Scientific Advice and Politics

‘But I would not be convicted

By a jury of my peers.

Still crazy after all these years.’

(Paul Simon)

The word ‘crazy’ belongs in a rubric of overused words alongside ‘cool’, ‘bad’ and the ubiquitous and innovative adjective  –  ‘like’. Thus I was surprised to see it used by none other than the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor (annual remuneration for advice is £165K) Sir John Beddington. The Guardian reports that Sir John used this c-word to describe NHS funding of homeopathy.

‘And quite right too!’ – I can hear the chorus of homeopathy’s detractors sing.  But wait a second. Is this the same Sir John Beddington who in 2009 was criticized for defending the Government’s stand on alternative medicine?  What an about turn!

Government ministers need to be careful about taking advice (even expensive advice) from people who might change their opinions according to the fashionable ‘consensus’ of the day.  The Health Minister, Anne Milton, should not take his diagnosis of her or her Government being ‘crazy’ too seriously. I’m sure it wasn’t meant personally and after all Sir John is not a medical doctor.

And Scientism still isn’t sexy!

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Comments

Ha ha! ha ha lol!!!!!! Great stuff Dr. K. The cartoon was just brilliant :>

There is, it seems, a very thin line between politics and science especially when the interests of the Establishment are concerned. Running through many such debates as these are the links to academic funding. In times of stress and perceived shortages of funding from government sources, such as the present, the Establishment seems to close ranks and try to kick out anything which does not conform to the orthodoxy, in order to protect the jobs of those who uphold the orthodoxy. In this case, perhaps one or two of Sir John’s colleagues have had a quiet word in his shell-like in order to get him back on track. So I suspect that this is the explanation for the phenomenon that you have highlighted.

David,
We would expect/hope/pray that a man paid £165K per annum for ‘scientific advice’ to be immune to the sort of lobbying you hint at, wouldn’t we?

Brian,

I am afraid that cynicism has crept into my very bones as far as politics is concerned – the more so as time goes on and a government from I had hoped so would come but which has produced disappointing little in the face of so much obstructionism from the civil and public service; to say nothing of the entrenched hangers-on in the quangos.

The way in which so much has been politicised and debased within what was once the finest, most incorruptible and neutral civil service in the world is a source of deep shame to me. And if you go outside the realm of health, the NHS and medical science, you will find others who despair likewise at the way in which institutions such as the Royal Society have been taken over by the politicised agenda – no longer is it the home of the genuinely enquiring, sometimes radical and always incrementally improving band of great minds it once was. The dead hand of the orthodox Establishment ossifies everything in its path.

In the case of Sir John, I fear it is very much a case of “scientific advice” being couched in such a way as to force policy in only one direction – policy and advice being indistinguishable these days.

However, it is late and I must not become maudlin after a mere two glasses of excellent Rioja, so to quote Samuel Pepys: “……and so to bed.”

Profound words, David. It is indeed that way. ‘Policy’ instead of being based on sincere, intelligent and heartfelt advice from experts in their fields, is heavily based on market research based on ‘focus groups’. The late Philip Gould was the master of this new way of making policy and his methods were not only responsible for the success of New Labour but also for the present Government. Do not be maudlin, David. Just because this is the way the West is being lost, doesn’t mean there isn’t much to celebrate here. For example they almost emulated Burma and censored comedy in the UK but thanks to a successful campaign by Rowan Atkinson in 2004, this was averted – by one vote in Parliament. So every now and then, democracy and liberty make little comebacks. But yes in general I agree the long term movement tends to serve only the politicians, bureaucrats and their ubermasters, the people with the really big money.

Quite right, he should have been extremely censured over his original remarks. He may be quite right that “wider factors other than science may be relevant” but it is not the job of a science advisor to say so or advise on any other basis than science.

That said, there is of course, still no evidence for homeopathy or indeed most of the alternative so-called treatments.

Fair enough. I guess some would think that he deserves severe censure for his recent remarks rather than his original remarks which might be closer to what he actually felt before he became an employee of governments that generate policy based on ‘focus groups’ more than on advice from experts. So the experts need to tow the line if they want to keep their jobs. Just see what happened to one who didn’t – David Nutt – whom I wrote about here. As a government advisor, if you give the government unfashionable advice you risk your neck. QED

Yes the Nutt episode was disgraceful, worthy of the Bush government at its worst. Perhaps the answer is to make all answers from scientific committees in the form of written reports and to publish those reports. Then the advice can be seen and assessed and the degree of realism in policies clearly seen.

I concur but it ain’t gonna happen is it?

Unfortunately not, but one can dream…

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