and POT is still banned.

    What is that about accepting scientific advice?

  26. Ex Liverpool rioter
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    John
    On another matter:- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/6931

    Also the FT is reporting that Brown & Darling are "At odds" over the BOE………..When to end money printing..Sorry, "QE" ?

    Mike

  27. Vincent Shand
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    All of us, to some extent, choose the "science" that we choose to support our world outlook. Questioning and buttressing the argument with a passion drives forward our knowledge. Confronting those ideas with rival arguments shows the weaknesses in our own arguments, causing us to amend our ideas. In modern science, whether medicine, sociology, economics or climatology, much depends on empirical verification and competition between competing ideas. It is a clash that leads to the survival of the best ideas. So often the first bold results become undermined or superceded. Remember Interferon as the cure for cancer? Or that mobile phone usage would fry your brains? Or microwave ovens would cook you from the inside out? Or that rational people could remove the economic business cycle? Or that Scientific Socialism would end human want and the economic problem?

    As in politics, there is danger if the competition is removed or lessoned. Acceptance of tentative speculations as the revealed truth leads to the “debate” becomes dulled and the argument dogma. Those who disagree with the obvious, settled science (or politics) are treated as cranks, or mentally corrupted. This happened with scientific socialism and with eugenic. It is happening with climate change.

    The way to avoid this from happening is to develop clear criteria. Some indicators are
    – Compare and contrast the competing views.
    – Independently verify the empirical results, and put them through a battery of statistical tests.
    – State the assumptions required to make the models operational (as used to be done in economics).
    – When forecasts are derived from a complex process, sense-check the results. A similar process should take place in devising the Government Budget from the bottom up. Does the total fit in with growth assumptions, and the ability of departments to change.
    – Make explicit the limits of our current knowledge.
    – Split out the rhetoric from the scientific argument.
    – Finally, for a new science, try to evaluate the strength of the science against an established science. I attempt to compare climate science with the the health effects of smoking at http://shandonclimate.blog.com/2009/11/07/big-tob

  28. APL
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    On following the science:

    Has anyone noticed that there has been next to no wind over the last two weeks?

    No wind means our proposed national windmill power supply has not produced more than about 10W.

    So at the point of peak demand – it's damn cold out there – the wonderful wind power is supplying nothing nada nil.

    Should we review the proposed investment in eco-wind-millary?

    In the brave new world where the UK is dependent on wind power, anyone up for two weeks or more without electric light, central heating or the power to pump water and gas to your homes?

  29. BillyB
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    APL# – check http://www.xcweather.co.uk/ for the current wind status…. Looks like you are wrong – as of now there is plenty of wind off Wales and Scotland. What we need is good grid connections to these places…. i.e. green investment.

  30. Neil Craig
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I have asked on a substantial number of websites & in letters sent to newspapers & journalists across Britain & the world aski8ng if any of them can identify 2 scientists, not paid by government, who have said we face catastrophic glo9bal warming. Of a number of replies the only name I have been given (by an Independent editor) was Professor Lovelock (a genuine belief but he is a maverick). It has lomg been apparent that large amounts of government money were available (£13.7 million in the CRU leader's case) for those willing to say warming was real. Scepticism, on the other hand, guaranteed one became an unperson. In the circumstances it is unremarkable that the outspoken sceptics are largely retired professors.

    It is a very strange sort of "consensus" which can only produce 1 member not paid to be there.

    It is also clearly dishonest of politicians who have ensured this "consensus" purely by paying for it, to now claim they were only following it.

  31. Philip Walker
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely right, John. We sometimes talk about the fallacy of moving from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. It’s normally used of morality, but it’s equally true of politics: just because the science tells us how the world *is* doesn’t mean it determines how we *ought* to act towards it. It informs our actions, of course, but doesn’t determine them.

    • Citizen Responsible
      Posted January 5, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      I agree. Our policy makers need to look at all aspects- moral, financial, cultural, religious, etc. as well as the science. We elect politicians to do this- not scientists.

  32. james harries
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    So many good comments that I'm surprised noone has mentioned Beethoven yet. Born and baptised at once he was not expected to live. Only one of his other 6 siblings did. Probably syphilitic in the womb, descended from (to say the least) some pretty dodgy genetic material… What doctor wouldn't have signed the abortion consent form?
    And yet… d-d-d-DA!
    (OK he did write the EU national anthem, but you can't have everything, and besides he was deaf by then.)

    And thanks for the recommendation for the Roughgarden book, going on my wish list right away.

  33. TomTom
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    n 1912 a cross party group introduced the “Feeble-minded Persons (Control) Bill” to the Uk Commons. “The object of this Bill is to regularise the lives,and,if possible, to prevent the increasing propagation of half witted people”.

    The Eugenics legislation with forced sterilisation passed by the Nazis as part of the T-4 Program was rescinded in the Soviet Occupation Zone but retained in the US and British Zones.

    As for "Science" – are we talking about that Certainty that the Ptolemaic View gave us or the Uncertainty that Galileo and Copernicus introduced ?

  34. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    Hitler was not a rational social Darwinist. He had some totally baked ideas about the genetic characteristics of arbitarily selected "racial" groups, which he acted upon but never attempted to verify.

    Rigorous research into genetic inheritance would be well worth undertaking but our "liberal" intelligensia would scream like stuck pigs if anyone proposed a programme. Politically correct people say that if the unemployment rate is higher among people of (A particular -ed) ethnicity, there must be discrimination against them. How do they know? Have they undertaken research into the mean and distribution of intelligence (e.g. as measured by IQ or aptitude tests) of the UK's indiginous people and those of people of (the selected ethnicity-ed)? Of course not. So their assertion of evidence of discriminatrion has no scientific basis.

    There is at least one area in which social Darwinism would be welcome and that it the treatment of old age. The great virtue of human beings is their ability to reason. Once dementia sets in, what is the point of life? We need to get the medical profession under control. Once a person is known to be in the grip of dementia, even in its early stages, physical ailments should be left untreated by the NHS except for relief of symptoms. By all means slow down the progress of the dementia if that is possible.

    You don't need to be a Nazi to practice benign neglect.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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