Democracy and its discontents

A Facebook friend posted this quote from Asimov and it prompted me to return to some thoughts I have had on democracy since the democratic votes that won the referendum on EU membership for the leavers campaign and Trump won the USA presidential election. Asimov was writing about America but there has been a similar anti-intellectualism in the UK for generations, particularly in England. This has been manifest in a number of ways in the past – the preference for the amateur over the professional (for instance as portrayed in Chariots of Fire), the privileging of commonsense over abstract theory and most recently in Michael Gove’s claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. He’s rowed back on this recently and now says he was referring to economists in particular. He said that he wanted people to trust their own judgement rather than listen to experts. But on what are people’s judgements made? Is it on the basis of their own research, their own examination of the evidence, or perhaps just on the evident facts? I think for most of us the first two are unlikely. So we are probably most swayed on the basis of facts as they are presented to us in the media and by politicians and self appointed opinion leaders, amongst them Gove himself of course. At the same time he is encouraging people to trust their own judgement he is of course trying to influence that judgement by encouraging them to ignore experts. One fact offered in the brexit referendum campaign was that we sent the EU £350 million a week and, post brexit, this was pledged to be spent on the NHS. The first is a rather selective fact as it is a gross figure and takes no account of the money that comes back from the EU. In fact the rebate is deducted before anything is sent so in practice only about £55 million goes out. And this takes no account of the significant financial income we get via business, trade, grants etc. by virtue of our membership. As is now becoming increasingly clear in the aftermath of the vote as these less visible returns to us become evident, we get a positive return on our ‘expenditure’ to the EU. As for spending an additional £350 million a week on the NHS, it’s a promise for the future. That the pledge was made is a fact. The promised expenditure, if it happens, lies somewhere in the future.

The Asimov quote claims that the anti-intellectualism rests on the false notion that one individual’s ignorance is as good as another’s knowledge. If this is so, and in theory it is since every vote is equal and has the same influence on the resulting decision, than policy driven by the numerical count of votes alone could be based upon the aggregate ignorance of the people or the aggregate wisdom. Who knows? Obviously I think that my decision to vote to remain was based upon knowledge and, being in possession of that knowledge, I can’t understand why anyone would vote for leaving other than supposing they must lack my knowledge. Why they lack the knowledge is an open question. Lack of reliable information or being exposed to false information? Lack of a general knowledge about what the EU is, how it works and, despite its flaws and problems, how it has and would continue to benefit our economy and security? I think we ‘the people’ have made the wrong choice. But I don’t know for sure. Time may prove that is me and others like me who voted to remain made the wrong choice. The point is that in reality neither the leavers or the remainers know if they have made the right choice. If that is all there is to it, that ‘the people have spoken’ (in fact 37% of the eligible vote which didn’t but arguably should have included 16 and 17 year olds since it is their future we were gambling with) then the executive and legislative wings of our parliamentary system should just implement the policy diktat of the 37%. However, I would have thought the problem with letting the unmediated decisions of multiple ‘men on the Clapham omnibus‘ drive final policy decisions is obvious given the complexity of the law and governance and its necessary dependence on intricate and detailed knowledge. This is what the role of parliament is, not the role of the people. We vote for the people we want to make decisions on our behalf, based on the best knowledge and evidence available, weighing up all the pros and cons and coming to a measured assessment of the nation’s best interest and how best to secure it through legislation and policy. Yes, I know it doesn’t work this way either, but at least we can reverse our electoral decisions periodically and can seek to influence how our masters specify pros and cons and the nation’s best interest. This is why I think parliament should be involved in the over sight and conduct of the brexit negotiations and, through the opportunity of debating and voting on it, be responsible for the final decision.

