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Are Evidence and Expertise Bad for Politics?

MicroscopeIf you've followed this blog at all, you'll know that my blog fodder typically comes from e-mails I receive directly, or sometimes from other sources when it's a topic I'm particularly interested in. My point is, I don't go out looking for cranks to rebut, because the Internet is so full of those that there's no way to respond to all of them. I usually stick to stories that have some type of personal connection. However, I just came across an article that I couldn't resist replying to.

A few days ago, there was a debate between Brendan O'Neill and Robin Ince. O'Neill posted a version of his speech on his blog in an entry titled Is science becoming a new religion?. Ince wrote his response to the debate on his blog in an entry titled The Fascism of Knowing Stuff.

O'Neill's article was exasperating. It wasn't so much about science becoming a new religion (an attitude I wouldn't agree with, anyway), but about the intersection of science and politics, and why politics is the worse off for it. His main point was that that democracy should be for the common person (which is largely true), but that expertise and evidence should NOT be that important in making policy decision. I'm not exaggerating. Here is one excerpt from his speech.

When politics and science mix in this way, both of them suffer, I think. We end up with evidence-driven policy and policy-driven science, neither of which is a very good thing.

Let that sink in. He literally said that evidence-driven policy is not a good thing.

Here's what he had to say in the very next paragraph.

Politics suffers because it becomes more rigid. It is hard to have a serious democratic debate about a course of action when that course of action is described as the correct, scientific thing to do. Anyone who challenges it is written off as anti-science, a heretic, a denier. Moral debate dies, or at least suffers badly, when authority becomes increasingly scientific and expert-led.

I'm sorry if reality is too stifling for you, but that is the world we live in. And now matter how much some people might like for this to be true, public debate will not change the nature of reality. For example, no matter how much denialists would like to ignore global climate change, it really is happening and we and future generations are going to have to live with the consequences. There are things we can do now to mitigate those consequences, and this is where the political debate should be, not doubting the science. And of course, science should be used to inform the debate on what to do about climate change, since that is how we can best determine the effects of our actions.

Here's another excerpt criticizing the involvement of experts in politics.

The more politics becomes an experts' pursuit, the less room there is for the public's ideological or passionate or angry or prejudicial views - they are unscientific and to listen to them is to play to populist sentiment, as David Nutt and others say.

And here's one final excerpt. This was one of the first in the article that really caught my eye, but if I'd made it the first in this post, it might have seemed that I was criticizing O'Neall out of context. But with the other quotes I've included above as a reference, there should be no problem believing that O'Neall wrote this as a complaint (although, unfortunately, not true enough).

What we have today is a situation where evidence and expertise are the main drivers of policy.

To be fair, O'Neill did make a few fair points about science becoming corrupted by politics, and politicians cherry-picking data to support their positions, but his overall message could almost have come from an Onion article. I just don't understand this type of anti-intellectualism, nor wanting to free public policy from that pesky evidence.

h/t: Pharyngula

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