Credit: Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Trust me, I’m an expert

By Otto Hampden Woodfall

STEM disciplines demand the use of evidence to justify ideas, Political ideology follows a less defined path. What might a Government made up of scientists look like?

There is a rather solid body of evidence that in British politics, those in charge of the country are very willing to ignore experts. One consistency throughout the Covid pandemic was  Johnson’s willing ignorance of experts; in 2021, the delay in a winter lockdown is estimated to have cost 27,000 excess deaths. More recently, Sunak has pulled back on net zero policies. To a scientist, or just someone passionate about science and understandably disaffected with the government of today, the obvious solution is increasing the stature and authority that scientists possess within politics. 

A technocracy is a government structure that privileges the perspectives of technical experts, where political responsibility is allocated based on expertise. In theory, the increased presence of fact-orientated, rational people in positions of power would be a great thing for sensible policy making. This would likely mean entering the complex world of evidence-based policy making. A simple idea: use evidence to support ideological policies. Policy making, however, is not done in the controlled environment of a research lab, it is done on the volatile will of crisis, and emotional, economical persuasion of the public and politicians. If we promote scientists in government, how can we exercise our democratic rights to (attempt) to align our morality with those in charge? 

Scientists are not perfect people, and their rationality does not preclude unethical behaviour, take Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield was a legitimate, published physician with a (now-rescinded) medical licence. His flawed study implicated the measles vaccine in causing autism in children, and the resulting media attention he received continues to have far reaching consequences. In 2019, Danish scientists conducted (yet another) study dispelling the link between the MMR vaccine and autism, with the researchers noting how unique it was to conduct a whole study on the basis of “conspiracy du jour”. How might it look if we saw more scientists in politics? Allegedly, Margaret Thatcher was prouder of being the first prime minister with a science degree, than being the first female in the position. Today, many argue that the levels of inequality and much of our entire economic landscape was born in Thatcher’s Britain. It’s impossible to empirically define the impact of Thatcher’s scientific background on her political career, however, in 1970, Edward Heath made Thatcher the secretary of state for science and education. Arguably, it was Thatcher’s early strident advocacy around scientific policy, for instance, linking research funding to the market, that began to define the decisive nature of her leadership. So far, everything’s looking rather bleak. 

Career politicians may be eminently corruptible, but so is everyone else, and at least we have the power to get rid of them. Boris Johnson may have lied to parliament and broken his own pandemic rules, but massive public pressure led to his resignation. In a technocracy, imagine that rather than simply going away, Boris persisted, advising government, influencing policy. It sounds to me like a nightmare.

In the case of the average career politician or career scientist these extremes are not really relevant. But consider the heavy workload of the average politician, and the heavy workload of the average scientist, and wonder whether combining these professions to any degree is sensible. If we truly do build a meritocracy, all the best scientists are going to be doing politics half the time, and then who is going to do the science? 

There is, as outlined, a real danger in allowing expertise to eclipse democracy. But if we refrain from creating an exclusive system, maybe a compromise could promise a different outcome. A man, that I would argue the nation collectively fell in love with, who seems to epitomise maintaining an evidenced opinion – Chris Whitty. The government’s Chief Medical Advisor carefully researches his way towards political decisions, and is a notoriously hard worker, continuing to work on wards throughout the pandemic.  Angela Merkel, stepped down as the German Chancellor for 16 years, earning her title as “the de facto leader of Europe”, but preceding her long political career was a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Patience and stability define Merkel’s time as a World leader, and her background gave her the skillset to make intentioned decisions based on reason alongside ideology. I can’t help but feel much of the dramatic and frankly baffling chaos of our current political landscape (does this feel like a good time to mention Liz Truss?) would look far less volatile if we stopped treating these professions as incompatible. What is more, in the 2015-2017 Government, 17% of MP’s held STEM degrees, in 2019, 46% of the UK student population graduated with a STEM degree. If we truly want a Government that reflects us as a whole, does that not mean opening doors for scientists to consider politics as a career? 

It’s a sobering thought but, you don’t actually gain trust by spewing facts at people. To suggest that we’ve all learnt our lesson from Brexit, and so now would believe only the authoritative truth is hilariously naive. Covid might have placed a spotlight on the nation’s scientists, but mistakes were still made – science does not make decisions, people do. For those at a certain threshold of popularity, intelligence is a popular attraction but ultimately irrelevant; if they have got assured popularity, they could still lie to you.

Science should be involved in politics, that’s for certain. Politicians should read published science and consult expert opinion as much as they can, when it is relevant to policy decisions. I also don’t need to tell you that Rishi Sunak is wrong for U-turning on net zero commitments, and that any decent climate scientist would happily scream in his face for his decision. But if we have elected the right people, we should be entirely in favour of them rejecting some expert opinion for the sake of morality. Changing the system just because people keep electing liars is a one-way ticket to getting stuck with liars who happen to have degrees. Let experts be experts, and consult them often; just don’t let them push the button.


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