Government by expert, scientists, and those Platonic Guardians (again) #QEDcon

By skepticlawyer

Over the weekend, I was a guest at this really rather splendid skeptical convention (responsible for the terrific animation above). I and my fellow panellists (three lawyers, one science writer) got to talk about libel and defamation law, and how it relates to social media. This is, I think it’s fair to say, controversial right now. We expected that our session would be the most controversial (a bunch of lawyers at a science and skepticism convention, telling people how to speak proper, natch).

We were wrong, and by some margin.

QEDcon’s most controversial session

The most controversial session was this oneIs Science the new Religion?

I attended it on the Saturday.

As you can see, even QEDcon’s own summary of the proposed topic was not quite on point. The panel was not about whether science is a new religion, and the one speaker (Professor Jeff Forshaw) who attempted to address the actual question had his comments ignored (which is a pity, because they were thoughtful). The panel was really about whether the increased tendency–in Britain and elsewhere–to engage in government by expert is a threat to democracy. Brendan O’Neill thinks it is, and I am going to irritate a lot of people by saying this: Brendan O’Neill has a point. Unfortunately–his opening comments apart–he made that point badly, and the BBC’s Robin Ince finished up arguing with what he thought (with some justification) was a conspiracy theorist.

This meant that the panel turned into a stooshie between Ince and O’Neill, and most of the time they were talking past each other.

For what it’s worth, it is true that if one lives in a democracy, one must learn to accept the will of the people regardless of how right one may be, but that the people can also be catastrophically, ridiculously wrong. A case in point? The anti-vaccination movement. Much of the anti-vaccination movement is borne of a desire to prove the ‘experts’ wrong, to allow ordinary people to show up the men in white coats. It springs from the noblest political traditions, redolent of campaigns for self-government, for suffrage, for individual choice. It is also mind-bendingly, perhaps even murderously, wrong. It is currently sickening people in Wales, thanks to a measles epidemic arising out of anti-vaccination campaigns and research long since debunked. I have no doubt that, sooner rather than later, people will die.

Here is Brendan O’Neill’s opening gambit (where he was being clear):

Throughout history, one of the main arguments against allowing ordinary people to get involved in politics was that they lacked expertise. They didn’t have the necessary expert knowledge to deal with complicated ideas and issues.

So if you look back to the debate about universal male suffrage in the nineteenth century, it was frequently said that, yes, these working men are really cool and important people, good at working with their hands and building cities and all that, but they aren’t cut out for politics. In the words of one Tory, they didn’t have the “expertise and experience” that politics requires.

The same thing was said about women in the early twentieth century. Yes, women are great, they look after our children and keep our homes, and some of them even have jobs, which is fine by us. But they don’t have the expertise for voting or for doing politics. As one author summarises the opposition to female suffrage: women were seen to “lack the expertise in naval, military, commercial, diplomatic and legal matters which is necessary for informed political activity”.

Also, one of the key justifications for having second chambers in politics, like Britain’s House of Lords or America’s Senate, was to allow for expert discussion of commoners’ sometimes fickle political sentiments. These chambers are still held up by some as cool-headed places full of experienced people, who can keep a watchful eye on what less well-informed commoners and their politicians are getting up to.

So the idea that we need more expertise in politics is not actually a new one. It’s been around for a long time, and it has always been on the wrong side of the debate about democracy, in my view. Because it’s an idea which tends to depict ordinary people as not sufficiently enlightened for serious political debate, especially on really complicated matters like war or law and so on.

This outlook survives today, in the widespread belief that we need more expertise and less ideology in politics; more science, less passion; more cool-headed, educated people like David Nutt, and fewer nutters from the mass of the population who think they know everything but don’t actually know very much at all.

The only difference today is that where once it was fat old Tories and stiff American officials who said politics is better done by experts, today it is young rationalists and humanists who say politics needs more expert input and less playing to the public gallery, less populism, less ill-informed passion or wrongheaded ideology.

If anything, today’s call for more expertise in politics is worse than what went before because it is so much more sweeping; it is really serious about elevating experts into almost every sphere of policymaking and giving them a very special position.

What we have today is a situation where evidence and expertise are the main drivers of policy. For many complicated historical reasons, politicians no longer feel they have the moral or electoral authority to make judgements or decisions, and so they outsource their authority to scientists and other researchers. They call upon these people to provide them with authority, to provide them with a good, strong, peer-reviewed justification for taking a certain course of action, often a course of action they had already decided upon but felt too morally denuded to push forward.

