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A ‘second chamber’ of scientific expertise

In the past priests were forever poking their noses into politics to offer ‘moral guidance’. Now scientists do the same.

Robin Walsh

Topics Science & Tech

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One of the less commented-on results of the British General Election a month ago was the tiny vote for a group called the Science Party. It is a shame this hasn’t been analysed in more depth, for while the Science Party utterly failed to make a serious impact on the public consciousness – thankfully in my view – it does embody some worrying trends in contemporary political discourse.

Many small parties did badly in the election. The Green Party won its first-ever seat in parliament, but it failed to make the breakthrough it had hoped for and its share of the vote actually fell. The British National Party failed to win a seat and was wiped out on Barking Council in Essex, previously one of its heartlands. The Science Party secured only 197 votes, yet it attracted support from some important voices because it exemplifies a trend in politics that is steadily gaining ground (amongst political observers if not the voting public).

The Science Party’s candidate, the New Scientist contributor Michael Brooks, stood in the constituency of Bosworth, best known as the site of a battle in the Wars of the Roses. He stood against sitting Conservative MP David Tredinnick. The reason the Science Party chose Bosworth is because of Tredinnick’s support for providing homeopathy on the National Health Service – and because of his personal expenses scandal, where he had claimed for astrological computer software. In short, the Science Party hoped to challenge what it considered to be Tredinnick’s anti-scientific attitudes while also making some mileage out of the fallout from the expenses debacle.

Now, while Tredinnick sounds like a strange politician who certainly wouldn’t get my vote – and it is to be commended that Brooks did at least put himself forward to be judged by the electorate – it is worth examining some of the assumptions behind the Science Party, the support it has managed to garner, and the potentially undemocratic tendencies that it represents.

Brooks is part of a rising school of thought which believes that politicians need an injection of scientific expertise in order to be able to govern effectively. Their thinking is that politics driven by interests, subjective passions and moral outlooks is necessarily problematic and irrational, and therefore we need more Science with a capital S to move political decision-making in the ‘right direction’.

This belief that politics needs more expertise could also be glimpsed in the reaction to another science-related election result: the defeat of Liberal Democrat MP and keen champion of science, Evan Harris. The great and the good of science and scientific journalism leapt forward to eulogise Harris, but not on the basis that he had some decent political standpoints – which he did – but on the far more dubious basis that, being a scientist, he provided some much-needed, cool, expert-driven rationality in the otherwise chaotic House of Commons. As it happens, I was also sorry to see Harris go – but only because he takes political positions that I agree with, such as supporting animal testing and abortion rights, not because his scientific background gives him unique insights into how the country should be governed.

This is not simply a case of scientific activists forcing the so-called ‘evidence-based outlook’ on to politics – on the contrary, politicians themselves are increasingly turning to ‘the evidence’ to support their political propositions. In lieu of any clear moral convictions, and feeling themselves increasingly cut off from the electorate, political leaders invite experts to provide their policies with some form of moral authority. This has increased the impact of experts on democratic decision-making. As former science minister Lord Drayson put it: ‘It is incumbent on ministers to explain why a different decision [to that reached by an advisory committee] has been reached.’ Likewise, Brooks argues that MPs ought to ‘respect the conclusions of scientific advisers’.

Going even further, Brooks laments the fact that ‘MPs don’t have to be rational. It’s not a standard we’ve ever held them to.’ Yet what many of today’s scientific activists overlook is that politics is not supposed to be a measured, evidence-based, expert-driven arena. It’s worth remembering that the point of politics has traditionally been to represent the subjective, conflictual, real-world interests of actual people rather than to govern society in some kind of objective manner. Politicians never had to prove any scientific expertise in order to represent their constituents: Nye Bevan (coal miner) and Winston Churchill (journalist, army officer and aristocrat) both represented the interests of their respective classes in British society without a PhD in climatology or neuroscience between them.

Fundamentally, the argument that we need more science in politics, the idea that politics is not rational enough, is based on a view of the clash of interests and passions as somehow backward. Instead, apparently, we need men who know their stuff – who have studied it at university – to tell our leaders what they should think and do on everything from climate change to drugs to childrearing. It is a new version of having priests involved in the political process, only this time the priests are scientists offering not religious truths but sacred facts as a way of guiding fickle, populist politicians.

If people like David Tredinnick and their ‘irrational’ concerns really are a barrier to rational government, then why do we even need elections at all? Ultimately, the Science Party represents a desire to elevate politics above messy everyday desires and to place it in the realm of cool expertise – and, understandably, that isn’t massively popular with the voters. Those who support the scientification of politics are forgetting that there is much more to politics than ‘the evidence’. I would far rather back a homeopathist who represented my interests on civil liberties and the economy than a scientist who didn’t.

Robin Walsh is a medical editor and has a degree in genetics.

Previously on spiked

After the sacking of David Nutt, Brendan O’Neill called the ‘revolt of the experts’ revolting. Frank Furedi deplored today’s tyranny of expertise, and reviewed a book which showed that governments are bypassing the democratic processby outsourcing their authority. Elsewhere, he explained why politicising science is a bad idea. Or read more at spiked issues Science and technology and British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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