The daydream of science in politics

David Collomb.

The news of Trump’s presidency might come as depressing news for some scientists.  The continuous anti-climate change rhetoric from the now-in-charge Republican party has left those who worry about our future feeling uneasy. Those more pacifist, such as myself, fear the talk of rejuvenating the US army will do nothing good for world peace, and instead further the ideology that the US state is better than others.

Following the results of some ballots, such as the European Union (EU) referendum, we have seen the year become the year that the experts were ignored. Did people vote more on their emotions and more on political ideology than the evidence that stands before them? Should science and evidence be pushed to the front so that it forms the backbone of, not only the way policy is decided, but also the basis on which our citizens make political decisions?

Problem with the system?

The problem in part comes down to our political system, ‘democracy’. Our current form of democracy is far from the true description of real democracy, instead, it is a system by which the common people periodically give consent to a group of individuals – becoming their representatives. A true direct democracy (a close example being the Swiss system) is instead the by-passing of this central authority so that the people can directly make decisions which affect them, without having a – likely – ideologically driven group make the choice for them. This is why I write the farce which many western governments describe to us in quotation marks. Of course, this does not mean that a true democracy on its own is perfect, for reasons which I will touch on later.

I won’t go through all of history to describe how I believe the state evolved and its reason d’être, but to explain the reason for the inception of our current system, we can start with Francis Bacon’s studies. In his text “Of Sedition and Troubles”, Bacon describes the vast ways in which sedition occurs and shows what precautions a state need to take to fight against it. An authority cannot buy the common people, instead the authority has to reform to keep them alive. The philosopher Michel Foucault explores this further in his lecture series “Security, Territory, Population”. He identifies that the state, or authorities, must always act upon its population in such a way that collective opinion and behaviour can be modified. Public relations is used to keep the collective consciousness in line with the state/sovereigns own ideals. Through strong public relations systems,  these certain political ideologies are passed down through generations such as the belief in a nation state, religion and so on. The hammering down that we are an ideal democracy, and the example it needs to set to the developing world, leads us to believe that we live in a ‘mighty’ system which has no or little requirement to improve. This is an example of such public relations. Today, politicians and corporations rely on media techniques (a very sophisticated and fascinating field) to install ideas and beliefs to gain our consent to keep control. This means that political influences and self interests can end up being supreme over the overall welfare of the state’s citizens.

Manipulation and ideology in the system

The common person will naturally want to make the best and more rational from their perspective, however it can be difficult to make the best choice for oneself and the wider community when not everyone is educated on the issue. Public relations uses a range of very impressive skills to win consent, for example through framing. Let’s take the case of the EU referendum, it was not that people automatically detest experts telling them what to do, it is a politician’s method of framing. Michael Gove did this well when he dismissed all experts who speak against him by saying the public has ‘had enough of experts’ and painting them in negative light; putting them in a negative frame. He later uses the words of experts who would speak in favour of him and tells the public they are legitimate expertise; building a frame that appeals to the voters. This unfortunately exists in a true democracy too where influential  or resourceful groups may use their influence to sway public opinion. Science and evidence can fall victim to these tactics and ideology by being distorted, manipulated and twisted to further aims by a groups or individuals (especially in our current ‘post-truth’ society). A notable case is the dismissal of Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs when his views, and by extension research, were thought to be against government policy. This provides an example of politicians only accepting “policy based evidence” as opposed to evidence based policy.

The issue is also present in a state’s cameral systems (such as the US senate and house of commons), whose sides are so entrenched in their own ideologies, that they struggle to effectively govern due to their differences. A rather embarrassing example of these issues in the UK comes from tackling climate change. A change in government, and hence a change in ideology has cost the public. Paul Dorfman form UCL’s energy institute described the policy change as based on a short-term ideology as opposed to adopting policy that is evidence based. Are examples like these and criticisms from experts in the fields an indication to start to adopt evidence based policies? The same extends to not only cameral systems but also between other societies (nations or groups) on earth. Fortunately in other cases this behaviour has actually helped society, usually in times where one ‘nation state’, religion or other ideology is in conflict with another. An example includes the cold war. The aspiration for the US to be the global superpower put pressure to win the space race resulting in further scientific research which in turn gives rise to numerous breakthroughs for society be vital like medicine or something accidental like Wi-Fi. Another example being the discoveries during the Islamic golden age due to the interest in newly conquered civilisations.

So is the solution to dismantle the state and rid people of their ideologies? As much as I like to drift into a fantasy about anarcho-communism every so often, I have to admit that it is impossible to have a society free of ideology, but, there is the opportunity to minimise, or even use this.

Evidence based policy in politics

An authority running off evidence based politics could be a good method to remove ideology based politics. Two parties such as Republican and Democrats will no longer debate based off their beliefs; big government versus small government, or conservative values versus liberal values. Instead, these parties will start to think in a more utilitarian-like way where a cost benefit analysis is made based off previous related evidence or research. If policies are working then there will be less of an excuse to debate ideology, and instead, debate which policies will work best based off the information provided. This would allow cameral systems to work more efficiently. Now we have the policymakers sorted out, how would we collect the evidence?

