Archive for January 2012
My latest piece for the New Humanist
A growing number of activists are calling for science to play a larger role in policy. But will it work? Richard Wilson asks the experts
In the latter days of the last Labour government, then Home Office minister Vernon Coaker introduced a law designed to enable the prosecution of those who paid for sexual services. The government had published a lengthy report, “Tackling Demand for Prostitution”, arguing that evidence showed such a change could reduce the violence and exploitation suffered by commercial sex workers.
In the House, Liberal Democrat science spokesman Dr Evan Harris raised concerns that the evidence in the report had not yet been published – and could therefore not be properly scrutinised. Harris cited the fact that the Royal College of Nursing had expressed concern that further criminalisation could actually be counterproductive, driving victims of sexual exploitation further underground, and away from where they might seek help. There was, Harris argued, a need to examine more thoroughly the evidence on which the proposed legislation was based. “We are looking at publishing the evidence,” replied the Minister, but “in the end, you pick the evidence which backs your argument.”
To those familiar with the scientific method this cherry-picking of data to support a preconceived hypothesis is a hallmark of quackery. Watching the debate, “mouth agape”, was Harris’s Parliamentary researcher, and biology graduate, Imran Khan. Khan was astonished that a government minister could think about, or talk about, scientific evidence in this way. He is now Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a lobby group for science and technology education, and cites this tale as a textbook example of “policy-based evidence-making” – when evidence is chosen only to support or defend an already decided policy. Khan is one of a growing cadre of scientifically literate activists who see it as their job to root out this kind of back-to-front thinking, and to promote instead “evidence-based policy-making”, where rigorous, reputable and, crucially, publicly available evidence plays more than merely a fig leaf role in public policy. These include prominent public figures like Khan’s old boss Harris, who writes the Political Science blog for the Guardian, science writer and scourge of the chiropractors Simon Singh, and the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist Dr Ben Goldacre.