When politics and science mix in this way, both of them suffer, I think. We end up with evidence-driven policy and policy-driven science, neither of which is a very good thing.

Politics suffers because it becomes more rigid. It is hard to have a serious democratic debate about a course of action when that course of action is described as the correct, scientific thing to do. Anyone who challenges it is written off as anti-science, a heretic, a denier. Moral debate dies, or at least suffers badly, when authority becomes increasingly scientific and expert-led.

And science suffers because it inevitably becomes polluted, I think. It seems absolutely clear to me that the more politicians call on scientists for evidence and stats, the more science will feel pressured to do the right thing, to provide the kind of info that will allow politicians to do what they want to do. People often complain about corporate-funded science and how that can influence the outcome of science – but what about when Iain Duncan Smith goes looking for evidence for his illiberal family intervention policies or the Home Secretary goes looking for evidence to justify a public smoking ban? Doesn’t that potentially corrupt science, too, especially over the long run?

The worst thing is that politicians’ increasing reliance on science, and some scientists’ willingness to go along with this, shrinks the space for public, mass engagement in policymaking. The more politics becomes an experts’ pursuit, the less room there is for the public’s ideological or passionate or angry or prejudicial views – they are unscientific and to listen to them is to play to populist sentiment, as David Nutt and others say.

But all these things being discussed are not just or even primarily scientific questions. Whether certain drugs should be banned is a moral question. Whether the government should have the right to say how parents should raise their children is a political question. Ordinary men and women fought for centuries for the right to do morality, to do politics, to be the authors of their own and their nation’s destinies. And while they might not be as clever as some of the people in this room, they do have desires and morals and a yearning for autonomy, and, really, that is all you need to do politics well.

Robin Ince became very angry during the panel itself, leaving Professor Forshaw to make most of the running (which he did, splendidly); that didn’t stop things from getting rather confused. Here is Ince’s (by his own admission hastily written) response:

The answer to “is science the new religion?” is obviously yes, so long as you redefine religion as “a self-correcting, evidence based system of exploring the universe which attempts to unearth the least wrong laws and theories that can explain what exists or might exist whilst accepting that room must always be left for doubt and further enquiry”.

We went off topic pretty soon when the journalist explained that politicians, crippled by uncertainty, were now led by behind the scenes scientists. Whether true or not, the actual evidence offered seemed scant. Something about secondhand smoking and something else about education policy. From my view it seemed that the most that was actually being offered was the idea that MPs might cherry pick data to justify the policies they wished to put into place. This seemed very different to the notion that a muscular cabal of scientists are leading the nation into a dictatorship of evidence under the heavy hand of advanced critical thinking. I won’t dwell on my disagreements with the journalist’s position, hopefully a recording will be available soon and you can make your own judgements and throw a virtual egg or tomato at me via the means of futuristic communication.

Though I spent much of time either startle-eyed or furiously furrowed, as if an invisible Duchenne was experimenting on my face, there was one opinion expressed that continues to haunt me. There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things. I do not think it is fascism that heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity and fiddling with an aorta. Though I have my own opinions on driving, I have decided to let others do it, as I have never taken a lesson. I do not consider myself oppressed by the driving majority. I own an umbrella and a thermometer, but I do not believe this is enough to place me on a climate change advisory body.

I attempted to explain to the journalist that the world we live in has never been more complex or filled with things that require work and patience to understand. Though democracy lovers may shiver at the idea, the penalty for living in the civilisation we currently walk through is that we must sometimes accept our ignorance and defer to others. We can hope that they might be trusted, that the heart surgeon is sober and the climate scientists isn’t swayed by the desire for fame on the front cover of Vanity Fair kissing a Polar Bear.

The journalist suggested this was the kind of fascistic thinking that held up women’s suffrage and the education of the poor. My belief that we are not always equipped to make the best decisions is apparently the alibi that has always been used by people like me who wish to oppress “the common man”. I believe that people should be given as many tools as possible to understand as many complexities of the world as possible, to be armed with knowledge. As William H Calvin wrote, “knowledge is a vaccine”.