One very reasonable argument against policy dictated and designed purely by experts and technocrats is that it makes our democratic institutions and processes redundant. They know best so let them get on with it. Rather than elections we should have exams and peer selection. The reason this is a bad idea is that technical expertise on achieving given ends very often has nothing to say about what the ends should be. This discussion requires not just instrumental knowledge but a morally engaged wisdom. In any decision there will be unintended consequences, winners and losers, collateral damages of various sorts, medium and long term consequences that may make implementing today’s good idea into a massive shot in the foot. But if this is a flaw and danger in technocratic rule then equally is it a flaw and danger of populist rule. If all we need to do is implement unquestioningly the decisions of ‘the people’ as expressed in referendums, why would we need parliament in its current form and the democratic process as we currently understand it? Democratic procedure would be reduced to mere opinion polls and politics to the unquestioning and unmediated implementation of opinions thus expressed. On the one hand we have the dictatorship of the technocrats and on the other hand the dictatorship of the masses as orchestrated by undemocratic opinion leaders and demagogues.  It is negotiating a course through these two extremes that is the essential role of parliament and our democratic system however imperfect. Heaven knows, there are serious problems with our party political and parliamentary system and what passes for democracy but collectively these are still immeasurably better than either a dictatorship of the technocrats or of the the masses as ventiloquised by mass media and political demagogues.

 


Growth versus health?

A man tows his newly acquired pig in Guantánamo, Cuba. Between 1991-95 the Cuban government imported 1.5m bicycles because of petrol shortage. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

The fact that there seems to be either no correlation between growth (measured as GDP) and well-being or even a negative one seems to have been well established. Two I have read recently that make this claim are Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet and Rob Dietz’s and Dan O’Neill’s Enough Is Enough: Building A Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources.  I read an interesting article in the Guardian a few weeks ago that offers some evidence for a part of this claim – Hard times behind fall in heart disease and diabetes in 90s Cuba, says study.

The hard times experienced by the people of Cuba in the early 1990s – when food was short and petrol almost unobtainable owing to the tightening of the US embargo and loss of Russian support – led to falling rates of heart disease and diabetes, say doctors.

Between 1991 and 1995 the research team found that the population lost an average of 5.5kg (12lb) in weight during the economic crisis after the Russians stopped economic support. This had a significant impact on health, cutting deaths from diabetes by half and from coronary heart disease by a third. However, after 1996 when the economy began to recover the levels of cycling and walking dropped, calorific intake increased and by 2000 the health benefits had been reversed. One of the key conclusions of the study for governments is that “transportation policies are fundamental – therefore we should encourage walking and bicycling as means of transportation”. The other key factor was a reduction in calorific intake and an improvement in the nutritional value of the diet.  The following video explains the study and outlines its conclusions.

Full report: Population-wide weight loss and regain in relation to diabetes burden and cardiovascular mortality in Cuba 1980-2010: repeated cross sectional surveys and ecological comparison of secular trends BMJ 2013; 346 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f1515 (Published 9 April 2013)

Other reports on this news item:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/04/how-cubans-health-improved-when-their-economy-collapsed/275080/

http://thecubaneconomy.com/articles/2013/04/how-cubans-health-improved-when-their-economy-collapsed-sometimes-financial-crises-can-force-lifestyle-changes-for-the-better/

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/the-cuban-diet-eat-less-exercise-more–and-preventable-deaths-are-halved-8566603.html

This is the TED talk given by Tim Jackson based on his book  Prosperity Without Growth


‎”This is a strange rather perverse story. Let me put it this way in very simple terms. It’s a story about us people, being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about”. – Tim Jackson


Sociology – professional or pragmatic?

Once again I came away from the BSA Conference with the message that sociology was in crisis but at the same time at a moment of great opportunity if only it could sort out precisely what it is and what it’s for. And once again I came away feeling cautiously optimistic. One source of this optimism was the presentation given by John Holmwood Sociology’s ‘moments’: Democracy, expertise and the market. A major contention of his paper, and one that has significant consequences for sociology, is that the dominance of neo-liberal public policy since the late 1970s has sought to replace ‘publics’ with ‘markets’.

G H Mead (1863–1931)

In elaborating on the problems this presents to sociology, not least because the discipline and its institutional home in Universities are also being subject to a process of marketization and financialization, John contrasted the Parsonian project to create a professional sociology immune to ideological distortion with the American Pragmatists that developed the notion of the social self in the process of a critique of liberalism (1). It was Mead at the turn of the 19th century that saw the increasing tendency for government to merge with business and the industrial world. Dewey maintained that government did not so much represent the public interest as those of corporations and markets. Then, as now, this has significant consequences for our notions of democracy and the political role of the public sphere. But, according to Mead, this presents opportunities to the ‘public’ that emerge from forms of resistance and moments of critique.

