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The Scientific Cure for Politics

The Scientific Cure for Politics

The scientific method is the most successful technique humanity has devised for achieving organised, systematic progress, so why isn’t it applied in other arenas? In particular, why is politics allowed to revolve around inconclusive moralistic debates instead of the tried and trusted steps of the scientific method?

Think of a typical political debate. Politician X stands up in the House of Commons. He moralises, postures, distorts the arguments of his enemies, employs the most transparent rhetoric, appeals to the ‘good sense’ of the people, thanks his voters, and tries to find a suitable soundbite so that he can appear on the evening news and rise up the pecking order in his party. Politician Y gets to his feet on the other side of the House and does exactly the same, except he’s coming at it from the marginally different angle favoured by his party.

This is, we are told, how a healthy democracy operates. Through some miracle it will achieve wonderful policies that will improve the lot of everyone in the country. Nonsense, of course.

The political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau explicitly warned that political parties were a threat to true democracy because instead of expressing the general will of the people, they express their own narrow interests. Isn’t this exactly what we see over and over again with the petty bickering between the main parties and their refusal to reach a sensible consensus?

So why not turn instead to how scientists do things? The scientific method involves four steps: 1) observe and describe a phenomenon; 2) formulate a hypothesis that explains the phenomenon; 3) use this hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to provide quantitative predictions of the results of new observations; 4) perform experimental tests of the predictions by several independent teams, using properly conducted experiments. In short, observe, hypothesise, predict and verify. If a hypothesis has been rigorously tested and still proves valid then it takes on the status of a theory, and can be used with a high degree of confidence (though certainty is never attained).

As an example of how the scientific method could work in the political arena, we might consider the debate over the legalisation of drugs. The opponents of legalisation usually contend that such a step would be a disaster: drug use and rates of addiction would soar; lives would be devastated and many abusers would die; NHS bills would grow astronomically; there would be serious policing issues, and social services would be required to get involved with many families that had fallen into desperate straits. But is there any evidence that these claims would be borne out?

Those who advocate reinforcing prohibitions against drug use, redoubling police efforts to crack down on suppliers and users, using good intelligence to stop drugs coming into the country etc. are little different from the proponents of America’s Prohibition policy of the 1920s and ‘30s, a policy that ended in disaster. Gangsters made fortunes out of supplying illegal liquor, and the law was flouted by millions of previously law-abiding citizens.

Those of a scientific mindset might make the following observations and hypotheses. 1) When popular drugs are declared illegal, people do not stop using them; 2) If the government does not supply drugs, criminals will meet the demand; 3) recreational drug users will have less regard for the law if they are regularly breaking it on a casual basis; 4) if the manufacture of recreational drugs was performed by legal companies, there would be a high standard of quality control (criminals on the other hand aren’t motivated by quality issues); 5) many drug users will die if the drugs they take are poorly manufactured (perhaps containing an excess of active ingredients, or toxic substances that have been mixed in to bulk them up); 6) the involvement of criminals in the supply of drugs leads to even more criminality, and a thriving black economy (more police are required to attempt to control it).

So, the legalisation of drugs might be expected to lead to the following results: 1) A reduction in criminality since the criminals’ main source of income has been denied them; 2) A reduction in the size of the black economy; 3) greater respect for the law and law-enforcers by recreational drug users 4) formerly illegal drugs will be manufactured according to the same quality standards as legal pharmaceuticals, leading to fewer deaths (and the government can levy taxes and profit from the use of the recreational drugs; at the moment only criminals profit).

Whether or not overall use of recreational drugs would increase after legalisation is debatable. Cigarettes are legal and yet their use has been falling over many years because of the health risks they pose.

Rather than encouraging an ineffectual debate, a scientific approach would demand that controlled experiments be carried out. In one part of the country (Scotland, for example), drugs would be legalised. In another part of the country (Wales, perhaps), police efforts would be intensified in an effort to eliminate drug abuse completely. After a suitable period (five years, say), all the data gathered from Scotland and Wales would be compared and contrasted. An informed debate could then be conducted, with solid data and a proper evidential base.

Every significant issue could be handled in the same way. All credible hypotheses regarding any political issue could be gathered and then tested in different regions of the country. After the agreed test period, the results could be analysed and the best-performing hypothesis implemented all over the country. At last, we would have a credible means for testing hypotheses, identifying best practice then rolling it out everywhere.

But once that process begins, what need is there for politicians? Isn’t it time to get rid of them and rely on the appliance of science? All debates could become data-based, and run by academics according to the scientific method. The method could be applied to health, education, crime, even taxation.

Nowadays, most people would be hard-pressed to identify any real differences between the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Squabbles between them tend to revolve around minor details of policy implementation. So, if politicians are no longer arguing over anything substantive, what’s the point of them? To use their own jargon, aren’t they part of the problem rather than the solution? And isn’t the scientific method the real answer?