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.