A conception of a different world comes to us always as the result of some specific problem which involves readjustment of the world as it is, not to meet a detailed ideal of a perfect universe, but to obviate the present difficulty ….  [The Working Hypothesis in Social Reform American Journal of Sociology, November 1899]

This has implications for the nature of sociology as a form of expertise and its role, according to John. It could be in the service of government and its partnership with the corporations and industry. Or it could serve the more public project of adjusting and coping with the effects and  consequences, intended and unintended, of neoliberal corporatist policies. This implies  a role for sociology in dialogue with  ‘publics’ as they try to organise around the effects, to paraphrase C Wright Mills, that public issues have on private lives and communities. This may not sound radical or ‘activist’  enough for some but it is worth serious investigation and consideration. John makes the point that this is not an ’emancipatory’ sociology. It is not a programme or project to bring into being ‘a detailed idea of a perfect universe’. However it does confront and critique the taken for granted assumptions of reality and the doxa that supports and reproduces it. It does expose the historicity and contingency of the taken for granted and demonstrates that other realities are imaginable. In serving the public rather than the dominant troika of government, industry and finance, sociology serves democracy in that it exposes and resists the multifarious processes and policies that combine to hollow out and neutralise democratic institutions. In a previous ‘radical moment’, in the 1960s and 70s, sociology could be seen as harnessed to a project of institutionalised reform and betterment operationalised by the welfare state and influenced by the new social movements focused on forms of equality and inclusive citizenship. But from that time on sociology has been squeezed between a neoliberal critique of the welfare state and citizenship rights and its denigration as a form of expertise in the service of a now derided and demonised programme of betterment and entitlement.  John concluded with the question, what is it to practice sociology in a profoundly undemocratic system where reform has been de-institutionalised and sociology has lost its institutional locus and legitimacy? One suggestion is that it should revivify itself in response to a new radical moment and in doing so can revisit and be informed by some of the lessons and messages of the American pragmatists of the early 20th century. Sociology can inform a defence of wider social values in the face of a declining democracy. It can do this by providing publics with new and alternative accounts of the present and possible futures. In the face of TINA (there is no alternative) it can be asserted there always were and still are. To this end sociology (and therefore sociologists and their practice) must occupy (with all its post financial crash connotations) public debate in the service of democracy (not markets) and make inequality matter.

A great deal of John’s paper seemed to chime in well with the rather modest and arguably realistic (pragmatic) claims Zygmunt Bauman makes for sociology. Like John in his paper, Zygmunt offers a  history of the development of sociology mapped onto key stages in the development of modernity and the state. In Zygmunt’s account this can be represented by his distinction between sociologists as legislators and, as this function is stripped away from them, as interpreters. He also offers a diagnosis of the current parlous state of democratic institutions based on a corporatist account of government and the separation of power from state politics as a result of economic aspects of globalisation. His conclusions for the contemporary role of sociological practice are similar too in that it should engage in dialogue with various publics in the service of wider social values, democracy and justice. I’m not claiming that John’s account and Zygmunt’s are reducible to one another. I’m sure there would be points of disagreement and differences in emphasis. I only draw attention to a similarity in their conclusions for the practice of sociology today.

