Political science

After a general election with no clear winner, the scientific method can build consensus and support stable government, argues Christopher Tyler

May 12, 2010

The problem with a hung Parliament is that it is difficult for one party to pass legislation on its own. The only way decisions can be made is if the parties agree with each other, which in normal circumstances seems a rare event.

There are broadly two reasons why political parties may not agree. The first is political gamesmanship, when the opposition votes against government proposals to make life difficult. In a hung Parliament, there will be public pressure on politicians not to play the usual games, but to reach constructive compromises.

The second is that they disagree on ideological grounds. For example (and I know these are sweeping generalisations): the Right likes flatter taxes, the Left likes more progressive taxes; conservatives think that the state should promote marriage, liberals think that the state has no business making judgements about people’s private lives; the religious want to keep faith schools, the secular want religion and the state to be separate.

These are significant ideological divides and it is hard to see how they could be bridged. But in a hung Parliament, if legislation is to be passed, consensus on all sorts of topics will have to be reached.

Here, the scientific method and evidence have a role to play. To make use of them, it is necessary to distinguish between ideological statements and apparent statements of fact. For example, here are two positions, each with an ideological statement and a series of “facts”:

Position 1: Nature knows best, and the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture is bad for the environment, bad for your health and produces bland food.

Position 2: Nature doesn’t know best, and synthetic chemicals can be used to produce tasty food without harming the environment or your health.

The ideological statements are obvious – “nature does/doesn’t know best” – and then there are a series of apparent factual statements. The problem is that the factual statements are contradictory.

This is an extreme but real and common scenario. All of us, politicians included, have a tendency to base our views on ideological positions and then pick “facts” that back them up.

In our search for consensus, a mechanism is needed to identify the correct “facts”. Fortunately, “facts” – unlike ideologies – can be tested against observational data (that’s the scientific method), and there are researchers up and down the country and around the world who have applied the scientific method to questions that are relevant to the complex issues with which politicians have to grapple.

That is why engagement between politicians and researchers is so important. It is the best way for politicians to reach agreement on whether or not there is an evidential consensus – which usually, of sorts, there is.

In our agricultural example, expert advisers would note that there is a scientific consensus that it is possible to use synthetic chemicals responsibly and safely to produce tasty food. Armed with this information, politicians might still decide that “nature knows best”, but the chances of their adhering to an extreme ideologically driven policy – like banning synthetic chemicals – will have been reduced. This is an extreme example, but the principle holds across more common and complex policy areas.

In a typical Parliament, with a single-party majority government, scientific advice is sought to help politicians and civil servants to make good policy decisions. In today’s hung Parliament, there is an additional role for scientific advice and evidence-based thinking: to provide a platform for cross-party consensus.

If they listen to the best experts and seek the best evidence-based advice, politicians would be better able to build bridges between ideologies and provide us with a stable and effective government.

Christopher Tyler is executive director of the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge (http://csap.org.uk/), a new initiative to promote engagement between scientists and policymakers.


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