Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Science and Policy - Why should they pay attention to us?

Reading the latest CSAP (center for Science and Policy) report on "future Directions for Scientfic Advice in Whitehall" is quite frustrating if you are a geek.

Several behavioural weirdnesses define geeks, and these matter:

  1. geeks tend to read about anything whatever their core training is, whether climate science, social media analytics, psychology, behavioural economics, and XKCD
  2. notwithstanding Steve Hand's memorable pub rant[1], politics appears to be quite a lot simpler than a physics (Natural Sciences) or computer science or engineering degree, really.
  3. they witness many people in political decision making roles who are actually less qualified even in terms of soft (social) sciences (lets not rehearse the PPE pub rant again just yet [2])
So what does this lead to?

  1. incredulity when governments do not act on scientific advice (drugs, immigration, climate).
  2. frustration when governments offer explanations as to why they cannot act on said advice.
  3. strong inclination to walk away from bothering ever again to offer advice/evidence.
Far from this being something scientistcs should apoligise for, given the nature of the public's alienation with current western democratic policies (e.g. economics of austerity), it behoves politicians to rethnk how they react to public advice:

  1. scientists have a methodology (atually lots, but lets stick with Popperian classical Object Knowledge for now).
  2. Theories are falsifiable - the latest theory is "best of breed", that's all its merit is.
  3. We dismiss theories when new ones come along that meet the criteria (better fit, simpler, more elegant -- pick any).
  4. We change our minds
Indeed, there are honourable occasions (e.g. discovering that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, or the italians finding that their neutrinos did not go fast than the speed of light, or the cold fusion fail), when this is very public, but it happens every day on a finer granularity

I think the time has come for scientific method to be applied by politicians. Just as Jeanette Wing argued for computational thinking to be part of everyone's intellectual landscape, scientific method has already been embedded in everyone's subconscious for some time (e.g. since the Age of Enlightenment, aka Age of Reason)

Why not? As Oliver Cromwell said to one government (and remember what happened to them 

Think it possible you may be mistaken.

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