Alvin Gouldner (1920 – 1980)

There are two points of interest that I’d like to pursue. The first one is the notion that sociology develops in confrontation with ‘radical moments’ that are precipitated by social developments external to its discourse and therefore changes in the environment with which it has symbiotic and what might be called co-evolutionary relationships. The second is the notion that sociology should concern itself with and service democracy and wider social values such as those that are concerned with inequality and justice. I will return to the second point in another post but in the spirit of John’s return to the early American pragmatists I thought I would revisit an influential reflection on sociology at another radical moment in its history, the 1950s and 60s, by Alvin Gouldner. This will draw on two of his writings. The first is Anti Minotaur: The Myth of a Value Free Sociology (Social Problems, Volume 8, Number 3, Winter 1962, pp. 199 ff.) first given as a Presidential Address to the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) in 1961. The second is The Sociologist as Partisan: Sociology and the Welfare State (The American Sociologist Vol. 3, No. 2, May, 1968, pp. 103-116). This was a critical reaction to the Presidential Address given by Howard Becker to the SSSP 6 years later entitled Whose Side Are We On (Social Problems, Vol. 14, No. 3, Winter 1967, pp. 239-247) where Becker advocated we should conduct our sociological practice from the point of view of the ‘underdog’. Both these articles are conveniently collected together as chapters 1 and 2 of Gouldner’s book For Sociology: Renewal and Critique in Sociology Today Allen Lane 1973. (I first looked at these readings in 1977 when I was doing A level sociology at an evening class and frankly hardly understood a word of it)!  This critique is quite damning and one wonders if Gouldner and Becker where friends! Gouldner’s critique of Becker’s attempt to side step the problem of values in sociology is instructive for thinking about the grounds upon which an engaged sociology should focus on social values concerned with inequality and justice as advocated by both John Holmwood and Zygmunt Bauman.

I’ll commence Gouldner’s discussion of the myth of a value free sociology with an extended quotation that mirrors very well some key concerns we, or some academics at least, still have today with respect to the role and practice of sociology.

 The problem of a value-free sociology has its most poignant implications for the social scientist in his (sic) role as educator. If sociologists ought not to express their personal values in the academic setting, how then are students to be safeguarded against the unwitting influence of these values which shape the sociologist’s selection of problems, his preferences for certain hypotheses or conceptual schemes, and his neglect of others? For these are unavoidable and, in this sense, there is and can be no value-free sociology. The only choice is between an expression of ones’ values, as open and honest as it can be […] and a vain ritual of moral neutrality which, because it invites men (sic) to ignore the vulnerability of reason  to bias, leaves it at the mercy of irrationality.

In Gouldner’s view a value free sociology is impossible due to the unavoidable necessity of making choices between subject matters, research hypotheses, concepts and explanatory frameworks. To mistakenly claim and offer value free knowledge, however sincerely, is to obscure the inevitability of this process, the values that inform it and its knowledge productions. If it is claimed that social values can only distort knowledge when in fact they are an indispensable condition of its production, then all knowledge is distorted. Distortion in the sense of partial, selective, contingent, is inevitable. But the term ‘distortion’ can be left out of this characterisation of knowledge as it implies the possibility of an undistorted knowledge that is impartial, complete(able), absolute and universal. This is the modernist utopian vision of knowledge that underpins the post-political world of techno-managerialism and expertise. For Gouldner, claims of value freedom translate into moral and value relativism. This leads to the claimed ‘value free’ sociology being at best politically irrelevant and at worse it surrenders authority, legitimacy and power to the dominant discourses of the status quo in which it becomes complicit. It is in danger of becoming the hand servant of and harnessed to the technologies of domination, legitimation and obfuscation. ‘Nudge theory’ springs to mind here along with behavioural economics and sociologically informed tools of post-political techno-management. A purported value free professional sociology can be used to help sell cigarettes as well as advise those who wish to reduce smoking. The domain of the value-free morally neutral sociology is that of the “spiritless technician who will be no less lacking in understanding than they are in passion, and who will be useful only because they can be used”. Gouldner warns us that however blunt and dull these sociologically informed tools are they are capable of building a social technology “powerful enough to cripple us”. In his day prisoners of war and GIs were being systematically brain washed and compulsive consumerism was being driven by advertising and scientific marketing. As he observed, the social science technologies of the future will “hardly be less powerful than today’s”.

