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The Big Converstation
Whose truth? Evidence, trust and policy in the 3rd Millennium

Tony Blair has announced "The Big Conversation" (26 November, 2003). If this is another version of the old theme of consulting the public, it may well be doomed. What's needed is for the public to listen to good evidence, not to "mouth off" its own uninformed opinions. Here, RDN describes the modern erosion of trust.

The story so far
Ever since the 17th Century Enlightenment, "truth" has been a very contested item. The Enlightenment, after all, unhitched the "truth" from "revelation". The truth was no longer what the Church declared to have been the truth as shown to us by God. We had to discover it for ourselves. It became a matter for debate.

However, the vast majority of people did not suppose they knew enough or cared enough to be the arbiters of most matters. One sought and took advice from a growing army or experts. And these experts were increasingly organised. Over four centuries, universities, the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, the medical colleges, the professions: all increasingly coralled and developed expertise. These bodies were devoted to pursuing knowledge and understanding. As problems arose, their advice could be sought.

It is perhaps easiest to spot these trends in the "hard" sciences (those that deal with the physical world). But they are mirrored in the "human" or "social" sciences, and perhaps particularly in economics. How to create full-employment? What level of taxation generated the most income? Was society becoming more or less unequal?
In these areas, personal prejudice was likely to be strong and had to be taken into account. But there was also evidence to be considered, and expertise to be sought.

In the hard and soft sciences, Government had to deal with many controversies and problems, but there was an acceptance that there was a body of wise and educated people whose advice was likely to be worth listening to. It could also be co-opted by Government, which in the 19th and 20th centuries increasingly employed professionals and scientists. "The Government" came to be trusted in its own right as a location of the kind of expertise whose credentials everyone understood.

Note that the myriad professional and scientific institutions were not only trusted to be expert, they were relied-on as being fundamentally unbiased. It was assumed that they were in no-one's pocket. They hang on to that reputation today only with difficulty, and only by hedging their bets carefully. Note also, that for most of the 20th Century, there was little cynicism about Government and politicians. That trustfulness has been severely eroded.

Good policy
Actually, on most issues we have to decide on, we don't expect to discover the truth. We are more concerned to try to guage a lesser animal. We want a well-found policy. (We want, not the absolute truth but, "what works".) Should we rely on this or that technology? Is this or that practice cruel? Will this medicine work better than that? What money should we spend in the hope of avoiding this or that risk? What rate of tax to impose?

Now, answering these questions is a close cousin of discovering the truth, but it is a lesser - a less absolute - matter. But, like a quest after truth, it depends on assessing evidence and listening to opinion.

These are all issues about risk, but then all issues are. What really distinguishes them is that they are all issues which depend on evidence which it is difficult to understand. In the past we would accepted that the Government would assess evidence from, and the opinion of, the likes of biologists, vets, engineers, climate modellers, doctors - in the case of "social sciences", economists, sociologists, planners, psychologists. Until perhaps thirty years ago, we would quite often have produced a "consensus" which was endorsed by not merely a majority of experts, but by their professional bodies and institutions. There would have been "mavericks" who did not accept the consensus, and sometimes they would be proved right in the end. But the institutionally-endorsed consensus would have had relatively few challenges, and the mavericks might have been valued as leavening the process, but probably not have been much attended to.

We have seen several other shifts:
1) There is so much more evidence produced now that there is a greater likelihood that it is conflicting.
2) Every interest (commercial, anti-commercial, etc) will now produce competing "evidence" to back its case.
3) We pay attention to personal stories rather than expert assessment (thus, a victim we see on TV matters more than an expert we can't be bothered to read).
4) The media finds, and we find attractive, the lone "maverick" - especially the scare-monger (after all, maybe he's right).

The political response
Governments have realised that the old machinery of consensus is no longer available to them.

As they develop policy, they have to find new ways to establish a view of what is "sensible" and sell it to the public.

Actually, the Government has always had a powerful default position, and it was an old-fashioned one. It tended to favour the idea of progress (new products are better than old; firms which make things need help as against campaigners who also seem to want to stop wealth-creation). It favoured the views of cool experts (as against emotional individuals). It prefered the advice of those who sought to help it, and were part of its world, as against a shifting array of loud outsiders who seemed mostly to unite in not wanting to involve themselves in gettng elected or moving things forward.

Those fault lines in part remain. But, there is a battle now between, on the one hand, the expert, institutional, formal world of government, professions and scientific bodies - and, on the other, the campaigning, populist, emotional, world the media trumpets.

There are various reasons for this shift.
1) The greatest is probably simply inherent in the logic of democracy. "The People" have been told their opinion matters, and they have come to believe it.
2) They have just enough education to believe they are as good a judge of things as the next man.
3) The media has made scandals out of every kind of risk.
4) Privatisation has made it more likely that a capitalist fat-cat can be blamed for a disaster than a public servant.

The fault line is in any case not as clear as it was.
There is now respectable opinion and evidence on most "sides" of most debates. On nuclear power, waste disposal, vaccines, GMOs and perhaps especially on Global Warming, equally intelligent and informed people hold radically opposed views. One shouldn't over-do this sense of confusion. In most of these cases (Global Warming is the exeption), expert opinion is probably fairly "optimisitic" - that's to say, that we have technical solutions to most of the problems we see.

Debate and consultation
We have been inclined to believe that more debate and consultation must be "good things". But debate by itself changes nothing. At its worst, it is two or more sides saying things which suit them. It may energetic and entertaining, but the public may not be listening, or be inclined to believe both sides equally wrong, or to be enamoured of one or other side out of simple prejudice or emotional appeal. Consultation may be no more valuable. What use is it to base policy on what uninformed and lazy people happen to believe when asked?

So what's to do?
We need to remember that in evidence-based matters, we should continue to discover and endorse the institutions which generate and assess evidence. When we listent to people's opinions, we should develop more faith in those who have bothered to assess the evidence carefully, and who speak carefully to the evidence. This sounds easy, but isn't. It takes time and affort, and most of us can't be bothered to devote them.

What does this mean for politics?
Politicians need to show that they are careful about evidence, that they will listen to uncomfortable evidence from trusted sources, and that they realise that listening to the public is the easy bit of their profession.

A note on New Labour
New Labour is a special case. It grows out of a movement which was always like a campaign body (as opposed to the Tories, which was the "natural" party of power). The New Labour project understood and used the same levers as the pressure groups which were increasinlgy popular in the 1980s. It played the media; it played on dissident themes; it was ant-elitist. It promoted the idea that "The People" were right, and that the "Forces of Conservatism" were ancient oppressors.
In recent years, it has changed its tune. Tony Blair has renounced popularity (and with it, populism). He has occasionally allied himself with the technocrats and experts (those behind GMOs, MMR, research using animals).

A note: "scientific" vs "social" issues
Some hard science cases
nuclear power
MMR: the triple vaccine
Global Warming
rail safety

Some soft science cases:
Does prison work?
Can private firms run public services?
Is it right to protect intellectual property?
Can foreign aid work?
Does economic inequality matter

It's a mistake to see the "hard" science issues as ones which technical expertise solely can resolve; and it is a mistake to see the "soft" issues as being solely moral. Making a judgement about either depends to some extent on understanding evidence.

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