Evidence: Is it whatever you think it is?

Last evening I attended the annual Sense About Science lecture. Perhaps the most important outcome of any lecture is that it made the audience think, and Professor Steve Rayner certainly achieved that. His title, “Science, Technology and Democracy: Dissecting the anatomies of controversy”, promised much, and I was not disappointed. As an anthropologist by training, and having morphed into something of a social scientist, Rayner has become an authority on interactions between science – and scientists – and society, especially politicians.

I learned an important lesson early on, which is that people are the most heated in arguments when they have the least knowledge. There is a lot of interesting research to support this and other aspects of disseminating scientific evidence. Much of this centres on the values which people hold, which have to be taken into account when attempting to change their minds according to evidence. Rayner gave the example of the sacking of Professor David Nutt because his advice on recreational drug classification differed from government policy. He argued that it was valid for the minister, Alan Johnson, to prioritise the general public’s values above the scientific evidence. This worried me somewhat.

The main theme of the lecture was however climate change. Rayner has been deeply involved in formulating pragmatic policies on this, and frankly there was not much to dispel my sense of gloom over where the planet is going. So I won’t depress you further – I’m sure a far better report will appear elsewhere soon. Right now, I just want to focus on an area where I disagree strongly.

Early in the lecture, we were reminded of Plato’s conflict with democracy, which he saw as incompatible with knowledge. I can empathise with this – science is not a popularity contest, it strives to find objective evidence. But the point was made more to highlight the problem than to present a solution. For the rest of the lecture my brain chewed over how I could challenge Rayner’s idea that politicians can be justified in overriding evidence. Eventually I came up with this question:

Do I understand you correctly? Are you saying that there are circumstances where people’s values trump the evidence? Yet there are situations where the values held by most people may be wrong.

Rayner’s reply was longer than I can remember fully. He claimed that people’s values are also evidence, so politicians are justified in using that evidence as well as science. I commented to my neighbour in the audience that it’s easy to evade the question by redefining evidence.

Despite some really good stuff in the lecture, this issue took it perilously close to the `anything goes’ ethos of postmodernist social `science’. Come on Steve, everyone in the audience knew exactly what evidence is, and it isn’t whatever `value’ you want to dream up. In large swathes of Africa it is a social value to mutilate the genitals of helpless girls, as I tweeted on the train home. For Muslim extremists beheading prisoners demonstrates their values.

The other day I watched the excellent Brian Cox’s BBC programme `Space, Time and Videotape’, with Alice Roberts and Brian Blessed (with the sound turned down!). Among many real gems of TV science from decades past, there was the clip of Jacob Bronowski standing by the ash pond at Auschwitz. Many of his family had perished there. He was explaining that science is never complete or absolute, and is always developing as new evidence is uncovered. The emotion in his voice was palpable, as he declared that Auschwitz is the sort of thing that can happen when people think they have absolute knowledge.

To the commandant at this horror camp (which I have visited), his values were demonstrated by the murder of 4 million people, and dumping their ashes in that pond. His values were dictated by his delusion of absolute knowledge. So no, I don’t automatically respect people’s `values’, they can be, and often are, wrong. To return to the drug abuse topic which sparked this off, evidence is emerging now that treating drug addiction as a health problem instead of as a crime is associated with a fall in addiction. According to our government, most people don’t agree with this, and as Rayner pointed out, they vote the politicians into office. Plato rides again.

So how do I think governments should deal with the conflict? If ministers insist on repudiating evidence-based scientific advice, the very least they can do is to tell the public what the evidence was. Instead, they try to bury the science or to attack it. Another excellent example is the government’s obsession with extending the age range of mammography screening, without any evidence. The information leaflet given to women invited does not tell the truth about possible harms.

There is much that is good about modern, virtually instant, communications. But bad ideas can `go viral’ and become deeply entrenched. It’s well known that the jury system is not reliable, because one strongly motivated juror can push the others into a wrong decision, and this is now happening on a massive scale. All sorts of myths are absolutely believed, for example that EU immigrants are a drain on the economy. We know that the reverse is the case. It behoves governments to give voters the right information, as far as science can currently tell us, but what happens is that party politics dominate, and policies are determined by what will get politicians elected.

Oh well, I did learn some useful things from the lecture, so it was very well worth attending. It was yet another very well organised event from Sense About Science, and very good to catch up with some old friends. Sorry to disagree with a distinguished Oxford professor, but I do.

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4 Responses

  1. I did a bit of homework before the lecture, and decided not to go this year. Thanks for confirming my guess.

  2. It wasn’t a patch on Dick Taverne’s lecture – and he was 84 years of age at the time!

  3. I was going to ask Steve Rayner how it helps to discuss values with Greenpeace and the anti-GM brigade. Their values are rightly relief of poverty and hunger, health and the environment. When you point out to them that the evidence shows the GM crops can promote all these values, they simply deny the evidence. In the end the government has changed its policy and it seems hostility to the crops is on the decline in the UK. That is because gradually arguments based on evidence do have influence and are the only effective response.

    • Good point Dick. I have separately been castigated for describing certain values as `wrong’. This is because values are subjective and evidence is objective. A value is right to some people and wrong to others – obviously. I’m not sure that evidence and values can be so easily separated though. As you point out, a value can be based on denial of the evidence. Or is it just the interpretation of the value? But whatever the philosophy, people’s actions and beliefs can be wrong, and they base these on deeply held values.

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