Within the institutionalised forms of sociology this can be experienced by its students and practitioners as isolating and alienating. In the words of Gouldner,  “They feel impotent to contribute usefully to the solution of [society’s] deepening problems and, even when they can, they fear that the terms of such an involvement require them to submit to a commercial debasement or a narrow partisanship, rather than contributing to a truly public interest”. There are two strategies for psychological accommodation for the institutionalised sociologist. One is to embrace relativism, particularistic anthropology or the post-modern turn, solving the problem of value-freedom by promoting it to an intellectual principle.  The other is to become a sociologist of sociology and engage in a learned and scholarly critique of its competing paradigms and methods. Both are ways of sheltering from the real world of political action and passion, uncertainty and messy pragmatism.  “It evokes the soothing illusion, amongst some sociologists, that their exclusion from the larger society is a self-imposed duty rather than an externally imposed constraint”. It disguises the fact that to refrain from social criticism reflects the personal interests and insecurities of some sociologists rather than “reflecting a higher professional good”.

So two tendencies that Gouldner identified in the 50s and 60s are for some sociologists to either ‘sell out’ or ‘opt out’ neither of which sound particularly edifying as a job descriptions for young sociologists today. Arguably the  two tendencies are still alive and well but fortunately they don’t represent the only options available or for that matter already manifest. In his day Gouldner was not saying that the ‘critical posture’ is dead in American sociology, only that it was ‘badly sagging’. He cited several authors that were bucking the trend many of whom would be largely unknown today but C Wright Mills, Dennis Wrong, Lewis Coser, Bernard Rosenberg  and David Riesman may still stir the memory of some of us. Gouldner considered these to be intellectuals no less than sociologists, the larger tradition from which sociology evolved and which is itself founded on the assertion of the right to be critical of tradition. We have our own contemporary representatives of this contrary and troublesome breed.

For me, at least, a number of problems emerge from this. What is it to be critical? What is practically entailed in practising a sociology that engages in dialogues with various publics? On what basis do we choose the publics to engage with? What is the justification for adopting and focusing on values associated with inequality and justice? (2) Don’t financiers, bankers, the police,  torturers and hedge fund managers constitute publics and operate in their own universe of values? If we claim we should side with the victims, given a sociologist’s systemic sensibilities, are we not all victims one way or another? And in a world of unavoidable and irreducible uncertainty in which we have abandoned utopian visions and meta-narratives, political and scientific,  isn’t pragmatic adaptation and problem solving doomed to be absorbed and neutralised, even exploited, by the status quo to enhance its legitimacy and wealth and further secure its domination? As Zygmunt Bauman, John Holloway and Slavoj Žižek all say, in no particular order, there are no guarantees this will all end happily. Perhaps the best we can do is live in the limbo of a hopeful resignation. Perhaps it is, after all, quite rational to tend our own gardens, retreat behind the barricades of relativism and incestuous methodological flagellation? Or make alliances with the centres of unassailable power to minimise our own victim-hood?  I think there are positive, life enhancing and, yes, emancipatory answers to these questions. The next post will continue with Gouldner and examine his account of why we should side with the exploited and those that are subjected to an excess of suffering, given that to suffer to some extent is part of the human condition.

Notes:
(1) In another session devoted to an exploration of the relationship between economics and sociology it was pointed out that Parsons claimed that sociology is concerned with the residual problems left over by economics.
(2) It is not clear that a sociology that is informed by a concern with inequality and justice and that exposes the complex and contingent mechanisms that work ‘behind the curtain’, as Bauman and Kundera would have it, and therefore debunk the assertions of TINA cannot and will not be used to inform the policies and strategies, both explicit and hidden, of the dominant classes to preserve something like the status quo. This would mean that a body of critical knowledge would not be enough to produce a society that embodied the preferred social values of equality and justice. The knowledge would have to be translated into countervailing political and cultural processes and activities – a call for an engaged activist sociology  perhaps using ‘action’ forms of research and engagement.

Of possible interest is the post I did last year reflecting on the BSA conference in 2012 http://terrywassall.org/2012/04/14/reflections-on-britsoc12/


Institutionalised racism

Yesterday 2 men where found guilty of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence 18 years ago, April 1993, in Eltham, south east London. Although several people were arrested the evidence was found to be inconclusive and the cases dropped. For a variety of reasons including an inquest that returned a verdict of unlawful killing “in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five youths” and the evidence that the police had not investigated the murder properly, the MacPherson Report was commissioned. The report, published in 1999, identified ‘institutionalised racism’ in the Metropolitan Police as a fundamental factor in the bodged investigation. For a full time line of the story see the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16283806.

