Voters before science

Peter Gluckman doesn’t trust the public. His call for evidence-based policy put his science ahead of voters and the democratic system.

The Prime Minister’s Science Adviser has criticised politicians for:

ministerial decisions that considered other factors – such as public opinion – as more important than informed research.

His report says evidence should be “base information” for policy formation, only after which comes “value-based” components such as “public opinion”, because;

majority public opinion does not create reliable evidence

I have immense respect for scientists and the scientific method. At least there is an attempt at objectivity. I have immense desire for the inclusion of hard evidence in making policy. Gluckman’s report seeks that, but it also seeks primacy for “science” and for “evidence” over everything else.

In Gluckman’s preferred world those who have conducted “informed research” should get first dibs on framing debate, setting out evidence, and making decisions, and then over-rule public opinion. What he is proposing is a  completely different form of government – something like an Aristocracy.

In a democratic society this idea should have been met with howls of outrage. But most people weren’t listening  – they’ve got lives they manage to live well enough without the direction of science.

Gluckman’s worldview, and of the elite who cheered him, regards people as unfit to choose. They need to be nudged and scientifically managed by people who are better than them.

To the elite, the ends, and the how, of policy is not a matter of a debate. They don’t want any normal person to have a say that counts, and even less be left to make a choice.  

To them, government is just a matter of applying science.This views other people as bundles of energy, compounds of various materials, that can be nudged and altered by inputs, to generate a desired output.

To me, the core point of democracy, and classic liberalism, is a belief in the fundamental capability of all us of, individually and collectively. My neighbour must be free to make a choice, and me a different one, even if it is a bad one.

In my twenty five years experience of government policy making I’ve often been frustrated by what appeared to me to be improper collection and weighting of evidence. But I understand that politics is the art of the possible – and most public servants are trying their best to weigh competing interests. That’s what people do well, and science doesn’t.

I believe Gluckman really does cares about people. He wants evidence-based policy because he believes that the perfect collection of actions will result in better lives. But he doesn’t see that removing the power of people over their lives, even to make them healthy, results in empty shells; in healthy lives not worth living.

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