Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities

Reflections on Brexit

SVTs Andrea Saltelli and Silvio Funtowicz share their reflections on Brexit in The Guardian

researchers in lab
Jon Bradley

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“Science cannot solve these problems alone because it helped to create them in the first place”

Scientists frequently lament the lack of attention paid to “known facts” by decision makers and the public. With Brexit, it appears that a post-factual era has arrived, with politicians like Michael Gove openly expressing their disdain for expertise. How and why has this come about?

Science is living through an unprecedented crisis of reproducibility, with an associated loss of efficiency, waste of resources, and an impressive list of misdiagnoses in fields from forensics to economics, medicine to psychology, and nutrition to chemistry.

Science’s internal quality control mechanisms have been seriously impaired by dysfunctional system of incentives, including the use of perverse metrics, and the imperative to publish or perish, creating a dystopian nexus of Gordian complexity. The specialization of science, its subjugation to market ideology, and the loss of its pristine social fabric have contributed to this process. As a result, trust in science and expertise has suffered. Is such scepticism unjustified?

We still purport to live in the age of the enlightenment. Science can confirm the existence of gravitational waves and place a probe on a comet flying past the sun. We live in a world where the functioning of most of what surrounds us, from technologies to institutions, escape our understanding.

We have come to accept that democracy is dependent on financial manipulation. We pretend to make evidence-based policy, but suspect that evidence is used against us by those who operate the policy machine. The enlightenment is collapsing yet its worldview is still unassailable, even as a new “endarkenment” takes hold. Activists, scientists and citizens may have good ideas and sincere intentions, but their voices hardly register in the cacophony.

Science cannot solve these problems alone because it has contributed to create them in the first place. Scientists should not assume that science is an ethically privileged system. They should avoid supporting controversial policy agendas or corporate interests, or denouncing legitimate perspectives as “anti-science”. Scientists’ passion and advocacy is best deployed when they speak from within the confines of their own craft and specialised knowledge, showing humility and awareness of their own ignorance, as well as expertise.

Solving this crisis won’t be the task of single individuals, constituencies or institutions. There are already proposals for technical solutions to the present system of perverse incentives, on issues ranging from metrics to peer review; and swift action is also needed to address recognised methodological pitfalls (see, for example, the ASA’s statement on P-values). Other problems related to quality, diversity and inclusion need to be addressed and post-normal science (as suggested by New Zealand’s chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman) may offer a bridge between institutions and actors to be mobilised.

These, and other creative initiatives, some developed in collaboration with other concerned citizens, will demonstrate the determination of the scientific community to engage in a democratic endeavour, reinforcing human rights, and extending them to the excluded.

But we have to acknowledge that a complete solution is not possible unless we address the core beliefs from which our present predicament has emerged. In the seventeenth century, at the dawn of the scientific age, Francis Bacon suggested the need to understand which idols need to be abandoned before we can achieve progress. Bacon’s battle against scholasticism would today take the form of a collective debate about the existing idealised vision of science and scientists. Next, having witnessed the failure of economics to anticipate and solve recent crises, a reappraisal of its role as a master discipline to adjudicate human affairs is called for. For economics to offer useful recipes – including to Brexiteers – it need to solve its own cyclical internal crisis of relevance.