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Going To Sea In A Sieve

We haven’t had enough of experts, we’ve just had enough of leaders who insist they know better when it’s clear to see they don’t

By Thomas Venner, Citizen State Advisory Committee Member (Europe)

· Politics,Big Ideas,Experts,Leadership,Science

In 2016 the Conservative politician Michael Gove, while drumming up support for Britain leaving the EU, made the now infamous statement that “people in this country have had enough of experts” in what’s often been invoked since as the perfect nine-word manifesto for a ne w wave of militant anti-intellectualism. Over recent years, driven by a resurgent far right and a political turn to so-called “populism” as the old consensus politics finally crumble and lose what little of the public’s faith they had left, we’ve seen an almost unprecedented percolation of science denial and conspiracy theorism into the mainstream that’s defined what many call the “post-truth era”.

But in focusing attention and criticism — however rightly — on the cranks and quacks and the forces mainstreaming them, we’ve missed the fact that anti-intellectualism has become an almost universal trait in our politics. Though they might reject and condemn the kind of naked, tub-thumping assault on science and critical thought we see from the wannabe-populist right, the mainstream establishment are hardly any better. For all their supposedly “technocratic” decision-making — whether you use it as a term of suspicious derision or one of warm approval — the underlying reality is that, despite their claims of evidence-based policy, actual evidence plays next to no role in driving the decision-making process itself. To the mindset of establishment policy institutions, an “expert” is just an academic who agrees with you, and the evidence is not something you look at first and analyze to reach conclusions, but a gap-filler to shore up conclusions that were reached before any research or consultation began. Establishment policy-making runs on the logic of pseudoscience, and legitimizes itself with the same cherry-picking rhetorical tactics; expertise is not assessed in terms of the strength of its evidence or arguments, but on how well it fits with pre-existing doctrines and decisions that have already been made. While “populist” anti-intellectualism justifies its rejection of evidence and expertise by claiming to speak for a vaguely-defined uneducated mass sick of being lectured by people with degrees, establishment anti-intellectualism justifies the same from the opposite angle; that they’re the smartest people in the room, the true level heads who always know better whatever the subject. And whatever the narrative justification, whether it’s argued from a position of anti-elitism or elitism, it all ends up in the same place.

A well-documented, but surprisingly little-discussed example of this can be seen in the development of nuclear energy — specifically its fuel source. Uranium is rare, presents serious contamination hazards in mining, is inefficient as a fuel source, and leaves behind waste that requires specialist, resource-intensive storage for impractical lengths of time after its utility has been exhausted. Yes, it’s far better by pretty much every measure than fossil fuels, but that’s like saying it’s better to eat spoiled vegetables than shoe leather — however technically true, it’s a choice of no other options. Only there is another, better option — thorium.

Unlike the far-off dream of fusion, thorium power is already a working, proven technology, first successfully tested in the ’60s. The fuel itself is abundant, even discarded as mining industry waste; it’s intrinsically safe, needing to be actively bombarded with neutrons to sustain a reaction that will automatically cease otherwise instead of restrained from going supercritical like uranium; and it can’t be used to make nuclear weapons. Only for the political decision-makers, it was the last one on the list that was the problem.

The development of nuclear energy ran parallel to the development of the Cold War, and from the start its future was written with a Cold War mindset. The politicians signing off demanded a method that would also manufacture material for nuclear weapons, forcing the adoption of inferior technology and a rare, wasteful and dangerous fuel source. Like insisting a boat should be designed to double up as a sieve, the potential of nuclear energy was hamstrung by outside meddling from a separate agenda. The internal problems with nuclear energy that have played such a huge part in preventing it from replacing fossil fuels could have been avoided far more easily and efficiently than they were created; but policymakers had their own goal already, and anything incompatible with it was discarded out of hand.

If you want to see an even more blatant case of evidence and expert advice being simply flat-out ignored by supposedly rational politicians who claim they know better than the people who genuinely know what they’re talking about, just look at drug prohibition.

