Politicians’ ignorance of science is disgraceful and dangerousby Mark Henderson / June 20, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
David King, former chief scientific adviser. Dorries and Tredinnick: a “hazy” grasp of the principles of science
On the evening of 14th October 2009, David Tredinnick, the Conservative MP for Bosworth, got to his feet in the House of Commons to warn ministers of a serious threat to public health. “At certain phases of the moon there are more accidents,” he gravely informed the House. “Surgeons will not operate because blood clotting is not effective, and the police have to put more people on the streets.” He stopped just short of mentioning werewolves.
So convinced is Tredinnick of the political significance of the movements of the heavens that he charged the taxpayer £755.33 for astrology software and consultancy services (which he later repaid when his expense claim became public). He is also an assiduous promoter of just about every alternative medicine on the market, and recently asked the health secretary to congratulate homeopathic chemists on their contribution to containing swine flu.
Tredinnick’s devoted commitment to the lunatic fringe of science has stirred little embarrassment among his colleagues on the Conservative benches. In fact, they have rewarded him for it: in the summer of 2010, they elected him to a position on the Health Select Committee. They also chose Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for mid-Bedfordshire, who has promoted an urban myth about a 21-week foetus grasping a surgeon’s finger to support her demand for restricting abortion. The story has been repeatedly denied by the surgeon.
The scrutiny of a government department that relies on science had been placed partly in the hands of two MPs whose grasp of its principles can at best be described as hazy. Such enthusiasm for bad science is thankfully rare in the Commons. But that they have been able to win safe seats and build successful parliamentary careers in spite of it illustrates a disconnect between science and politics that serves neither well.
If “anti-science” is rare, then so too are politicians with a deep understanding and appreciation of science: only one of the 650 MPs is a professional research scientist (there are 158 business people and 86 lawyers). Indifference to science and ignorance in the non-pejorative sense of just not knowing, is widespread. How else could two MPs with such disregard for evidence be elected to the backbench committee where they have most potential to cause harm?
Things are little better in the civil service. When David King, as chief scientist, challenged mandarins to name a field of public policy to which science was irrelevant, a senior official from the department of work and pensions replied: “My entire department.” But the challenges this department faces over the next half century will be defined by Britain’s ageing population. While every ministry now has a chief scientific adviser, some wield significantly more power and influence than others. Bernard Silverman, who holds the home office position, recently admitted that he did not consider it part of his job to advise ministers on the scientific implications of the closure of the Forensic Science Service. The media, too, is short on scientific literacy, causing unfounded and damaging scares such as the alleged link between the measles mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.
This under-appreciation of science in politics matters. Without much knowledge or experience of how scientists operate and the conditions in which they thrive, ministers often mismanage scientific research. And without much understanding of Carl Sagan’s dictum that science is more than a body of knowledge, but also a way of thinking, they fail to use it to develop better policies.
The coalition’s immigration cap is a prime example of the first type of error. This policy was not designed to damage science, yet the way it was framed had unintended consequences that would immediately have been plain to anyone who had worked in a laboratory. Science is now an international game, in which the best teams must recruit from and collaborate with India, China, Singapore and Brazil. To restrict the flow of talent from abroad was always likely to threaten Britain’s place as a world leader. What is more, to allocate scarce visas on the basis of salary might work for business, but not for universities that rarely pay postdoctoral researchers much more than £35,000.
Similar mistakes have characterised attempts to regulate medical research. Well-meaning pieces of legislation, such as the Human Tissue Act and the European Clinical Trials directive, were designed to protect patients, but they overlooked the bureaucratic burdens involved. These restrictions mean that once the charity Cancer Research UK has funded a trial, it takes an average of 621 days before the first patient is treated.
Politicians’ indifference means that not only is their stewardship of science poor, but so is their use of it in policy making. Governments and parties of all colours present themselves as champions of evidence-based policy. But often, what they want is policy-based evidence. They value evidence—but only when it supports a decision that has already been taken.
Jacqui Smith, when she was home secretary, was guilty of shopping around for supportive evidence when trying to justify upgrading cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug. Other politicians quote imaginary evidence, such as Andrew Lansley’s assertion that his GP-commissioning plans were based on “a range of evidence” that, on closer scrutiny, didn’t exist. Lansley’s model was new and had yet to be piloted, and so there could be no firm evidence that it would be an improvement. As the medical writer Ben Goldacre has shown, the published evidence about GP fundholding—a broadly similar model—was at best equivocal.
Alternatively, you can fix the evidence if you don’t like it, sacking inconvenient advisers such as David Nutt, the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who disagreed with the government’s drug policy. Or you can claim clairvoyant evidence, as when Patricia Hewitt promised to commission research that would show home births to be safe. Sometimes, evidence is simply mishandled: the current badger cull uses a different approach to the one employed in the trial cited to justify it. And there’s secret evidence: the statistics with which Damian Green rejected claims of a border crisis at Heathrow could not be challenged as they’d never been published.
Sometimes, of course, ministers need to act when there isn’t any evidence. But in these cases, too rarely is the experiment that follows properly evaluated. Neither are the rigorous methods of the natural and social sciences deployed as they could be to put policy ideas to the test: randomised controlled trials, for example, could play a much larger role in sentencing or education policy than they do.
These failures to manage science well don’t arise in the main because politicians are hostile to science and its methods. The problem is more usually that they’ve never really thought about these issues. Indifference to science can live on in politics because it rarely carries much of a cost.
A bigger cadre of trained scientists in politics might help to reverse this. The presence of even a couple of dozen would improve matters not because of their narrow technical expertise, but because their approach to problem-solving would rub off on their colleagues. So much politics happens in informal settings, the conversations in the Commons lobbies and bars from which scientific voices are almost always absent.
Those voices, however, must also be heard more often in MPs’ constituency surgeries, in their email inboxes, and even at the hustings come election time. People who care about science and its approach to knowledge need to engage more effectively with politics and policy. MPs who are lobbied energetically may not always be convinced, but they will usually take the time to learn something of the issues at hand.