On the radio this morning, BBC 4 Today, the concept of institutional racism was explained by asking the question; did the police give the murder the time, resources and serious consideration it warranted? The answer was no. Was this because the victim was black? The answer was yes. The police always have to make decisions and judgements about how to allocate scarce resources and if they routinely take the colour of victims into account when making these decisions, this is institutionalised racism. It is a matter of a pervasive culture that provides the background to individual choices on procedural matters. If we take this as the meaning of institutionalised racism, then it still boils down to racist attitudes and decisions by policemen, police staff and police managers and leaders. The institutional culture provides the recipes for thinking and acting, and also for relatively unthinking routine engrained behaviour, language, attitudes and so on.  The thinking and unthinking acting reproduces and reinforces the culture. It is institutional racism as it permeates the whole institution and provides it with its taken-for-granted common-sense view of the world. In an interesting piece today in the Independent  (The killing of Stephen Lawrence ended Britain’s denial about racism), particularly on the initial coverage of the murder of Stephen Lawrence by the media, Brian Cathcart defines institutional racism using a quote from Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, on the day the Macpherson report was published:

“The very process of the inquiry has opened all our eyes to what it is to be black or Asian in Britain today… and the inquiry process has revealed some fundamental truths about the nature of our society, about our relationships, one with the other. Some truths are uncomfortable, but we have to confront them.”  Chief among these truths was the existence of institutional racism, and Straw was clear that it went beyond the police: “Any long-established, white-dominated organisation is liable to have procedures, practices and a culture which disadvantage non-white people.”

However, there are other aspects of institutionalised racism that the discussion on the radio did not bring out. An example of another dimension to institutionalised racism is the 1981 British Nationality act. This act created a number of different bands of citizenship and importantly removed the ‘right of abode’ in the UK  from many commonwealth citizens who previously had it. The new Act defined a category of full UK citizenship with the right of abode that systematically excluded the majority of ‘new’ commonwealth citizens – predominately black –  but retained it for the majority of individuals in the ‘old’ commonwealth countries, for instance Australia and Canada. To have full British citizenship with the right of abode it was now necessary to have had a UK domiciled relative who was a British citizen prior to 1949.  The Act therefore had a disproportionate effect on black and Asian commonwealth citizens – not by accident including, for instance, Hong Kong. Once this law is in operation and applied by border controls, it matters not whether the individual immigration officers are personally racist of not. They may not have a racist fibre in their bodies. The application of the racist law produces racist effects independently of the individuals applying the law equally to all who present themselves at the border control, or issue passports at the passport offices in commonwealth countries.

In the case of the institutionalised racism of the Metropolitan Police we have an example of  colour-blind criminal law being distorted by the discretionary decisions and practices of racist personnel. In the case of the British Nationality Act we have the example of institutionalised racism of a different sort where racism is embedded in the structure of the law and is equally consequential whether its operatives and officers are personally racist or not. This latter type of institutionalised racism does not depend on personal racism. One implication of this is that institutionalised racism cannot be solved simply(!) by race awareness training and tackling the cultural issues. Colour-blindness must be built into the process of making laws, rules and regulations as well as in there subsequent application and enforcement.

This was cross-posted to the Leeds University Public Sociology blog http://www.sociology.leeds.ac.uk/public/2012/01/04/institutional-racism-job-done/


Expert knowledge and public policy

In May 2008 the then Home Secretary Jaqui Smith, against the recommendations of her own scientific advisers, reversed the government’s 2004 decision to downgrade cannabis to a class C drug, returning it to its previous status of class B. The reclassification came into effect January 2009. This reclassification caused controversy at the time but this has recently re-emerged with the publication of a paper by Professor Nutt who, until he was sacked last Friday, was chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. In the paper Nutt criticised the reclassification of cannabis and the government’s use of the precautionary principle to justify so doing. He claimed that by invoking the precautionary principle politicians had distorted and devalued the research evidence. In a recent appearance on BBC’s Question Time (Thursday 29th October) where Nutt’s paper was raised Smith again supported the use of the precautionary principle on the grounds that psychiatrists’ reports and police views on the development of new stronger types of cannabis indicate greater mental health risks. In the government’s judgement the trends in the increasing strength of cannabis and these reports indicate the possibility of health risks they are not prepared to take. The government’s responsibility is to make decisions and be accountable for them. Advisors are required only give to advice.

