Citizen Action Monitor

British historian warns of the danger of leaving political decisions to technocrats and experts

No 365 Posted by fw, December 14, 2011

Lisa Jardine, centenary professor of renaissance studies, Queen Mary, University of London

In a timely BBC Radio 4 essay, British historian Lisa Jardine warns “We should be wary of leaving political decisions to experts and technocrats.” She asks: “If someone is an expert in their field, does that make them the right person to run a country?”

Following is an abridged transcript of the second half of Jardine’s 10-minute broadcast, A Point of View: Beware the Experts, BBC Radio 4, December 9, 2011, repeated December 11, 2011. To listen to a streaming audio of the broadcast on the program’s website, click on the preceding linked title. After December 17, it will remain accessible on the show’s podcast page. For the full version of Jardine’s own transcript of her essay, click on this link — A Point of View: Beware of experts.

ABRIDGED TRANSCRIPT (With my added subheadings)

Back in 1960 CP Snow warned that “those charged with taking vital political decisions had no proper grasp of the issues.” Fifty years later, and nothing has changed except perhaps the life or death urgency and gravity of the decisions on so many fronts

The scientist, novelist and British civil servant CP Snow is probably best remembered for his controversial lecture The Two Cultures And The Scientific Revolution, on the gulf of incomprehension separating the arts and sciences, delivered in 1959.

In it he argued that in spite of the increasing importance of science, British intellectual life continued to be dominated by the traditional humanities. Today his argument continues to resonate, though perhaps now economics has joined science as a specialist field which baffles those who have received only an arts education.

A year after his Two Cultures lecture, Snow expanded on his argument and gave it an added sense of urgency in his 1960 Science and Government lectures, delivered at Harvard. He warned that at a time when specialist scientific understanding was indispensable, those charged with taking vital political decisions had no proper grasp on the issues.

“One of the most bizarre features of our time,” he wrote. “Is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men who cannot have a first-hand knowledge of what those choices depend upon or what their results may be.”

Snow specified that he had in mind decisions, I quote, “which determine in the crudest sense whether we live or die”. He named some of them. In recent British history they had included the choice in England and the United States to go ahead with work on the fission bomb in 1940-41, the decision in 1945 to use the atomic bomb against Japan, the choice in the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s to make the hydrogen bomb.

<Starting here, I omitted about ten short paragraphs recounting a confrontation which took place during World War II between Snow’s hero, the chemist Henry Tizard and his villain, the physicist Frederick Lindemann over his recommendation in support of strategic saturation bombing of Germany.>

I pick up the story here, with the lesson Snow learned from this historical event —

“If you are going to have a scientist in a position of isolated power,” Snow concludes, “the only scientist among non-scientists is dangerous whoever he is.”

In government matters where scientific expertise is required, informed decision makers must collaborate

Snow has a clear sense, based on his own wartime experience, that in government informed individuals have to work together as a team towards a consensus – or at least an informed disagreement. But they can only do so in matters of science if there are enough of them who understand how scientific argument works.

Non-experts at the table must at least be able to follow the arguments and evaluate the proposals on their merits

All those in positions of power and influence, Snow maintains, ought to be able to evaluate proposals put to them which involve science and technology. It may not be possible for them to master the detail themselves, but they must be able to follow the argument. And be surrounded by those with good enough scientific backgrounds to explain the reasoning processes by which the proposed course of action was reached.

To achieve this minimal requirement, Snow made the case for an integrated arts-science culture and educational curriculum

The only way to achieve this, says Snow, is to set the sciences squarely alongside the arts at the heart of education. More than 50 years after Snow launched his appeal for an integrated arts-science culture and curriculum, it is, in my view, high time that we renewed and intensified our efforts to realize Snow’s as yet unrealized goal.

Together, elites in both the sciences and humanities must insist that educated debate inform highly technical political policy in government decision making

Because as I see it, the issue today is not whether the sciences or the humanities get more funding out of the shamefully small pot currently allocated to higher education. It is rather whether the educated elites in both sectors are prepared to stand side by side to insist that informed, educated debate is needed wherever political policy has to be formed in so-called “technical”, “specialist” areas of life. Which today means those number and formula driven disciplines with which the humanities-trained struggle to engage.

Currently, educated debate is not informing highly technical government decision making

In current debates about GM crops, nuclear energy and climate change, the public at large – including governments and senior administrators – are liable to be swayed by the most persuasive of the advisers or interest groups, because they are not equipped with the knowledge or the reasoned strategies needed to judge. Many of them are dismayed by any argument that involves number and maths.

This tendency for governments to be swayed by non-elected experts is most evident in finance and economics

Currently, this tendency to be swayed by experts is most clearly to be seen in the field of economics. Recently two nations within the European Union, Greece and Italy, have replaced their elected prime ministers by so-called technocrats – men with a significant track record in finance, but not experience of government at local or national level.

Governments are being run by oligarchies of experts where interests of the financial markets take precedence over the “public interest”

In the case of Italy, the entire cabinet consists of financial specialists. The non-elected prime minister’s people head “governments of national unity” which pursue policies for which nobody in the electorate voted. Indeed, they are not expected to consider the interests of the public, except insofar as introducing austerity measures sufficiently swingeing to satisfy the international markets is supposed ultimately to ensure the solvency of the nation as a whole.

Are we really comfortable leaving grave political decisions to technocrats whose successes have been measured in terms of investment yields? We have been forced into the position of doing so, I suggest, by very much the circumstances that CP Snow described 50 years ago, in connection with key decisions in time of war.

In wartime, Churchill – himself exclusively humanities-educated – took the advice of the man closest to him whose views were, as it happened, not shared by other prominent figures within the scientific community.

Today, faced with an international financial crisis, Europe’s elected representatives have singled out individuals with economic expertise for a solution. In this case too, significant voices have been raised by economic experts outside government, questioning the wisdom of adopting the measures proposed.

“The rule of a few wise men is oligarchy, not democracy”

The rule of a few wise men is oligarchy, not democracy. So democracy depends upon our being able to sustain informed debate in the fields of science and economics. Each and every one of us has to take responsibility for the decisions that shape the future of the nation as a whole.

Most importantly, we, the people, must be able to follow the arguments of the experts

But we will only be able to do that if those we have elected to govern us can master the technical aspects of difficult decision making – and if we in our turn are able to follow their arguments.

MY COMMENT — And there, in Jardine’s closing paragraph, is “the rub”. Quite clearly, few of our elected representatives or the electorate are intellectually equipped to follow the best advice and arguments of scientific and technical advisers. The disappointing outcome at COP17 is further evidence – as if further evidence were needed — of this cognitive deficiency.

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