Henderson is head of communications at medical research charity the Wellcome Trust and a former science editor for The Times. His latest book is a disturbing catalogue of the abuse of science by politicians to support their policies. He describes a political system (in both the UK and USA) that is rife with evidence abuse, including politicians cherry-picking evidence to support their policies or sacking advisors who don’t agree with policy, and confusion as departments take different approaches to the same evidence. A prime example is the UK’s environment and health departments’ approaches to homeopathy. Defra’s (the department responsible for environment and food) advice is that homeopathy is unsuitable for animals, but the National Health Service funds the very same treatments for humans.
The worst of it is that politicians are fully aware of the abuse; some unashamedly admit to it. David Blunkett (a former senior member of the UK government) recently appeared on BBC Radio to discuss science and politics, where it was put to him that politicians often shop around for experts to support their policies. “Yeh, of course, we’ve all done it,” he laughed. Why is this attitude acceptable? Henderson argues that it is because politicians do not understand the nature of science.
Science is much more than a body of knowledge; it is largely a way of thinking. It’s about rigorously testing ideas and so should be applied to every avenue of the decision-making. Why can’t education policy, say, undergo the same sort of randomly controlled trials as medical procedures? It’s really quite simple. If you want to judge the value of a new policy, just roll it out in a series of randomly selected schools then compare it to another set of schools that haven’t received an intervention.
Henderson argues that the lack of evidence collection and the evidence abuse is not really politicians’ fault. After all, only one of the the UK’s members of parliament has had a career in research science (and its no better in the USA). So one can hardly expect them to understand the scientific method. And our political systems do not support evidence-based decision-making. In science, if an experiment produces results that are contrary to one’s belief the scientists (should) change their mind. But in politics this sort of U-turn is seen as unacceptable; indeed, changing one’s mind in light of an evidence-based study may just result in the politician producing a stick to beat himself with. John Kerry is a prime example, he was renowned for changing his attitude to issues once new evidence emerged. His opponents called it flip-flopping, and it became a factor that may well have cost him the presidency.
This is where the scientist come in. Henderson is calling on them to make evidence-based policies a vote-winning issue, support politicians who change their mind in the face of evidence, and engage with their Members of Parliament, Senators and representatives to help them understand the scientific method. Above all, he wants geeks to form a voting block that appears on politicians’ radar.
Geeks have already taken their new manifesto to heart. In the UK hundreds have pledged to buy a copy of the book for their MPs. Right now, copies are arriving on desks throughout the Houses of Parliament. Other politicians around the world could probably do with reading it as well.
This post is adapted from an article that originally appeared in Civil Service World.