Did we ever listen to the experts?

Image credit: C-Plan

People in this country, Michael Gove declared in the summer of 2016, have had enough of experts. It was a line that turned out to be extraordinarily prescient, as political events on both sides of the Atlantic came to be defined by miscommunication and a declining trust in whatever was deemed the establishment. Gove’s claim that people had “had enough”, though, implied a former time when academics and technocrats were widely respected and listened to – but has this ever been the case?

A year before the twin upheavals of Brexit and Trump, on a chilly day in the February of 2015, US senator James Inhofe brought a snowball to a climate change debate. About as effective as bringing a knife to a gunfight, one would think, but it certainly made for a memorable image as he brandished his only slightly melted weapon of choice during a surreal and entirely serious speech railing against claims that 2014 had been the warmest year on record. It’s a funny anecdote, until one recalls that Inhofe was chair of the Senate environment committee at the time. The reports of worryingly high temperatures were not merely anecdotal, but rather the carefully researched findings of both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This apparently held little significance for Inhofe, a man who once proclaimed that global warming was “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”, and was nonetheless given a leading role in deciding how the most powerful country in the world would handle this crisis.

Inhofe’s snowball is an especially striking example that appears to be symptomatic of a much deeper, more widespread and longstanding issue concerning the dialogue – or lack thereof – between policy makers and scientists. Anyone suggesting we have only now begun to enter the era of post-truth politics gives far too much credit to the governments of decades past; science has never been the loudest voice in the courts and cabinets of history. Promisingly, though, this means that there are countless untapped opportunities now to improve the effectiveness of policy through proper application of scientific research.

Conservation is one field undergoing drastic modernisation. The traditional approach has been to focus on the species that work best as stuffed toys and bumper stickers, with the vaguely scientific justification that many of them happen to function as so-called umbrella species. Large charismatic animals like tigers or rhinos tend to have large habitats, so by conserving them we indirectly conserve everything that lives around them too – or so the argument goes. This has worked in some cases, but other projects have turned out to be black holes into which money is endlessly hurled and never seen again. More recent ecological research has demonstrated some very tangible financial benefits to correctly targeted conservation, where it is used to preserve what are termed ‘ecosystem services’ – public services provided by nature such as waste disposal, air regulation and pollination that no one currently has to pay for, but are essential to everyone and would be catastrophically expensive to artificially replace. Some believe this to be the future of conservation, while others are sceptical, fearing a world ruled by the callous hand of cost-benefit analysis.

Care must be taken that the validity of the science is preserved through its journey into written law, and how it is then presented to the public. There is a danger that policies may be unduly justified by improperly invoking research or relying on misunderstanding in the general populace. Consider the hijacking of Darwin’s theory of natural selection by certain political thinkers in the late 19th century that gave rise to social Darwinism, a decidedly unscientific attempt to apply ideas of survival of the fittest to human populations in order to promote imperialism, racism and eugenics. This is a paticularly difficult point of contention, as emerging fields such as sociobiology have yielded fascinating insights into human cooperative behaviour from an evolutionary perspective, and could tell us a lot about how societies work and how best they might be governed.  However the misuse of similar ideas in the past makes it very difficult to assess which of these ideas are worth including into the discussion.

Mishandling of science may not be done with malevolent intent, but the consequences can be similarly problematic. Body Mass Index or BMI, now a ubiquitous measure of the healthiness of an individual’s weight, was only meant by its originator to be used for large-scale population studies due to its highly simplistic nature. BMI cannot distinguish between fat and muscle, the latter of which tends to be heavier, and also fails to account for a number of confounding variables such as age, sex and ethnicity.

The complex nature of the relationship between science and policy invites some difficult questions. Is it ever justifiable to lie about the outcome of a study in order to promote a public good? Government approved recommendations for daily calorie intake have been lowered in the past, not because of any new research, but in an attempt to tackle rising obesity levels. They are of course only guidelines, and chosen in a very arbitrary manner to begin with, so perhaps this artificial alteration doesn’t matter if it achieves its worthy goal. Should we then do the same for climate data? If the figures don’t worry our politicians as much as they ought, is there any harm in tweaking them enough to see some results?

Such wilful deception would of course be an unforgivable violation of public trust, and if exposed would irreparably damage the relationship between scientists and policy makers. What this demonstrates, however, is the need for more communication between the people who produce the research and the people who have the power to use it for good on a large scale – with a better understanding of what science can do for all of us, the truth would be enough. The duty lies with all of us, in fact; if people vote for politicians who listen to scientists, perhaps more ears will start to perk up. Then again, perhaps not – I’m no expert.

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