- 07 Nov 19
Across the world, we have seen a rise in a pernicious rejection of science. The truth is that we need more science rather than less. But it must be rigorous - and a reliable basis for the policies that follow...
Dragnet was one of the most popular programmes in the first years of Irish television. Money was too tight to mention when RTÉ began, so the station bought in loads of programmes and this was one. It featured Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday and Ben Alexander as his sidekick Officer Frank Smith. It grabbed its audience right from the intro: a laconic deadpan voice-over and dialogue and a blast of brass and tympani playing four notes: Bambahdambam... bahbadambambaaam...
It was pure pulp fiction, straight out of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. The detectives worked the seamy side of Los Angeles and viewers met all the usual suspects: hard chaws, swindlers, tough women, out-and-out crooks. Episodes were quasi-documentary and purportedly based on actual cases. "The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."
One of Friday's trademark lines was "Just the facts ma'am". Just the facts. It still turns up. It's just one of those lines. But he didn't say it! That actually derives from a satirical offshoot!
This fact, that Joe Friday didn't utter those words, is often used by scientists to underscore the importance of fact-checking. The fact that something is accepted as gospel doesn't mean it actually is a fact. This is pretty important for both politics and policymaking.
THE KEY ISSUES
In politics, culture and society as the second decade of the 21st century comes towards its close we find consensus under strain and in many countries - the USA, the UK, certain countries in South America and Eastern Europe - it is shattered.
Look at the assault on truth and on science, the construction and dissemination of "alternative facts". There are countless players out there, and not just the Russians, who are determined that whatever we get to hear, it won't be an objective, verifiable truth. They'd prefer it if you believed their stories - but will settle for merely undermining your faith in the truth. It's asymmetrical warfare aimed at creating confusion, division and chaos, because that subverts the basis on which our democratic system works.
Hence, of course, the unending efforts of fossil fuel firms and producer-countries to question and discredit the science of global climate change. The truth, however, is that this tendency is pervasive. Indeed a lot of what is spewed out about health, and diet, may well be the biggest sump of bad science going.
It's a happy hunting ground for conspiracy theorists of every stripe. And straightforward denial is rampant too: Boris Johnson and colleagues on Brexit; Vladimir Putin on Russian responsibility for assassinations; big-tech companies on responsibility for facilitating the far right; and, of course, Donald Trump on just about anything that twitters across his apparently limited, and also failing, mind.
There's a pressing need to restore faith in sound democratic systems and in good science and - for example, regarding global climate change - to promote the scientific consensus at all levels of society and across all continents. It's not about gut feelings. It's about the facts, just the facts. If we can't do that then we're fucked. You can kiss this earth goodbye because it won't survive any more of this denial, confusion and obfuscation.
Now for the harder part: this realisation cuts every which way. If we can and do agree to restore science, and facts, to pre-eminence, we also have to follow through systematically. There's no value in everyone agreeing that something has to change, but then carrying on as before. Which brings us to policy, that is, what our Governments do (on our behalf) to tackle the key issues we face, like climate change or hate crime.
VENEER OF RESEARCH
Ireland has long espoused the notion of evidence-based policymaking. At face value it's exactly what's required. When an issue presents itself, you conduct careful research and thorough analysis before making key decisions. As for what happens then, Ireland's Citizens' Assembly process showed that if you engage seriously, and present all the facts and views, then citizens will be able to reach a reasoned and sensible consensus.
But does everyone understand that for this to work the research must itself be comprehensive and scientifically robust? And that research can sometimes reveal things that you don't want to hear but really should? And that you have to reach a workable solution? Which takes hard work?
One doubts it. In a number of domains - health and justice spring to mind immediately - it often seems that some of those doing the measuring and analysis haven't advanced their skills, knowledge or understanding since fourth class in primary school. Or they only have eyes for their preferred data sets. Or they have adopted Lord Nelson's approach to research: look for what you want to see and never mind the bigger picture. But it's not scientific to paste a veneer of research on your prejudices and present the result as robust.
You could take almost any domain. For example, regarding hate crime, there have been calls that the ethnicity of victims should be recorded and published, to better aid the Garda's response to assaults and for "new legislation and accurate information to tell us how bad it (hate crime) is" (former High Court judge Bryan McMahon, quoted in the Irish Times, October 21).
Well, yes but also no! We need a cold, objective and scientific examination of the issue before we get to conclusions, recommendations and possible legislation. The assumption, clearly, is that the assailants are Irish. Fine. But are they? Might some of them be non-Irish? Or tourists? So shouldn't research also identify, where possible, the ethnicity of the assailant? And so on.
Hate crime and racism of any sort have to be confronted and expunged. But this requires finer analysis than has been conducted heretofore. Policy demands will follow - so it's incumbent on us to dispassionately gather the most comprehensive data possible. That's the scientific way to go about it.
Happily, the Gardaí are disposed to be careful in their reporting and the Central Statistics Office will work with them to improve ways of generating the data. This should elevate the process beyond the level of PULSE or the unscientific nonsense too often peddled by the Garda (and the RSA) on alcohol and road deaths. In the latter case, raw figures - largely devoid of context, scientific data-gathering and properly considered analysis - were co-opted to justify regulations and campaigns. This might be good lobbying - but it is very bad science.
When it's decision time, it's all about the facts, folks. Just the facts.