But to blithely suggest that that the world is not complex, that expertise is not only not required but a form of oppression, seems to be a position that can only be taken if you are blinkered when progressing through 21st century society. Go back one hundred years and I believe that pretty much any tool or device in your house could be repaired by you with a little ingenuity and swearing. Look at what you have around you now. Look at the device you are reading this on or your television or mobile phone or digital radio, when they cease to function correctly I wonder how many of you would confidently turn to your toolbox, uncover the technology within and effectively repair it. When I picked up the journalist’s ipad, something which seemed to alarm him as if I was a Hyde-ish brute (and I almost was) and declared “mend this”, no answer came forth. Go back a couple of hundred years and there was something closer to a democracy of experts, the downside of this was that medical people couldn’t cure you, the streets had considerably more human excrement in them and life was often cold and short. The price of technology, comfort and hopefully greater understanding of the universe and our place in it is an acceptance that we may not know best in all events and common sense, a hammer and a bag of leeches may not get you through it all.

We should not trust people just because they are experts, but if we are not prepared to put the time and effort in to understand something, to take a step beyond that column we read in The Guardian or “what my friend Phil told me”, then we are placed in a position where must defer and try and make the best decision we can as to who we should defer to. If you are really interested in an issue, then you must take time to read and investigate it, to learn how to ask the best questions, to interrogate with interest, open-mindedness and rigour. A good society, a healthy democracy, is not based on complacency and whining.

It should be reasonably plain from those two lengthy extracts that there was not only very little meeting of the minds, but also very little actual engagement. This blog post (also from an audience member) catches the confusion well.

I will start with this observation, aware that it is explosive: the underlying animus for O’Neill’s arguments on the panel was, in fact, the various global responses to climate change. O’Neill only mentioned it tangentially, getting sidetracked with comments about early childhood research and the science attaching to second hand smoke that buttressed the smoking ban in pubs. Because O’Neill skirted the issue, I am going to make his argument for him.

Climate change sceptics, getting the science wrong, and democracy

Many of those apparently opposed to climate change science (the ‘climate change sceptics’, for want of a better term) have focussed on what they think is flawed science. In this, they have been comprehensively routed. The evidence is against them. Climate change is real, although its extent is disputed, as is the level of danger involved. O’Neill and his ilk think that an attempt to take the fight to the scientists on scientific grounds is misconceived. He does not dispute the science of climate change. Instead, he argues that people don’t have to do what the climate change scientists have advised them to do because they may have other priorities. They may decide, for example, that they would rather have a polluting factory that employs 500 people near their city or in their region, despite the fact that climate scientists point out that it contributes to global warming, increases CO2 emissions, and will be deleterious in the long term. They may, for example, vote in an election for a political party that prefers building the factory to a political party that prefers action on climate change.

Now, it is quite likely–in this scenario–that the scientists will be angry that their careful and accurate research has been ignored. It is very annoying to be ignored (although, dear scientists, it happens to those of us on law commissions all the time; you may need to start getting used to it). The scientists may then decide that they ought to try to persuade the victorious pro-factory political party to change its policy ex ante, despite what the people have said they want in the future. Brendan O’Neill thinks this is illegitimate, and usurps what is properly a matter for democratic decision-making. I don’t think it is, but I do counsel caution to my friends in science if they set about attempting to do it: one of the reasons the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 exist is to stop the House of Lords (not elected) from stymieing a given political party’s manifesto once it has secured passage through the House of Commons (elected).

Those Platonic Guardians, again

I have heard–at various times–skeptical and scientific friends of mine say that ‘x is too stupid to vote’ or ‘ye gods, and these people vote’, etc. These comments are often made about socially conservative religious people, although sometimes the target is broader: the ignorant more generally. May I make a request? Please stop it, because that bit of O’Neill’s history is entirely correct. Here is a portion of Hansard detailing one of the many debates on female suffrage. Many of the speakers make arguments, you will note, derived from the best science available at that time. This one, from Viscount Helmsley, is representative:

The way in which certain types of women, easily recognised, have acted in the last year or two, especially in the last few weeks, lends a great deal of colour to the argument that the mental equilibrium of the female sex is not as stable as the mental equilibrium of the male sex.   The argument has very strong scientific backing…   It seems to me that this House should remember that if the vote is given to women those who will take the greatest part in politics will not be the quiet, retiring, constitutional women… but those very militant women who have brought so much disgrace and discredit upon their sex.  It would introduce a disastrous element into our public life…   One feels that it is not cricket for women to use force…   It is little short of nauseating and disgusting to the whole sex…

Government?   Where are the women merchants and the women bankers?   Where are the women directors of great undertakings?   Nowhere to be seen at the head of the great businesses of the country.  I can imagine very few undertakings in which women exercise an equal share of the control with the men (…)It appears to me that it is one of the fundamental truths on which all civilisations have been built up, that it is men who have made and controlled the State, and I cannot help thinking that any country which departs from that principle must be undertaking an experiment which in the end will prove to be exceedingly dangerous.

