Statistical sewage, spin and science.

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What connects these men?

Todd Akin: First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Dana Rohrabacher: Is there some thought being given to subsidizing the clearing of rainforests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases? 

Paul Broun: All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.

A) They are all ignorant of basic scientific concepts to hyper-offensive or hilarious extents.

B) They are all current or former members of the House of Representative’s Science Committee, the government body that oversees all non-military research in the USA.

Answer? In fact, both A and B are true.  Think they’re hard to reconcile? Consider that Paul Broun – who doesn’t believe a single thing he was taught about embryology – is a trained medical doctor. Let’s be glad that Dr Broun chose politics over obstetrics.

Casting an eye across the Atlantic, it’s easy to feel pleased with ourselves as a relatively secular, scientifically literate people. We have millions tuning into Brian Cox’s and Dara O’Briain’s TV shows. We even have famous atheists in Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Peek down our own corridors of power however, and problems emerge. A mere 6% of MPs have degrees in science subjects. There is not a single science degree amongst the members of the Cabinet.  Only one MP has practiced scientific research beyond PhD level.

Almost all of the most powerful positions in the country are therefore occupied by graduates of arts and humanities subjects, a gross imbalance.

In the mid-20th Century a man called CP Snow addressed this subject by delivering a lecture titled ‘The Two Cultures’ to an audience of academics in Cambridge.  In his talk, Snow – who combined careers as a chemist, a novelist and a politician – condemned the British educational system as over-rewarding the humanities at the expense of scientific and engineering education.  This in practice deprived British elites (including those in politics) of adequate preparation to properly manage the modern scientific world.

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.

Many of Snow’s arguments are as true today as they were in 1959. I’ve no doubt Dave and his pals can merrily mix foreign policy with Foucault and budgets with Brecht. Ask them what Rhizobia could teach them about coalition though, and they’d struggle. In a web-linked world where 3D printers and synthetic biology will help shape the next Century, I’d argue that our lack of scientifically minded politicians might come back to bite us in the gluteals.

Another area where I believe politician scientists (I avoid using the term ‘political scientists’ deliberately) could make an impact, is in changing the culture that surrounds their treatment and usage of data.

Raised on a diet of PPE and history, our politicians are well versed in making convincing arguments from incomplete or non-existent evidence (do correct me if I’m wrong friends, but remember the number of times you produced well-graded essays without digesting every book on the reading list). The economy’s on the mend. The economy’s knackered. Iraq definitely has WMDs. My wife was driving the car when we were caught speeding. The benefits cap is working.

Spin-doctors have long polished turds, but at least they smelled of shit. Now, if an inconvenient stat smells a bit faecal, they just bury it and make one up to support their agenda. Don’t believe me? IDS recently said that homelessness had barely moved since the change in government in 2010 – it has gone up 27%.

It should be said that scientists are not immune to spin. Recent claims on the promise of ‘Big Data’ projects have undoubtedly been inflated, while the Research Excellence Framework, in forcing academics to demonstrate ‘impact’, has encouraged scientists to over-reach on their hypotheses.

But complete falsification of data in science is rare and efficiently weeded out when it is. As Steven Pinker states in his thoughtful essay, ‘The defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable.’

So I’d hope that scientific training – including statistical analysis, rigorous review of global work in a subject area and careful planning of resources – would make for a moral and effective politician. I’d also like to think that having more scientists sitting on those green seats would stem the flow of statistical sewage.

But then I don’t know for sure. I don’t have the evidence.

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2 responses to “Statistical sewage, spin and science.

  1. I am a statiscian (but not British) and agree with you that the representation of science in Westminster is dismal but I have a slight nagging worry. Who was famously the first British prime minister to have a science degree? Step forward Margaret Thatcher. It would be interesting to know whether science makes for good politics. It might but intellectual meritocracies are not the same as democracies and since the main function of democracy is to curb the abuse of power I am not sure. There is always the danger that wise sicientists in charge of stupid people might let the fact go to their heads. I would count Carter and Merkel as positive but Galtieri, Pol Pot and Bashir Assad?

    So nice post, but I think that your last sentence is the wisest.

    PS I presume that you mean Foucault the philosopher rather than Foucault the physicist and Brecht, of course, at least had a play about Galileo

    • Stephen,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I was aware that Margaret Thatcher had done a chemistry degree. I am also aware that the most recent high profile politician scientist was (Dr) Liam Fox. Both awful.

      But that’s just two people and n=2 does not lend this particular experiment much statistical power.

      I would also like to say that I am in no way saying that scientists are any more intelligent than people from any other field. Nor was I advocating an intellectual meritocracy.

      I was merely appealing for greater balance in politics and hoping to point out how more scientists in parliament could help.

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