Today's decision-makers need a better grasp of numbersby Mark Hannam / June 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Fifty years ago in May 1959 scientist and novelist CP Snow gave his famous “Two Cultures” lecture, arguing against what he saw as the divide between literary and scientific intellectuals. Snow worried that their mutual incomprehension made for bad policy, and that not enough was done to harness the benefits of science for the world’s poor. He did not advocate government by technocratic elite, but he thought that politicians were insufficiently educated for their responsibilities. Their scientific illiteracy, he said, made them prone to bad decisions, often on the basis of bad advice.
If Snow were alive today he would draw his distinction somewhat differently. Among the policymakers, political advisers and public intellectuals there lies a new, equally dangerous divide; one all too clear in the recent financial crisis. It is between the numerate and the innumerate.
Very few people understand arcane theories of maths, or the complex models of statisticians and econometricians. But policymakers do need to understand basic concepts of risk: what it is, how it is measured and how it can be managed. This lies at the heart of many contentious debates, from the future of nuclear power and pension deficits to the management of epidemics or demographic changes. And it’s key to the regulation of the financial sector, and monetary and fiscal policy.
This is a theme Snow would have found familiar—indeed he dealt with it in a lecture at Harvard in 1960, when he described the British government’s wartime decision to carpet-bomb German cities, targeting houses not factories. Churchill adopted this strategy on the advice of Lord Cherwell, his personal scientific adviser. But the strategy failed, as other experts warned it would, because Cherwell got his statistics wrong.
Snow noted two important factors leading to the mistake. First, the decision was taken quickly and in secret, with only a small number of people involved. This was necessary, given the sensitivity of the decision, but resulted in a lack of proper scrutiny of the advice. Second, Cherwell’s position as Churchill’s friend meant that his influence was disproportionate to his expertise. Snow’s view was that until politicians acquired a better grasp of scientific issues, they would continue to take important decisions on the basis of poor advice from favoured advisers. And much the same seems true today of decisions involving risk.
We do not want our politicians to defer to the highly numerate, whether nuclear engineers,…