Even very great supporters of liberal democracy–John Stuart Mill for example–were worried about what would happen if too many stupid, ill-informed people misused their ballot. Mill supported the existence of university constituencies, where graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, and the Ancient Scottish universities got two votes: one in their university seat, and one where they lived. Those constituencies were not abolished until 1950. It was meant to be a force multiplier for the clever, to allow them to guide the ship of state out of proportion to their actual numbers in the population.

The idea that the state ought to be governed by ‘experts’ or the ‘best people’ has been promoted by some very clever people, for a very long time, starting with Plato: his ‘Guardian’ class was meant–through a programme of education, training, and selective breeding–to rule as ‘Philosopher Kings and Queens’ (to his credit, Plato was not sexist; most historical arguments about those ‘fit to rule’ or ‘government by expert’ peremptorily exclude women). It is a deeply elitist argument. I realise it is confronting to be told that, ‘no, your vote is weighted exactly as the religious conservative’s vote is weighted, when both of you are in the privacy of the polling booth’, especially when you have more to offer, and know more, than the ignorant person. Such is the nature of democracy.


During discussion of this post with Ophelia Benson on Facebook, it occurred to both of us (pretty much simultaneously) that many non-lawyers/non-political theorists don’t know that debates about ‘government by expert’ form a significant component of any decent political science course. You start with Plato, progress to the Stoics and the Roman jurists (‘a democracy killed Socrates! The Athenians lacked the presumption of innocence!’), and thence to Hume, Smith, Rawls, Hayek, Habermas (what is ‘reasonable disagreement?’), and Finnis.

It’s something of which scientists should be aware, but Brendan O’Neill may not be the ideal teacher. Constitutionalism and ‘who governs?’ is a living, breathing question of pressing importance to a public or human rights lawyer, and even to a degree to a commercial lawyer. It probably hasn’t even crossed an awful lot of scientists’ minds. And not just scientists…]

The hard questions

All this throws up a mass of complicated and awkward questions.

1. Is our society so much more complex now than the world of the 19th century that some things ought to be ‘left to the experts?’

2. If so, is that the price we must pay for technology and comfort and all the other good things conferred upon us by science?

3. Since democracy is the worst system of government in the world (except for all the others that have been tried), must scientists learn to step back from their new-found policy influence?

4. Should scientists spend a bit of time talking to lawyers? Lawyers do have a disproportionate influence on the shape of government, and even more than scientists are drawn from a narrow social caste (Oxbridge, privately educated, verbally dextrous, sure of themselves, often entitled). Lawyers, however, are generally aware of their disproportionate influence, and are at least guilty about it. Well, this lawyer is, at any rate.

This post is already very long, so I shall save my thoughts on some possible answers to those questions for another day.


  1. Mel
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    True but the track record includes pork barreling like the Regional Rorts scheme of the Howard government. I don’t advocate such schemes.

  2. John H.
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    But the track record is not terrific. The necessary humility is often missing.

    Perhaps, comparing the success rates with private start ups could be instructive.

  3. Adrien
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m currently reading “Bad Samaritans” and he cites many cases where it worked very well.

    I’ve read that book and was astonished to find that many proficient at economics were unaware of the facts it contributes and their essence in understanding the rise of capitalism and the countries who developed with successfully. They mostly used both tariffs and industry policy.

    However I don;t believe that ‘industry policy’ per se is a good idea as a matter of course. England developed textiles manufacture over a very long period during which its earnings were mostly from the exports of raw materials. The government didn’t build a bunch of workshops and mandate immediate production of textiles. They introduced minimal methods to encourage secondary production. It’s a natural step from growing and harvesting wool to making woolen garments and then another to making them well enough to export. It would be quite another thing if the Tudors had decided that England would be exporting sculpture to Italy.

  4. Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Private start-ups have a high failure rate. But bankruptcy is self-limiting. Public policy, not so much.

    [email protected] Things may have been used, but did they work? Or were they incidental to more important factors?

    As well, examples from before c1830 have limited weight, since the level of trade integration was so low. Providing selected anecdotes is also not impressive.

  5. Adrien
    Posted May 4, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo I had a debate on this matter with quite a ;earned fellow over at Catallaxy (back in the day) and he was wholly ignorant of such facts as the introduction of tariffs under and after Lincoln etc.

