There have been a number of examples this week in the UK which demonstrate the complex social processes that surround the use and interpretation of evidence and how it influences political decision-making, belief, values and human behaviour. Evidence gets taken up in interactions between people who then use it in their struggles over ideology and power, morality and ethical choices. These struggles can also evoke strong feelings of shame and anger.
For example, Alan Johnson, the current Home Secretary, sacked government adviser Professor David Nutt accusing him of openly campaigning against government policy. The government produces a categorisation of drugs it deems harmful to human health and had reclassified cannabis from a C to a B category, thus deeming it more harmful. The dismissal of Professor Nut arose in particular from a speech that he had made arguing amongst other things that cannabis was not as harmful as the government proposed relative to the other drugs it was being compared to, and that smoking cannabis was less risky than riding a horse. If the government was to be truly evidence-based, he argued, it would also include tobacco and alcohol in its frame of reference. Professor Nutt and colleagues produced a rather elegant classification of drugs which looked very different from the one currently informing British law, and set out their assumptions about why this was more evidence-based.
In making the speech that he did based on articles written elsewhere, one might conclude that he was both wise and naive at the same. Professor Nutt’s revised table of harmful drugs should have provoked an interesting debate about why it is any government would want to penalize cannabis and not penalize excessive alcohol consumption, for example. But it is at the point that he strayed into politics, when he was caught calling the game into question, that it became a power struggle. The game he was calling into question is the extent to which policy is based on evidence, particularly with this particular government that has made huge claims to being un-ideological (“not left, not right, but what works”). The struggle, then, revolves around who gets to decide public policy and on what basis. As with any government, policy is liked to be informed by evidence when it suits political purposes and not when it doesn’t. Nutt’s challenge to government was for him an opportunity to discuss the evidence in an academic way assuming an equal interest in what we take to be evidence. It was interpreted by Johnson as his throwing down the gauntlet and challenging them to justify themselves. In a contest over who decides, there can be only one winner.
There is also a degree of naivety that in complex social processes evidence is all you need. So George Monbiot in an article in the Guardian this week took a typically polarising positivistic position that everything that is not scientifically supported must therefore be nonsense and untenable. Monbiot is combative and angry, and perhaps he should be. But he also gives his opponents, or even those who are undecided, nowhere to stand, except after Jesus, with him or against him. What Monbiot does consistently in his articles is to turn the best scientific evidence on man-made climate change, which he knows thoroughly, into a set of moral imperatives. While people might share his interpretation of the evidence, they may not share the moral conclusions that he comes to. There is no doubt that people dispute the evidence, or resist the conclusions that they might draw about what the current state of evidence might mean for their every day behaviour, and engage in fantasy driven behaviour, what the sociologist Norbert Elias termed ‘magical-mythical thinking’. However, they might also understand the evidence as Monbiot does, but reach different conclusions about what it means for them ethically. Ethical choices are not driven by evidence, but what we take to be the good, which is informed by a variety of different factors many of them contingent and contextual. What people might be resisting in listening to Monbiot’s diatribes is not the scientific evidence but an appeal to a kind of moral totalitarianism that is he is expressing evangelically. They may experience it as an attempt to shame them, which might evoke feelings of both anger and resistance.
The confusion about what evidence might mean for our lives that Monbiot despairs about is shared by many people, including top judges. In what might appear to Monbiot to be a bizarre judgement this week Justice Mr Michael Burton decided that ‘A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purposes of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations.’ The case referred to involved a company director made redundant after he contested the decision by his chief executive to send an employee to Ireland to retrieve his Blackberry which he had left behind. As head of sustainability for the company Tim Nicholson was outraged at the gap between words and deeds in a company that had a sustainability policy but seemed to flout it in such a flagrant way. He claimed that he had been discriminated against and his claim was upheld. The judge set out five tests to determine whether a philosophical belief might come under employment regulations, and it is the second of these which is most confusing: it must be a belief and not an opinion or view based on the present state of information available. The judgement appears to equate the kind of moral position-taking of both Monbiot and Nicholson with a religious belief, which I am sure would be anathema to those espousing climate change on the basis of what they would see as unrefutable scientific evidence. They would see their position as informed by the spirit of the Enlightenment, the facts, and not by belief.
Meanwhile, as the talks preparing for the climate conference in Copenhagen hot up, evidence gets tipped into the melting pot with naked bids for domination, obfuscation, trickery and strong feeling. As John Vidal writes in the Guardian today:
“Negotiators are mainly anonymous civil servants who have some freedom to set positions but can hide from the public, which is mostly denied access to the talks. They admit to personal duels and tactical manoeuvres. phrases that might protect the world’s forests or condemn nuclear power may be there one day and gone the next, and no one can why and who is responsible… There have been long debates over whether a comma, a colon or a semi-colon should be used in the text; arguments have raged about the meaning of ‘sustainable forest maangement’ as opposed to sustainable management of forests.”