ALL at once there are comments about the dearth of scientists in the Cabinet, especially now that almost every government policy carries the motto: ‘Follow the science’. Stephen Glover in the Mail has pointed out that one of the few science graduates in the government is Dr Therese Coffey, who has a PhD in chemistry from UCL; and she has even had the nerve to say that scientists are not always right. (Whatever happened to ‘the science is settled’?)
Glover reckons that if the government had still had Margaret Thatcher at the helm (a graduate in chemistry), she would have rigorously interrogated the scientists involved and probably discarded the most suspect elements of their advice. She undoubtedly would, but not because she had a chemistry degree. She had experience of the real world of work and commerce, good judgment and common sense, and tremendous faith in her own abilities. There are many examples of successful leaders and decision-makers in science-related industries who did not have science degrees, eg Sir John Harvey-Jones, who headed ICI. He was a product of Dartmouth Naval College and studied Russian at university.
In this increasingly complex and technology-driven world, the coronavirus crisis has played a revealing searchlight over the quality of advisers including some scientists, the civil service and the vast majority of national institutions, the Spads closest to government and MPs themselves. If what Glover suggests were adequate, all that would be required would be statutory quotas specifying the percentage of science graduates in the House of Commons; or even a House of Lords stuffed with retired professors of physics, chemistry and biology, not to mention computer science; although most software modeling experts belong to a much younger demographic and are usually employed dynamically in the private sector (but immediately identifiable by their statement tee-shirt as seen on Professor Ferguson.) And anyway, scientists tend to be a bit geeky. The vital spark is the interface between scientific understanding and experience of the real world.
There are several elements in this advice problem, of which the following are especially important:
· The ‘cult behaviour’ syndrome
· The non-objectivity of research funding
· The culmination of EU blight, and
· The irremediably political motivation of politicians.
Dr Hugh Willbourn recently published an article saying that lockdown zealots are displaying all the classic signs of cult members by doubling down on their beliefs despite having been proved wrong. He highlights the work of social psychologist Leon Festinger who in the 1950s analysed a UFO cult who believed that a flying saucer would rescue them from the Apocalypse. Even after their beliefs were totally disproved, the cult members would become not less but more convinced of them.
Willbourn argues that Festinger’s rationale and the behaviour of those cult members correspond closely to the situation with Brexit, Climate Change, and Covid-19. A prophesy is made, believers invest their time, money and prestige in it, the prophesy fails and the believers become even more fervent. The difference, however, is that Festinger’s UFO cult had a few dozen members, whereas for example the current Covid cult seems to have infected half the world. Even with the huge problems of lockdown, people’s opposition to returning to normal will intensify rather than diminish as the evidence mounts that they were wrong.
Margaret Ashworth in her TCW article ‘The Science of Nonsense’ dealt with the problem of research funding, identifying the challenge whereby research scientists are dependent on governments or corporations, who are, not surprisingly, prepared only to fund outcomes that are beneficial to them. Similarly Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Skin in the Game emphasises the necessity of having a measurable degree of risk when decision making, as well as fairness, efficient risk management, and simply a good understanding of the world. Indeed the very fact of being alive entails taking risk. Taleb has the great privilege – rare to the point of non-existence in the modern world – of being in a position to self-fund his research. He says that research is not worth a bean unless it is self-funded.
This is very much easier said than done – nearly all research has to secure funding from elsewhere, and it is a hugely complex business. This is borne out by looking at the funding sources published by Imperial College on its website under ‘Funding Opportunities’. There are three major strands:
· Internal, such as the Research Council, BBRSC FTMAs, the LSE Grantham Institute (into climate change and the environment), and their own alumni;
· External, which they describe as securing industry funding by bringing together business, researchers and students in a ‘flourishing entrepreneurial eco-system’;
· The European Commission, via the European Institute of Innovation and Technology.
Then there’s Imperial College’s J-IDEA – The Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics, directed by Professor Neil Ferguson. Mr Jameel is a Saudi businessman, closely associated with a family-owned international business conglomerate and heavily involved in philanthropic work worldwide. He is highly qualified academically, is additionally involved with UN programmes, and as well as Imperial College, his organisation partners with MIT on ‘global challenges’. So a complicated network for any aspiring researcher to navigate.
Imperial’s links to the EU leads to the third element, the dead hand of accumulated ‘EU Blight’, the product of nearly fifty years of UK membership which has seen national competences taken over by the imposition of EU directives and controls. The steady erosion of direct responsibility of government, parliament, institutions including law and education, the civil service and universities, has led to the country supporting an ever-growing burden of bureaucratic organisations, quangos and councils, while MPs have little to do but rubber-stamping, while managing their expenses and career development. Out is vocation and public service, in is the perfecting of climbing the greasy pole, so that even when ministers have decisions to make, supported, it goes without saying, by reams of specialist and/or scientific advice, these decisions are usually made for political reasons.
According to Dr Thomas Sowell, it was ever thus. In his interview on ‘Uncommon Knowledge’ from the Hoover Institution in 2018, Dr Sowell states (at around 09.00 in) that ‘the government is not out there as the personification of the national interest. They have their own interest . . . It’s their jobs, and careers, and power’. He also explains (at around 04.00) that, like Leon Festinger, he finds that there are ‘so many people, in the intelligentsia especially, who are absolutely immune to facts. It’s as if they took their anti-fact shots every year, so the facts will just not affect them’.
So it is looking very much as if the only smart thing about politicians, and even experts, these days, is their mobile phone, and this leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the democratic systems of the West are sinking beneath the burden of their bloated and self-serving bureaucracies. Sowell (at around 32.00) is not convinced that the necessary changes will, or even can, be made.
We shouldn’t forget that such decline tends to start off very slowly – rather like Hemingway and his bankruptcy theory – but suddenly accelerates with terrifying speed. So all together now – Brace! Brace! Brace!