Tuesday 1 October 2013

Monbiot on Boyd; The Tory government's censure of science

In the Guardian today George Monbiot does his best to eviscerate an article by Professor Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at the UK's Department for Environment:
Boyd's doctrine is a neat distillation of government policy in Britain, Canada and Australia. These governments have suppressed or misrepresented inconvenient findings on climate change, pollution, pesticides, fisheries and wildlife. They have shut down programmes that produce unwelcome findings and sought to muzzle scientists. This is a modern version of Soviet Lysenkoism: crushing academic dissent on behalf of bad science and corporate power.
Having read the article in question it perhaps isn't quite as dastardly as it's been portrayed, however I do strongly disagree with it and I do despair that someone like Boyd could represent the voice of science in this country, co-opted as he clearly is by one side of the relationship that he is supposed to mediate.

Some of what he said is valid.  E.g. in his conclusion he writes:
Policy-making is a messy, sometimes chaotic, process because it needs to include social, electoral, ethical, cultural, practical, legal and economic considerations in addition to scientific evidence.
Undoubtedly he is right.  And if there are any scientists who don't accept this democratic (as opposed to technocratic) political reality then they are in the wrong.  However, in the next and final paragraph Boyd goes on to say:
The scientific community needs to build a strong sense about how it fits in to this complex mixture to ensure that its contribution to future decisions can be maximised. This means sticking to the evidence and describing clearly what it does and does not say; expressing the balance of risk associated with one or other policy option and avoiding suggesting that policies are either right or wrong; and being willing to make the voice of science heard by engaging with the mechanisms already available through science advisory committees, by working with embedded advisers (such as myself), and by being the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena.
In other words: The system works, don't you dare go outside of it.  Know your place.  Scientists should speak only when spoken to.

Just because technocracy cannot be substituted for democracy doesn't mean that scientists should just sit in their proscribed little boxes and do as they're told (what a technocratic, undemocratic, apolitical notion that is in its own way!).  They have every right to shout as loud as they wish.  Indeed, that is their duty.  It is the politician's burden to have to occasionally ignore them and to take the flak when they do - just as they do with every other part of the demos.  It is the scientist's role to argue their point with as much force and power as they can muster and the politician's role to adjudicate between that constituency and others.

Asking the scientist to pipe down because the politician has a headache isn't good enough.  If you can't stand the heat...

Politics is agonistic - it inevitably involves conflict and disagreement.  No conflict, no politics.  Scientists can't get their way all the time, nor should they.  However, this doesn't mean that they should shut up and get back in their labs.  You can't please all the people all the time but that mustn't stop the people (including scientists) having their say.  It doesn't make them any less scientists, any less objective, any less competent.  If some say argue the contrary then that is their fault, not that of the scientists.

There's much else wrong with Boyd's article too.  His reading of the TB/badger issue is mealy mouthed and misleading.  He fixates on 'uncertainty,' suggesting that if the science is uncertain (as it almost always is) then scientists cannot legitimately make factual claims.  He suggests that scientists must simply provide politicians with 'the facts' and then shut up - as if it were that simple.

Worst of all, he takes the breakdown of that idealised, impossible relationship to be the fault of the scientists alone, placing all of the blame and the burden for reform on the scientists.

Boyd seems to yearn for science/politics to be a nice, polite, agreeable conversation - perhaps over a cup of tea - where scientists are courteous and dutiful and say 'thank you, sir' when they've been told 'no.'

In thrall to power.