Politics, science, and the art of the possible
Otto von Bismarck observed that politics is “the art of the possible”, but the statement holds true in many more domains than that. It’s only trivially true to say that anything is constrained by what is possible and what is not – yet that sort of retort is usually as far as the conversation might go (on social media in particular).
It’s more likely that Germany’s first Chancellor was trying to say that there’s frequently a mismatch between our ideals and what can reasonably be achieved. Not, in other words, that things are literally impossible – more that we need to bear the trade-offs in mind when making judgements as to whether people are doing a good job or not.
Cognitive biases like the Dunning-Kruger effect describe how we overemphasise our own expertise or competence, leading us to ascribe malice in situations where the explanation for someone’s screw-up is most probably simple incompetence, or simply that the job in question was actually pretty difficult, meaning that expecting perfection was always unreasonable. (As some of you would know, this paragraph describes a more gentle version of Hanlon’s Razor – “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.)
So, instead of paying attention to the arguments and their merits when it comes to something like blood deferrals for gay men, we claim prejudice. Or, when someone dies after taking the advice of a homeopath too seriously, some of us might be too quick to call the victim stupid or overly gullible, instead of focusing on those who knowingly (because some quacks are of course victims themselves) exploit others for financial or other gain.
The point is that some problems are difficult to solve, and certainly more difficult than they appear to be from a distance, or from the perspective of 20/20 hindsight. So, when you accuse your local or national government of racism, or being anti-poor, or some other sort of malice, it’s always worth pausing to think about the problem from their point of view, as best as you are able to. They might be doing the best they can, under the circumstances.
In case you aren’t aware of two recent resources for helping us to think these things through more carefully, I’d like to draw a recent comment in the science journal Nature to your attention, as well as a response to it that was carried in the science section of The Guardian.
In late November this year, Nature offered policy-makers 20 tips for interpreting scientific claims, and even those of you who aren’t policy-makers should spend some time reading and thinking about these (though, don’t sell yourselves short in respect of not labeling yourself a policy-maker, because on one level of policy, you’d want to include for example parenting. And what you choose to feed your children, or the medicines you give them, would usually be informed – or so one would hope – on scientific claims of whatever veracity.)
The Nature piece talks about sample size, statistical significance, cherry-picking of evidence, and 17 other import issues, many of which you’d hope some scientists would themselves take on board – not only those scientists who might play fast-and-loose with some of the issues raised, but also simply in terms of how they communicate their findings to the public. If you’re asked to provide content for a newspaper, magazine or other media, the article highlights some common areas of confusion, and therefore helps you to know where you perhaps be more clear.
Second, and in response to the first piece, The Guardian (who had also re-published the Nature list) gave us the top 20 things that scientists need to know about policy-making. And this piece I’d commend to all of you, but especially the armchair legislators that routinely solve the country’s political problems on Twitter, or make bold claims about how little or how much governments might care for the poor, and so forth.
In short, making policy is difficult, and doing good science can be difficult too, because among the things we can be short of is time, money, attention, the public’s patience, and so forth. In the majority of cases, both policy-makers and scientists might be doing the best they can, under those situations of constraint. So before we tell them that they are wrong, we should try to ensure we at least know what they are trying to do, and whether they are going about it in the most reasonable way possible, given the circumstances.
They don’t get the luxury of ignoring what is possible and what is not when doing the science, or making the policy. When criticising them, we shouldn’t grant ourselves that luxury either.