The call for evidenced-based policy is a dilemma wrapped in an irony. I’m not sure if it is necessarily like that but it seems that way on the evidence so far. It was certainly evident in the recent New Statesman piece written by Brian Cox and Robin Ince. The Twitter discussion that followed was lively though unfruitful. “Positivist” accused one. “Nobber” was the witty reply.
For my part it was probably just bad timing. I was in the middle of marking a pile of essays when I read the piece and so naturally was in the frame of mind of wondering what grade to give it: top marks for communication and argument, poor marks for research and evidence.
And here is the irony, where was the evidence in their argument for evidenced-based policy?
For example, in pointing to the past century of unparalleled medical, technological and intellectual advances where was their evidence for their claim that “the foundation for these changes is the scientific method”? Historians of science and technology will tell you it’s not quite as simple as that. Technology often leads to science rather than the other way round (maybe more often than not). The classic example is steam engines leading to the development of thermodynamics rather than theories of heat leading to the development of steam engines.
Indeed, where is the evidence for them to speak of “the” scientific method in the first place? Science is littered with failed attempts at defining itself and it is doubtful whether a single method can unify such diverse practices as theoretical physics, palaeontology and genetics.
There is also an element of having your cake and eating it when scientists claim credit for technological progress. In the nineteenth century scientists had distanced themselves from the public as part of a process of self-definition, a necessary separation to establish their own realm of professional expertise. By the mid-twentieth century (after the technological horrors of two world wars) such distancing became a convenient tactic for avoiding accountability by separating the “pure” practice of science (done by scientists) from the “abuse” done to it by others.
However, avoiding accountability should also mean relinquishing the credit for those developments which the public would highlight for praise. If scientists wish to be associated with what others do with science then they should take the rough with the smooth. Alternatively, we could drop the language of use and abuse, and simply say this is what science is and what science does whether we like it or not.
I should stress that this is NOT an argument against evidence-based policy. If the evidence is there we should not ignore it and if we don’t have the evidence available then we should do our best to find it. I have a naïve belief that if I wish to interact with the world then I would like to know something about it before I do. I say “naïve” because, like most things, this belief gets more complicated on closer inspection. This is not only because it raises the question of what counts as “evidence”, but also who gets to say what counts as evidence and on what grounds.
And here is where the irony conceals the dilemma.
One of the points in Mark Henderson’s Geek Manifesto is: “We want science and critical thinking to become central to the national conversation” (p247). It is in that spirit that we should apply our critical thinking to science itself.
But who should we turn to for that critical thinking? It is an epistemological version of the “Quis custodiet” problem (ie. “who should guard the guardians”) – who should investigate the investigators?
I have written elsewhere of the difficulties of using science to explain science. Would we seriously want to use chemistry and physics to explain what a chemist and physicist does? Presumably we would need to go outside science (or at least into the social “sciences”) for our critical thinking.
If we are to turn our critical eye upon science itself then what is it that we will be examining? This brings us back to the piece by Cox and Ince who tell us that
science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.
Science is the only way we have of exploring nature, and nature exists outside of human structures
This, I think, is very revealing, because it seems to claim a sense of objectivity by association: nature is “outside human structures”, science tests against nature, therefore…..the implied suggestion being that science itself is somehow outside human structures.
“No, no”, might be the reply, “It doesn’t say that, or imply that.” In which case let us put science firmly back inside “human structures” and examine it as another example of what humans do individually, collectively, socially, politically, culturally, historically. And for that type of investigation who you gonna call? Or to paraphrase the Bill Murray character: “Back off. I’m a historian.”
So, to take our cue once more from Cox and Ince, let us say that “science is a process, a series of structures”. What kind of “process” and “structures” do they mean? Is that a social process? A series of epistemological structures?
If it is a social process then let’s open it up to sociologists. If it is a structure of ideas then let the philosophers take a peek. If the structures are a set of values then that is something historians have some expertise in examining. In fact, philosophers, sociologists and historians could look at each of these.
Unfortunately the History and Philosophy of Science, together with the Social Studies of Science is just the kind of expertise that all too often gets rejected by those who wish to defend science. The critical thinking that was demanded in the Geek Manifesto is rejected when the object of scrutiny is science itself.
If we were to allow the critical gaze to fall on science then we would see how problematic is Cox and Ince’s attempt to separate science from politics. “There must be a place where science stops and politics begins,” they say and in that “must” I can’t help but hear an accompanying “please let there be”. If only if it were that simple. They do add that “this border is an extremely complex and uncomfortable one” but the complexity and discomfort is all on the policy side with no acknowledgement how politics (in all its macro and micro varieties) can be complex and uncomfortable within science.
Finally, the ghost at the banquet is the spectre of “anti-science” only this time presented as a “lifestyle choice” to abandon evidence in favour of “humbug and charlatanism”. The threat is that “mere opinion” is elevated above science. However, by devaluing opinion in this way they expose the asymmetry in what is supposed to be a new dialogue between science and public: science has facts, the public has opinions.
Sadly it is not the science-public dialogue that some of us hoped for.
For a thoughtful piece on the Cox/Ince article and the Twitter debate that followed see the post by Rebekah Higgitt in the Guardian.
A similarly well-considered piece on the Cox/Ince artice and the relationship between science and politics can be found in Jack Stilgoe’s post in the Guardian.
The two posts by Higgitt and Stilgoe say much of what I would like to have said here especially where they relate to the idea that HPS and STS each have evidence that Cox and Ince ignore (thus underlining the irony and the dilemma I tried to point out).
For a good piece on the Cox and Ince article and why the “geek movement” is bad for science see the post by Haralambos Dayantis.
And a post from Martin Robbins on why the Dayantis piece is not very good at all
A post from Ken Perrott defends the Cox/Ince article with respect to some of the issues raised by Stilgoe, Higgit and Dayantis.
A lovely insight into how science really works can be found on Twitter through the hashtag #overlyhonestmethods. Not only do the tweets underline the HPS/STS perspective of science-as-human-activity, but they are also very funny For a taste of the tweets and how they relate to STS see “Science and its #overlyhonestmethods“
For relationship of science and technology (and relationship of historians of science and historians of technology) see the post by Patrick McCray
On the importance of history of science and the need for historians to communicate it properly see this post from Emily Winterburn.
Communicating history of science was something we used to do quite well. Here’s a short clip from the James Burke series “The Day the Universe Changed” where he explains that ”The view of things at the time controls what science does at every level”. Raw data is not very raw at all. We only get what we are looking for. See also his final thoughts on science, values and different ways of seeing the world taken from same series. The kind of popular HPS/STS that would be valuable now.
For some sensible ideas about the whole discussion and Twitterspat generated by the Cox/Ince editorial see post by Jon Butterworth in the Guardian