Science, People & Politics, issue 1, Volume ii, Volume II, published 6th January, 2009.

Science as one of the humanities

"For we must not fail to observe, O Megillus and Cleinias, that there is a difference in places, and that some beget better men and others worse; and we must legislate accordingly. Some places are subject to strange and fatal influences by reasons of diverse winds and violent heats, some by reasons of waters; or, again from the character of the food given by the earth, which not only affects the bodies of men for good or evil, but produces similar results in their souls. And in all such qualities those spots excel in which there is a divine inspiration, and in which the demigods have their appointed lots, and are propitious, not adverse, to the settlers to them. To all these matters the legislators, if he have any sense to him, will attend as far as man can, and frame his laws accordingly."

Ed. W.H.Auden. The portable Greek reader.
The Just Society,
by Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett.

If science is to be read as a synonym for fact, or science is to perceive its advice to the democratic structures as taking precedence over other types of advice then science runs the risk of undermining the very democratic structures it wants its expertise to advise. By claiming too much truth and too many rights for itself science could be in danger of forgetting that ministers are responsible to parliament not to science advisers, and that science is an ever changing feast. It could be in danger of saying we ought to arrange our power structures differently because we have truths that cannot be challenged and ministers must explain to us first, not to parliament, their decision. That has the ring of the bully boy and of nascent dictatorship.

Both science and politics are based on world views and developing bodies of knowledge. Both are enormously powerful prisms through which to see the world. Both are forms of service to humanity and both do harm as well as good to humanity - to people. Both have made advances in the well being of the human race possible.

There was a time when science did not know that air is made up of oxygen and nitrogen, among other things, and as such was conducive to carbon-based life. There was a time when tax did not exist as a means of promoting communal life.

It is hard to contemplate the human race surviving on Earth without oxygen, nitrogen and taxes. It is not science that will protect the human race, but politics, which to me is the art of consensus building, development of fair consensual societal structures, and finding room for opposing world views. If science tries, like the voice of religion of old, to assert its truth of the time over that of all other truths then we run the risk of a modern inquisition. We also run the risk of misleading government policy makers.

What is more important to the human race: that a particular nation formulates in any one year a national government policy primarily in response to the empirical data of increased severe weather events, or that nations formulate national government policy primarily in response to the emerging dominant accepted interpretation that the way the human race lives now is contributing a wild card to climate change fatal to the human race?

Tax breaks for both sounds like a good idea to me. But trying to use science to bully through a government policy that fiscal policy for 2010-2011 ought to favour one at the expense of the other would, I think, be wrong. I have no knowledge that such a thing is happening. I am making a general point, and the point is not climate change denial.

There could be many factors why promoting, through fiscal policy, business ideas for three years which are aimed at mitigating the consequences of severe weather events ought to take precedence. A clamour from the climate change lobby would not help if not mitigating the impact of severe weather events led to an increased use of road traffic on narrow country lanes, and to travelling 20 miles instead of 2 to do the shopping. A crude example, but intended to make a significant abstract point which is not anti science but anti a science-dominant authority.

To some extent UK politics has taken the wind out of my argument, and out of the science lobby, by agreeing to explain to science advisors why their advice has not been taken. But I hope politicians do not explain to science advisers before they have explained themselves to parliament, which is when they place matters incontrovertibly on the record so that the words can be reported to people as a matter of course, and not as a matter of power-base building and news management by the science lobby.

If you think this one through a little further I think it becomes clear why senior politicians might find explaining their actions to science advisors slightly more attractive than talking to parliament, the press and their constituents. Beware. Science is a siren''s call.

Though politics has, in the UK, had a bruising encounter with the press over the issue of purported abuse of expense accounts (in quite a few cases unfairly so) it really is the press and not science that is the best friend of politics.

It is the rambunctious and unruly press, not science, that will help further consensus building among people. Science can enable, but science must not control.

If Plato's essay (quoted above), The Just Society, can be read without judgement as to the meaning of better and worse men and with tolerance for his views about class in society his words have much still to offer. How might groups of people govern themselves and build consensus? What are their resources and what impact do those resources and their food, geographic and climatic circumstances have on their planning?

These are two of the issues on Plato's mind. He was writing his political commentary in the days before the existence of the Nation State, a political superstructure that has enabled organised science, trade, commerce and warfare on scales unimaginable to Plato.

It is also a superstructure that has enabled peace negotiations among competing groups on an unprecedented scale, negotiations made possible by communications technology and the potential that is possible for furthering human understanding via the broad church of publishing and its many different distribution mediums.

In the UK in the political arena the gauntlet has been thrown down, and the election campaign to decide how the UK's nation state will be governed -- according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on Monday morning (4.1.10) --- is underway. Democracy in the UK is preparing for the convulsions that will bring centre stage a new set of power players - with their hands on the levers of billions and billion of pounds. Communication and who pays for communication is itself at the heart of this titanic struggle for power.

Time for people who are scientists to ask themselves, when they are invited by the press to speak in public, if what they say might sway listeners wrongly because there could be factors the scientist is unaware of that might make their truth less than helpful to the greater good.

Imagine government provides fiscal incentives that mean a corporate decision is made because of the absolute certainty of a highly reputable scientist that PCR makes DNA identification as near to infallible as is humanly possible, but then a rogue piece of previously unregarded junk DNA casts doubt on the certainty. But the scientist has been adamant that DNA identification can never lie and people have accepted that view and voted for the politician who had based Manifesto ideas, from justice to fiscal policy, predominantly on the science of the certainty of DNA identification. When things go wrong, who is to blame? In our system of government it is politics, no-one has given the scientist a mandate to speak on their behalf, hence politics protects the scientist from a variety of seriously unpleasant law suits.

Enter the press. But how are they to be paid if traditional business models are being challenged. In the UK one cannot watch the TV without a TV licence. So one political suggestion is that money go to broadcasters other than the BBC. But alternate broadcasters to the BBC are what keeps the State censor at bay. The law is not strong enough alone because the State makes the law.

In addition, if other countries think that the British government pays toward all UK broadcasting it might not be BBC TV, radio and internet journalists alone who are excluded from countries wishing to keep their activities secret. We might just destroy all UK-based radio, TV and internet journalism. That would be great for British print journalists.

Who, on this occasion, was not thinking?

How might Plato have dissected this issue? What might he have suggested given democratic systems divided into classes with access to particular resources? Well he would probably have wanted to create a lot of smaller subunits. Digital TV and radio certainly makes that possible, but is there enough money from TV licences to go round all the possible subunits? They would soon be looking for economies of scale as they sought to carve out enough money to make a TV drama with a cast of more than one actor and to cover a news event lasting more than an hour. So why not save everyone some heartache and leave the TV licence as the instrument promoting competition that it already is by ensuring that no-one gets to see sports, or their favourite soap, or their favourite scientist or politician on ITV without a TV licence? And at the same time uphold draconian measures against product placement on the BBC so that ITV can sell advertising.

This issue takes us deep into the humanities of politics and economics. Science enables both but has no right to dominate them. If it did then science could seek to influence and control both politics and the press. That is a truly scary place. Better for science to see itself as flawed - as it is - and among the humanities.
Helen Gavaghan 6.1.2010.

Typos on url corrected in line with magazine policy within 24 hours of original publication overnight 5/6 January,2010. Dateline on this article should read 2010 not 2009.


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