Politicians Must Not Elevate Mere Opinion over Science

Article excerpt

The story of the past hundred years is one of unparalleled human advances, medically, technologically and intellectually. The foundation for these changes is the scientific method. In every room in your house, there are innovations that in 1912 would have been considered on the cusp of magic. The problem with a hundred years of unabated progress, however, is that its continual nature has made us blase. We expect immediate hot water, zoo channels of television 24 hours a day, and the ability to speak directly to anyone anywhere in the world any time via an orbiting network of spacecraft. Any less is tantamount to penury. Where once the arrival of a television in a street or the availability of international flight would have been greeted with excitement and awe, and the desire to understand how those innovations came into being, it is now expected that every three months you'll be queuing outside the Apple store for a new wafer-thin slab of brushed metal, blithely unaware that watching a movie in the palm of your hand has been made possible only through improbable and hard-won leaps in the understanding of the quantum behaviour of electrons in silicon.

With each new generation, the memory of appallingly high child mortality rates, tuberculosis and vast slums grows fainter and fainter. As the past becomes hazy, we start to believe that there can be no other sort of world. We become nonchalant about vaccines, to the point of seeing them as a lifestyle choice akin to a decision to eat only organically farmed fruit, because we attend fewer and fewer funerals of those who died too young. The technology and advances in knowledge that cosset us have removed, to a large extent, the need to use our ingenuity and to think rationally. Believing complete drivel was once selected against; now it gets you an expert slot on daytime TV.

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Against this rather depressing introductory backdrop, however, there are faint glimmers of hope, because science, rational thinking and evidence-based policymaking are enjoying a revival. Part of the evidence for this statement can be found on the pages of a certain type of newspaper, where the idea that there may be an adjudicator above opinion is treated as an affront to the ideology of the columnist. The adjudicator in question is nature, the universe beyond the Notting Hill basement kitchen, and the wonderful thing about nature is that opinions can be tested against it. The key to science is in this simple statement from the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman, who once remarked: "It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is--if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong."

The assertion is surely uncontroversial, but implementing it can be prohibitively difficult, primarily because it demands that everything be subordinate to evidence. Accepting this is fraught with cultural difficulty, because authority in general rests with grandees, gods, or more usually some inseparable combination of the two. Even in a secular democracy, a fundamental tenet of the system is that politicians are elected to reflect and act upon the opinions of the people, or are at least given temporary authority by the people to act upon their own. Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and "laws" are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.

Let us take the politically controversial issue of climate change as an example. Climate scientists make measurements of observable properties of our planet, such as sea surface temperatures and the area of Arctic sea ice. …