Nov. 2nd, 2009

helenic: (every turn of the wheel is a revolution)

Couple of good articles on the sacking of David Nutt, which I find abhorrent for all the obvious reasons, plus those articulated by JQP in his two "Expertease" articles written at the start of this year.

This isn't the first time this issue has been on our radar. Drugs legislation is one of the easiest targets. Then there was the debate about Green Party science policy earlier this year. Now this, which some commentators have compared to the way policy on ID cards continues to ignore expert advice. Detecting a bit of a theme?

[Democracy] relies on one very important variable, which British society has utterly failed to deliver: accurate information.
In theory, democracy works for the benefit of mankind because the government responds to public demands. This requires two things to be fulfilled. The public have to be rational, which sometimes pertains, and it has to have access to reliable information, or else its demands rest on false assumptions. But the media, its main source of information, does not deliver. It provides truth, yes, but it also spews out myths and nonsense to substantiate its editorial agenda.

(Drugs policy and the death of reason, politics.co.uk, Monday, 02, Nov 2009 12:00)

Ah, everyone's favourite rant about democracy and the media! Excellent: I always enjoy having someone else do this one for me. It even includes references to Plato, if not to the process of Athenian democracy itself.

You all know this already, but just in case: Athenian democracy worked because it was tiny. Something in the region of 60,000 adult male citizens had the right to vote at any one point in the mid-5th century BC - a figure that dropped during wartime. Start with a small city-state and then exclude women, children and adolscents, immigrants, slaves, criminals and anyone who hasn't completed military training. The result is a direct democracy, where those involved are small enough to sit in a single assembly, watch political speakers and satirical theatre as a single audience, and participate in the same big debate. More oligarchy than democracy by modern standards. (Is more complicated than this, but you get the idea. Feel free to comment if you think I'm misrepresenting.)

Modern democracies which aim at representing the demands of the whole population - including, even more recently, women - can't be directly representational (until we develop secure tech for remote voting) and they can't be directly informed. Our representation is a mess, and so is our information. I mean the internet is great and all, but so far it mostly seems to be resulting in more people sharing opinion than data. (Peer-reviewed science has massive class and accessibility issues - is wikipedia the closest thing we have to democratic information?)

Anyway, so I'm sure you all know my feelings on policy and the meeja. What I found kind of interesting reading the post-Nutt-sacking commentary (har) is the fact that no-one's thought to relate this issue to climate science. Which seems a bit odd. Look at this paragraph from that Nutt vs ID cards article:

That's not to say politicians should blindly and slavishly heed scientific advice without any other considerations. Of course not. The whole nature of politics is about balancing various constituencies of interest. But politicians should be able to explain the reason for their decisions when they choose to ignore independent expert advice and press ahead with proposals that potentially put the UK population at greater risk.

O RLY?

Governments have been ignoring expert advice on climate change for, gosh, several decades now. I'm outraged about that, but I'm not surprised. It's not even really news, apart from in the "shit continues to hit fan" sense - but that's not unusual either.

If the outrage over the Home Office not only disregarding the recommendations of its chosen experts, but actually punishing those experts for telling the truth, leads to it happening less, well, great: perhaps they'll start listening to expert advice on environmental policy. Drugs legislation is a relatively quiet issue - you don't get many people willing to protest about it, and most public figures avoid speaking out on it unless they're happy to be branded a filthy munter.

Climate change should be a considerably less risky thing to talk about: surely most people believe that saving the human race from extinction is a generally good thing, even if they're not willing to act personally to help the cause. I mean, to oversimplify dramatically, this is one of the reasons we have laws, right? To encourage people to do the right thing even if they might not always want to?

Not only does policy fly in the face of scientific evidence when it comes to climate change, those who complain loudly about this are treated far worse by the state than those outraged at scandal of David Nutt's illegitimate sacking. Climate change doesn't seem to make it into any of the commentary on governments ignoring their experts. Is the issue becoming so marginalised that no-one's willing to include it in their analysis? Perhaps they're all just trying to avoid being labelled domestic extremists. In which case, the re-branding of climate activists as a marginal, undesirable group by the police is clearly starting to take effect.

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