Saturday 20 March, 3.15pm until 4.15pm, Churchill Room
In every field from climate change to education, politicians increasingly defer to experts, and scientific experts in particular. The government has surrounded itself with scientists, and politicians from all parties seems keen to cite experts’ evidence-based findings whenever they want to push new policies, whether early intervention in families to climate-change strategies. Too often the phrase ‘the science shows…’ is used to close down any possibility of debate; facts are scene to trump morality and politics. But is this indicative of a new respect for science, or rather a lack or political principle? Far easier to wave a peer-reviewed research paper and proclaim the science shows we have no choice rather than trying to convince the public of the merits of one or other policy decision.
Indeed it seems that when politicians don’t ‘go with the science’, they find themselves without a leg to stand on. When the government sacked drugs advisor David Nutt last year, this was widely seen as an unwelcome and sordid intrusion of ‘politics’ into questions better left to the experts. So do we live in a ‘scientocracy’, and if so, is this a sign of enlightenment and political maturity, or should we be worried about the undermining of democratic decision-making? Has there been an elision of the natural and social sciences, with the latter borrowing the authority of the former? Does the elevation of scientific expertise obscure unexamined political assumptions and orthodoxies? Indeed, is there a danger that ‘policy-led research’ subtly reproduces political prejudices rather than uncovering genuinely inconvenient truths?
director, Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE)
graduate medical student; co-founder, Sheffield Salon
editor-in-chief, New Scientist
|Dr Evan Harris|
campaigner for secularism in the public sphere; former science spokesman, Liberal Democrats; writer, Guardian Political Science blog
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas
An errant decimal point leads to Conservatives inflating pregnancy rates among the poor by a multiple of 10.Allegra Stratton, Guardian, 15 February 2010
Few patients would want doctors to make decisions based on their ideologies; when our health is at stake, we want to know that health professionals are drawing on evidence founded in rigorous scientific research.Carly Chynoweth, The Times, 10 December 2009
If there is one thing that politicians can and should do to limit the damage caused by illegal drugs, it is to take careful note of the evidence and develop a rational drug policy.David Nutt, New Scientist, 4 November 2009
It was wrong of the government to sack David Nutt. But it’s also wrong for experts to pose as paragons of wisdom who are above democracy.Brendan O'Neill, spiked, 2 November 2009
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"Only the Battle of Ideas could provide the platform for a discussion about a GCSE Science exam where the atmosphere was so electric. It felt like a battle for the soul of British education."
Philip Walters, chairman, Rising Stars educational publishers