    Chang’s book doesn’t amplify minor peripheral matters and treat them as central he looks at every major industrial power and sees the same story.

  6. Posted May 4, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Since various forms of mercantilism were the presumptive policy just about everywhere until c1830 the common use of tariffs tells us very little. Indeed, since everyone used them clearly their use is not distinctive and so not explanatory (between take-off and non-take-off).

    The UK industrialised massively under a free trade regime; Japan’s original industrialisation took place under imposed free trade. And the level of trade has to get quite high by historical standards before an economy is not effectively a “closed” economy (i.e. domestic markets dominate).

    There is certainly an argument about institution building, investment in education and health and related matters. Trade policy, not so much; it just did not matter enough until quite late in the day. And the larger the economy, the less it mattered.

  7. Adrien
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry Lorenzo, that is simply not accurate. In the first place mercantilism is not free trade. If you think it get in a time machine and talk to folks in Boston c. 1760 or visit Washington DC in 1860. Japan, Korea? You’ll find tariffs on goods, government support for technological industry….

    But I won’t elaborate. It is one of the symptoms of modern life that we think thru models and not the mess of experience. I’ve had these discussions they go nowhere.

  8. Adrien
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Apologies Loenzo, I really shouldn’t write commentary in between the time of the last glass of wine and the first cup of coffee.

    Chang’s book is marketed as an expose of something called the myth of free trade. That’s typical hyperbole. My impression is not that Chang is against free trade but rather is critical of development policies mandated by the BWIs viz industrializing nations.

    He likens a free trade policy in an infant industrializing economy to putting children to work too early. Protect them, provide them with education and they will earn more later than they do now. It’s not a sweeping argument against laissez-faire economics per se but a criticism of an impractical application of doctrine. (Impractical that is if one assumes good will amongst the developed economies toward those less developed.) Chang believes that once an economy is sufficiently developed it should remove tariffs and let the private sector stand on its own.

    His argument might be wrong but I have trouble discussing it with anyone familiar with historical facts it musters. I’m certain there are many tomes of the dismal science available that show with much cleverness that the protectionist policies of the United States in the 19th century’s second half had nothing to do with the unprecedented behemoth that the US economy became during the Progressive Era.

    However, seeing as how Abraham Lincoln’s principle supporters were motivated more by tariff policy than alturism and that many, for this reason, were willing to endure a half-decade of war to wrest power from the southern patricians who’d run the show ’til then I remain unconvinced at the moment.

    It’s only one of the many facts, and the pattern is consistent.

  9. Posted May 5, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] No one doubts that some people benefit from protection. I have discussion on the economic theory of who in my Selenium, Silver, Spices and Silk post.

    The more interesting question is whether it is a net benefit to the economy. There have been a great many very badly done protection policies. So, the odds of doing it well are not good, even if we admit the possibility of providing a net economic benefit to the society.

  10. Mel
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    The odds are better if one learns from past experience. It may well be the case that 90% of industrial policies deliver a net loss but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the 10% that succeed. The Economist article I linked to previously identifies some key ingredients of successful policies.

  11. Adrien
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I have discussion on the economic theory of who in my Selenium, Silver, Spices and Silk post.

    The evolution of trade as an engine in history and fine it was. Funny that monetary system in the era of Agrarian Civilization was pretty much based on something that’s, well, shiny. Typical monkeys.

    You address the protectionism of the North, so you know about Lincoln’s policy, the policies of Congress in the ’60 etc. Lincoln gave half the country to the railroads. And then there were tariffs. Finally the ghost of Alexander Hamilton lays down content. Tariffs? Why was they so important? Because at the time they benefited the American industrial bourgeoisie.

    As you say “some people benefit from protection.” Generally such policies are designed for the benefit of the wealthiest and most powerful members of a society. Military activity accompanies trade and has historically been inherent to it. We inherit that set-up. Yes, we indeed live in the largest trade zone in history: almost the entire planet. That is brilliant. But there’s still a tendency to ensure that the ‘fix is in’ and ‘free trade’ policy for undeveloped countries is such.

  12. Adrien
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    “Why was they so important” I’m such an illiterate Oik.

  13. Mel
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    “Yes, we indeed live in the largest trade zone in history: almost the entire planet. ”

    As I understand it, America and Britain have not increased exports as a percentage of GDP since the late 1800s. I think Oz would be in the same boat but I’m too lazy to look up the numbers.

    Globalisation began a long time ago.

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