Evidence based policy can use the idea of policy trials, just like trials for new drugs and treatments in medicine. Some policies could be tested on a randomised  control group (of sufficient sample size) in the population. Modifications can be made to find ‘smooth spots’ in policies, or to dump or accept policies as a whole. There are problems that arise however, one simple one is the difficulty in isolating the control group.  In addition, we have to consider any negative effects on this control group coming from any failed policy tests, this can risk destroying the lives of the control group and even their succeeding generations. Another problem with this method arises on ideas/policies which cannot be tested. Others tests may require too large a scale or its effects will only be seen at the extreme long term, such as down a couple of generations, this makes these policies too difficult to test. Finally, once the ethics of the tests are brought up we now need to add in ideology, as ethics depends on the intrinsic value of morals the population has – the ideology they adhere to. So is it actually possible for evidence based policy to be ideology free?

Policy trials are too difficult to fully use, for now, but there is another way we can put more science in politics. It may be in the future that we are able to understand and create more accurate mathematical models of human behaviour, from that we can run simulations and have a much better idea on how certain policies will roll out. We can take this a step further and into a sci-fi fan’s best dream: Artificial Intelligence in governance. Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help us make important decisions is slowly becoming a thing of the present thanks to research by IBM and even Facebook! This AI will one day be able to: provide more accuracy, minimise ethical worries and provide greater experimentation freedom compared to direct trials on a group of citizens. Although it will never be perfect, considering human complexity, it would already be a good step forward and at least provide some assistance to policy making.

An educated political power

Evidence based policy doesn’t even need to be based off trials or even require a fantastical AI to help us make decisions. Policymakers can go simpler. As mentioned earlier, one can use the knowledge from current research and past experiences throughout human history to make decisions. A group of policymakers can still make effective arguments for their policy based off current knowledge and the ability to make scientific conclusions on what might happen if a policy is implemented. One of the best ways to tackle incomplete knowledge on a topic is to constructively debate these ideas so to come to a reasonable decision. To facilitate this we can propose a complete change in the political system, where instead of having different parties, we have an open ‘debate chamber’ between experts from different sides of a policy. To make sure the experts do not slip into ideology, they can be put under public scrutiny by giving the public open access research so they may make their own analysis. This will also reduce the need the need for elections of representatives and instead pave way for a more direct democracy fused with technocracy.

Time to stop dreaming and look at some practicalities. Sadly, governance is not always a happy journey and politicians may face unexpected struggles which will require fast decisions to be made. In these cases one can’t say “let’s do more research”, as there may be no time to do so (warfare, natural disasters, pandemics etc). In these cases it is best to avoid the temptation to search for quick evidence and to avoid drawing on emotions to gather this research, which is difficult to do.

One potential problem with such a technocratic style government unfortunately relates back to human psychology, and the ideas brought up by Bacon and Foucault. We cannot simply have an authority which only bases their policy on whatever evidence points to. Human nature has been described by philosophical and empirical views as being driven by selfishness. Because of this, parts of the population, no matter how educated and accepting of the system they are, will not always agree or feel content. This will cause sedition, which will again require the traditional political game to be played to keep the population’s consent. Furthermore, debates are hard without some ideology. Nonetheless, so long as the ideology is clearly presented, it can be critiqued along with the policies put forward. It is the critical thinking and being as aware of our biases that we will be able to make governance using evidence based policy effective.

Finally, I have forgotten about the source of modern political power, the common man. Through the need to give consent to the authority, the common man finds itself in the most powerful position. How can it break free? Tony Blair once repeated the key word, education. The philosophical school of idealism states one of the objectives of education is to further intellectual development. We can see the advantages of this already, education has been linked to people becoming less  fervent in religion, less nationalistic (both ideologies) and more likely to promote equalities, among just many effects. Education can increase ones knowledge of a topic, allows one to question common beliefs and provides the ways to think logically and critically. This can therefore further eliminate the role of ideology in politics and can bypass the requirement of an authority or even hierarchy by having the informed common man vote directly on the issues which affect them. Of course this only comes with the right education method. An education which involves reading and memorising the same book will not be as effective as an education which promotes the critique of literature and analysis of mathematical data. This is why policies which affect education are vital to a societies development. To find the most effective method of education for this purpose is difficult and would certainly require a whole other article!

Evidence based governance has its attractiveness, it allows us to make much better decisions for the citizens of the state and can even open up the way to having a pure, direct democracy. A combination of policy trials, existing research and critical debate allows people to get the maximum information possible. Its problems on the other hand come when decisions need to be made quickly , and when the imperfections of humans get in the way of making decisions. Although, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort to change and to improve ourselves. Science should certainly make its way into governance, through a combination of better education and information to citizens, as well as open and constructive debate, we can challenge the problems with our current system. Politicians will no longer be able to use the power of media to make their, often, ideologically based policies the ‘norm’. Instead we will be able to question the very basis of their policies so that ideology and evidence can be separated, clearing up for the everyday citizen to make a better decision.

The daydream of science in politics

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