Jeff Forshaw on science and politicians

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

A good article in the Observer last week from Jeff Forshaw.  He's a mate of Brian Cox – Oh, and a professor of physics and astronomy at Manchester.  It begins:

In an editorial for the New Statesman, my colleague at the University of Manchester Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince wrote that "politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science." They cited climate change, saying that it has become "controversial for primarily non-scientific reasons", with the result that confidence in the very idea of science is undermined. This echoes the sentiments of David Nutt, the sacked government adviser on drugs, who was presumably letting off some steam when he said of ex-home secretary Jacqui Smith that she, "like most politicians, has the delusion that whatever they think is right.  They lack all humility".

Well, accusations that scientists are arrogant or, according to journalist Simon Jenkins, in the business of making a religion out of science, are not uncommon.  For journalist Brendan O'Neill, the scientific panel of "know it all" experts surrounding government is "little different to the Guardian Council in Iran".  The key criticism appears to concern the issue of democracy and the notion of choice.  In O'Neill's words, people should be "fully free to make a choice, unencumbered by the hectorings of do-gooders".  It is the removal of this choice by a scientific "priesthood" that Jenkins and O'Neill seem to find so repulsive.

It ends ...

Curiosity about how things work leads directly to better understanding and that is not really a matter of opinion.  In other words, scientific experts know better than anyone how nature works and we should be prepared either to develop sufficient expertise to engage in a scientific dialogue or defer to their better understanding.  In a democratic world, there is a temptation to allow everyone to air their ideas and on complicated matters of social policy that may (or may not) be appropriate.  However, the scientific evidence – the data, the models, their predictions and the associated uncertainties – should never be viewed as a mere matter of opinion. There is no suggestion here that scientists should dictate government policy, only that the scientific evidence should serve as valuable input to the political decision-making process and that those making the decisions should make it their business to understand it.

Indeed.  For once, I read the comments at the foot of the piece, and so discovered a Patrick Stokes piece on opinion in The Conversation:

Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.

Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’  Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close.  Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true.  You are not entitled to your opinion.  You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.  The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned.  It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful.  And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Quite so; this is widespread I'm sorry to say.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates


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