Drug prohibition has at face value been one of the greatest policy disasters of the post-WWII era. It’s increased addiction and user harm, wrecked countless lives through draconian punitive measures, and poured billions into the pockets of organized crime and terrorism the world over. Entire promising branches of medical research were groundlessly declared illegitimate by law and stifled for generations; still struggling to get off the ground now enforcement has begun to be relaxed. In terms of its claimed intentions, it’s been a catastrophic backfire — but of course those claimed intentions were never really the point. If you want to understand the real logic behind it, all you need to do is read this quote from John D. Ehrlichman, domestic affairs advisor to Richard Nixon:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

This wasn’t the entirety of the motivations behind drug prohibition, of course, but it sheds a clear light on the kind of mindset that’s driven it. It’s always been a matter of expediency, a framework that can be used to pursue other goals in domestic and foreign policy, combined with a healthy dose of puritan pseudo-moralism designed to secure support from that segment of voters wedded so strongly to the politics of cruelty that they’ll sell their votes to anyone offering enough carceral sadism to satisfy their tastes. The War on Drugs — its systemic frameworks still doggedly maintained today even as its rhetoric has been dialled back — is maybe the most perfect example in modern history of a situation where a policy that’s failed disastrously by every conceivable metric is maintained, in the face of mountains of evidence and expert condemnation against it, in order to support vested-interest policy goals unrelated to the thing the original policy nominally relates to. Continually bailed out, the sieve boat sails on.

And lastly, of course, no discussion of policy riding roughshod over evidence can be complete without talking about the situation we find ourselves in now.

Across the Atlantic, the political establishment drags its feet on providing any meaningful assistance (at least to anyone other than the super-rich), with much of that establishment pushing for a quick reopening whatever the public health consequences in the belief that the health of the stock market takes priority. Never mind the fact that Sweden, which refused to put lockdown measures in place in order to avoid negatively impacting businesses, is now facing a serious economic downturn; it turns out that letting a pandemic run rampant isn’t great for the economy either. Meanwhile, here in the UK, we’ve been consistently reassured by the government that they’re “following the science” through months of ever-changing advice that for the most part is either useless, too late, or both. They’re still making that claim now, as they’re preparing to start lifting the lockdown at a point where infection rates are still high enough that the expert advice they’re claiming to listen to tells them would all but guarantee a second wave. They’re happy to follow the science wherever they tell it to guide them — if the experts won’t give them the right expert opinion, they’ll just sack them and get new experts.

And this, finally, brings us to what might be the deepest underlying problem of the lot — that our culture has developed an attitude towards science that treats it as an authority to be invoked instead of a methodology for learning. It’s all very well for our leaders to claim their decisions are taking the science into account, but as long as it’s just used as a credibility-boosting appeal to authority instead of an actual driver of the decision-making process this becomes nothing but window-dressing and PR spin. It doesn’t matter how much politicians “listen to the experts” if that “listening” doesn’t translate into meaningful influence on their actions. To take another example, they’ve been listening to the scientific consensus on climate change for decades now, and all that’s really come of it are statements of emissions targets that move a decade further into the future after every decade of inaction. We need more than listening; more than consultation, or advice or any of the other nebulous platitudes that can mean anything or nothing when it comes down to their actual procedural outcomes. What we need is integration. Our politics don’t need the aesthetics of science, the respectability-granting layer of statistics and talking heads with PhDs slapped on to justify already-decided policy post-hoc; they need the mindset of science. It’s not enough to oppose the open war being waged on science or declare our own respect for “science” in the abstract. What we need — what we’ve always needed, but more desperately than ever now — is an overhaul of our political culture to operate on genuine scientific principles in its own right; starting with questions not conclusions, and led by evidence not vested interests. Maybe then we can not only overcome the rising tide of anti-intellectualism in both its forms, but create leadership that deserves the respect it demands.

Because we haven’t had enough of experts. We’ve just had enough of leaders who insist they know better when it’s clear to see they don’t.

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