On the 7th of May 2015 the United Kingdom will hold a general election and party political campaigns are now in full swing. As a voter who is currently undecided, I’m fervently rifling through political literature and attempting to navigate jargon as I make my decision. But, as a scientist, I can’t help but feel that politicians aren’t making this decision easy for me. In a funny way, my world is pretty simple. In science, evidence and logic are key and we attempt to follow these to their conclusions. But this seems to be a far cry from the murky world of politics where evidence can be manipulated and jargon and rhetoric hold sway. So, as a public service, I present a list of five things politicians could learn from scientists.
1) There are lies, damn lies and political statistics:
We live in a world abound with data – from traffic cameras to Google Analytics, computers the world over store vast amounts of information about our lives and the world we inhabit. This is no bad thing of course – knowledge has the power to make the world a better place. However, in unscrupulous or untrained hands, it can also deceive and manipulate.
Data is the currency that scientists deal in and, over the years, we have learned to handle it with care since things are often not exactly how they appear. But, what happens when big data and political aspirations collide?
Any trained orator knows that a light peppering of statistics can seal the deal during a debate, or at least muddy the water enough to breed uncertainty. But, how often do we hear similar sounding stats wheeled out by opposing parties and hailed as proof of very different ideals? Numbers can provide very important insights – but, depending on how you process the numbers, the same data can also give very different outcomes. Whether through honest errors in understanding (yes, numbers are tricky things) or by calculated deception, politicians often throw out dodgy stats in the hope of strengthening their argument and winning your vote – for a few examples see here.
In my opinion, the use of statistics in the current election campaign is doing little more than muddying the water and making the voters’ job significantly more challenging. How many people have the time or inclination to research every figure quoted? Statistics are very informative and key to most policies but, if they are to be used, politicians must also be clear about how the figures were obtained and why they may differ between parties.
2) The world isn’t black and white:
Wouldn’t life be great if all our problems had simple answers? For example, if we believed that all of our country’s financial and social problems could be solved by altering immigration laws, or if I could prepare for the upcoming ‘bikini season’ by simply popping a couple of magic diet pills. Sadly, the world is far from black and white, and oversimplification can often lead to misunderstanding and confusion.
Many voters may crave a ‘quick fix’ to our country’s social and economic problems, just like they may want to lose weight without diet or exercise, but that’s just not realistic! I want to know that policies have been formulated based on all available evidence and that – ‘God forbid’ – politicians are willing to recognise that these may not be perfect solutions and may even require modification in light of further evidence (see point 3). Although hyperbolic slogans may be appealing, it is well reasoned arguments based on clear, well explained facts that will allow voters to really understand the workings of the political machine and enable them to make an informed decision about their vote.
3) Changing your mind is nothing to be ashamed of:
How many times have you heard politicians being slated for performing ‘U-turns’? This phrase first gained media notoriety in the early 1970s when Prime Minister Ted Heath had to dump his free-market economic policy in the face of soaring inflation and rampant industrial action. This decision was viewed as an appalling show of weakness by the Tory right and, ever since, political U-turns have been widely derided by the media.
But, during the current coalition government’s tenure, David and Co have reversed or rethought dozens of policies, from selling off Britain’s forests to taxing our favourite pastry-based snacks. Indeed, recent research by Ipsos Mori suggests that two-thirds of voters want a Prime Minister who acts mainly on the views and opinions of the general public when making decisions, rather than one who trusts solely in his own experience. In our dizzyingly complex world, I am heartened to know that policies are not set in stone and may be modified in the face of new evidence.
This is largely something scientists have been practicing for many years. In fact, all scientific theories are open for modification in the light of new evidence – many theories are widely accepted and would require extraordinary evidence to change but, given significant weight of evidence, anything is fair game. In the world of science, evidence is the one true king and this should also be true for politics. So, lets stop scoffing at political U-turns and be thankful when politicians admit to learning from their mistakes. In the words of Ghandi, “I am pleased when I change my mind because it shows that I have learned and grown wiser.”
4) Clarity is key:
As a scientist, I’m pretty used to sifting through technical jargon in scientific journals. And this is fine since, as a rule, this type of literature is aimed at scientists with a strong background in that particular field. However, as a science communicator, much of my time is spent agonising over ensuring that the material I communicate is accessible, truthful, representative and unambiguous. This is not an easy task but it’s 100% necessary if I want anyone (no matter what their background) to connect with the concepts I’m trying to communicate.
Sadly, I’m starting to think that many politicians enjoy being deliberately vague, evasive and inaccessible. My head spins with inscrutable statistics, vague and meaningless rhetoric, evasive noncommittal answers to seemingly simple questions and statements with little or no substance.
I recognise that, come May the 7th, the box I tick will be important for shaping the future of our country. So, is it too much to ask that politicians work hard to disambiguate their policies and structure their arguments around accessible facts and figures? In fact, sometimes the whole thing makes me question if any of the parties really know what they are talking about… As Einstein once said, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”
5) Lets move forward rather than shifting blame:
One political tactic which never fails to drive me mad is when, instead of discussing policies on important economic or social issues, parties waste time blaming their competitors for past failings or denigrating their current policies. My personal view on this campaign tactic came to a head in 2011 with the referendum on the alternative voting system, of which (after reading into it) I was in favour.
In the lead up to the referendum, I was saddened to see how much campaign material avoided the interesting facts behind the vote, choosing instead to plaster campaign literature with pictures of the recently disgraced Nick Clegg. This material seemed to be saying, ‘Nick lied to you about tuition fees, he wants the alternative voting system and he can’t be trusted so it must be a bad thing’. Yes, there was more to the ‘No’ campaign than just Nick Clegg’s face, but this message certainly played a role despite having no relevance to the issues being debated.
Again, in the lead up to this year’s election, I’ve seen my fair share of dodgy and largely irrelevant muck slinging, which I will be ignoring in favour of party policies – here are a selection of some of my personal ‘favourite’ dodgy campaign posters:
Now, I’d be lying if I said that all scientists doggedly hunt out the truth without holding any personal grudges or undermining one another’s work – we’re all human. But, in general, scientists gain funding to further their research by explaining how their work will benefit society and increase our understanding of the world, not by slamming other lab groups or accusing them of bad science. And that’s really how things should be.
So, as an undecided voter, I hope politicians will hear my plea… If you want my vote, come to me with clear, well reasoned, policies. Don’t treat me like an idiot and try to gain my support through hyperbole and muck slinging… I don’t expect you to have all the answers, but I do want you to explain your political stance clearly, listen to my views, base your policies on the best available evidence and to not be afraid of changing your stance in the light of new evidence.
Post by: Sarah Fox
But, scientists are far from perfect! for an alternative view and some advice on what scientists could learn from politicians, check out the new post by Ian Wilson, one of our friends at the Scouse Science Alliance.