A number of interesting issues arise from this fracas. One key issue is the relationship between expert and scientific knowledge and the making of law and public policy. In his latest book, First as Tragedy, then as Farce, Zizek tells the story of how in 2007 in the Czech Republic a public debate raged about the proposed installation of US Army radars on Czech territory. Despite about 70% of the population not wanting this the government refused the demand for a referendum and allowed the installation of the radars to go ahead on the grounds that important decisions are not matters that can be decided by voting and that they should be left to the experts, in this case military experts on matters of National security. As Zizek observes, if this logic is carried to its conclusion what is there left to vote for? Should not economic decisions, for instance, be left to economic experts?

A related issue is that the nature of scientific knowledge is nearly always provisional. As most scientists would tell us, it is the best we have at the moment and is rarely certain. In addition, scientific knowledge is always partial in that it tends to focus on artificially separated and therefore ‘decontextualised’ aspects of the reality scientists are seeking to describe and understand. It is precisely because of this that the application of scientific and expert knowledge to social policy cannot be seen as some automatic translation of science into policy. The policy decision-making process has to allow for the provisional nature of scientific and expert knowledge and address the connecting and wider aspects of the policy making context that the scientific evidence does not address. This can be further complicated where there are competing accounts of the science within the scientific community, for instance apparent contradictions between laboratory findings and observations in the field.

As it happens, on the balance of the evidence and arguments as I understand them, I do not agree with the reclassification of cannabis and I do agree with the thrust of Nutt’s criticism of the current drug classification system and drug policy. However, the basis of his complaint that the scientific evidence has been distorted and devalued is problematic as this implies that without the alleged distortion the policy following on from the science would be self-evident. I think the government could have constructed discussable grounds for reclassifying cannabis and at the same time been perfectly respectful of the scientific evidence. The insistence that government has to take into account a range of other issues and considerations beyond the scientific evidence is correct.

On the other hand, I think Nutt’s sacking by the current Home Secretary ill advised and counter productive. Professor Nutt’s opinions and comments are valuable contributions to public understanding and debate, a debate the government should engage in intelligently and constructively. It would have been far better to engage in a public discussion of the various factors and other forms of evidence and opinion that went into the decision to reclassify cannabis. This would include the psychiatrist’s and police opinions and experience Smith alluded to in Question Time and a measured consideration of the views of social and health welfare professionals and those working in the front line of drug use and abuse. However, why this approach was not adopted by the government may have something to do with Lembit Opik’s charge made in the same Question Time discussion, that it the reclassification smacked of vote catching policy making intended to appeal to the readership of  the red tops. The history of government’s exercise of the precautionary principle demonstrates a somewhat cynical and selective attitude to its deployment. On what grounds was it not deployed by the Conservative government during the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis in the 80s and 90s? At the time the government made strenuous efforts to dismiss public fears and the views of experts on the possibility that BSE could be transmitted to humans. In 1995 John Major, Prime Minister at the time, based the government’s attitude and policy on the view that: “There is currently no scientific evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans or that eating beef causes CJD in humans. That issue is not in question”. This was in the face of a great deal of evidence from scientists that this could not be discounted and was in fact probable. It is undoubtedly true that a variety of other forms of evidence, opinion and experience needs to provide a broader context to how scientific evidence is used in policy making. There are factors and issues that have to be considered that individual pieces of scientific knowledge do not, and by themselves cannot, address. However, it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the reactions of target voters and possible economic consequences will figure high in a government’s priorities. In fact it would be naïve to suppose otherwise.