Science, Transparency, and Democracy

A fundamental principle of the scientific method is transparency.

This transparency underpins the integrity of the scientific process. This concept is not unique to science: transparency underpins the integrity of institutions of state in a democracy.

Our legal systems and political institutions are grounded in the same fundamental principle. The Courts are open to the public [in camera proceedings aside], judgements delivered in open Court, all consistent with the well-known dictum first uttered in 1924 by Lord Chief Justice Lord Hewart: ‘justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.

In politics, access to parliamentary debate – if not in live form, for example televised Prime Minister’s Questions in the UK, then at least in transcript form – is a critical feature of open, functioning democracies.

At the core of this canonical concept of transparency is the desire that institutions of state, the actions of which reach into the lives of the citizenry, exercise impartiality, serve the public over partisanship, and may be held accountable.

These institutions are defined by separation of powers, i.e., that the functioning of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state is independent of each other, to safeguard civil liberties and limit any one branch from exercising or controlling the core functions of another branch.

These principles stretch back to the Enlightenment. So does the scientific method. The excitement at the prospect of this method of rational deduction was best captured by Alexander Pope in 1730:

“Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night,

God said ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”

Yet, we’ve tended to view the evolution of Enlightenment principles of governance distinct from the evolution of the scientific method, probably for the obvious reason that science is not historically a prerequisite for a functioning parliamentary democracy. But in the pursuit of a rational society informed by reason and evidence, I would argue that science should now be considered as a de facto branch of the governance of a state.

After all, how is the Ship of State to avoid wreckage on the rocks if the policies and actions taken at helm are grounded in bad information?

That’s a rhetorical question.

Moreover, what if the Ship of State sets sail loaded with malevolent actors, both overt and latent, fake navigation maps, forged supply lists, and no agreed destination? This is also a rhetorical question, but one which serves as an unfortunate analogy for the post-truth era of deliberate disinformation. Now, more than ever, the need for fact-based information to inform an agreed consensus on how to act, and what best course of action to take, is glaringly needed. Both the UK and US governments respective failings during the Covid-19 pandemic, coming on the wake of respective moral abdications of duty in the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, serve as testament to this fact.

All of these issues (and more) have starkly highlighted that a functioning democratic society, a sturdy Ship of State, requires a robust ballast of facts and evidence upon which to navigate stormy waters. It cannot function without it. And this is where science takes on a renewed importance for democracies that wish to continue as such, as the basis upon which evidence and facts are arrived at. This is where science acts as a de facto branch of governance, in the context of separation of powers: functioning independent of other branches so as to able to maintain impartiality and transparency in process.

In the UK, we’ve seen the opposite in action during the pandemic. Since the start of this pandemic, science has, and is still being, highly politicised in the rhetoric of the neoliberal nuthouse that is No.10. It has illuminated the awkward – and incompatible – role science has played in the context of politics when it is treated as a function of the executive.

This was never about “following the science”. It was political, from Day 1.

If “the science” has indeed been followed and led to one of the highest mortality rates in the world, one of the highest death rates per million, then that is a matter to be resolved by complete transparency in the data and decision making process. We have received neither from the executive branch of government. Transparency has been painfully absent this journey, creating some uncomfortable questions for the role of science in a democracy, and even more uncomfortable questions about just how democratic a society is, when we were spoon fed information by the Party in their evening interviews that had been carefully vetted and moulded by the Party.

2+2=5, because the Party say so.

The “we’re led by the science” rhetoric has been nothing but an edict from the Party to convey an image as a benevolent third party, merely a conduit for “the science”, acting on instruction. “We follow the science” has been the Party slogan of the pandemic, ironically only 4yrs removed from a concerted offensive of disinformation, deceit, and contempt for experts that defined the Leave campaign.

And the implication is clear, made even starker by the Ferguson Fiasco: the Party has a scapegoat, plucked and ready for the pot. In an era of unprecedented anti-establishment sentiment and of celebrated anti-intellectualism, what better Blamespeak that the nerds in the white lab coats?

And what an attractive Blamespeak it is. Because racial inequality, social drift, wealth disparity, a gutted skeleton of a healthcare system, can all be swept under the rug of a society broken by neoliberal austerity before any of this even started. The sweeping brush in this case has been to fan the flames of the Exceptionalism Myth, which kindles in the post-Brexit campfire, cement the Myth with claps at 8pm, and point to “the science” as if it had been followed all along.

Indeed, it seems the scientists in the Ship of State were locked into the captains’ quarters and paraded on deck as required to flank the Boris Braintrust while they pissed in our pockets and insisted it was raining.

This all comes back to the critical need for science to function as a de facto independent branch. Now, some will likely suggest that this in fact already exists, for example in bodies like the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). But it is painfully clear that this relationship has not functioned, from the lack of transparency in the decision making process between SAGE and the executive, to the fact that Dominic Cummings inserted himself into SAGE: a clear breach of separation of powers, were we to consider science in this context. The executive inserting itself into the functioning of science.

Consider the process of the passing of an Act of Parliament. The reason and purpose of the Bill are proposed in the legislature, and the contents therein debated by the representatives of the body politic in open chambers. It may be passed, passed with minor or major amendments, or defeated. Once enacted by the executive, however, it is the function of the judiciary to interpret and apply that legislation. In this example of the separation of powers, the judiciary does not make or enact law: likewise the executive cannot step in and enforce that law against citizens as it seems fit. And an ordinary citizen can ask the judiciary whether that law is, for example, constitutional, or request that an administrative decision by a public body be subject to the scrutiny of judicial review.

All of these checks and balance exist to ensure no one branch of governance gains too much power, potentially acting in tyrannical or oppressive ways against citizens. It is a structure of accountability. And it is indispensable because we must assume that many politicians are malevolent actors, and it is in the absence of transparency that that this malevolence propagates. Within this framework, and magnified by the current disinformation age, is the need for science to provide the ballast of evidence upon which to chart a course.

Transparency underpins the integrity of the entire process. And this process is imperfect: this is why transparency is fundamental. These are human endeavours, and humans are irrational apes. And it is because of these default cognitive limitations to the human brain that the scientific method stands as the most effective tool at our disposal to bring us closer to an approximate truth about the world around us.

Consider the scientific process: a theory is proposed, and the proposers make predictions about their hypothesis, which are then tested. The findings of that research are then subject to review by peers in the field. If the results have been represented clearly and transparently, the methods used in the study to derive a particular result will be critiqued to determine whether they do in fact support that outcome.

In publishing their findings, researchers will discuss their results in the context of the wider field, citing other papers which they may suggest corroborate their findings, and this aspect of their publication will also be critiqued in the process of peer-review to determine whether they are justified in arriving at their particular conclusions.

This method is the best method we, as human beings, have developed for elucidating the truth, or proximity to truth, of a matter or question. It’s not perfect, and it is not suggested to be: limitations from publication bias, to industry funding or influence, to lack of peer-review in certain ‘predatory’ journals, are acknowledged.

Recognised limitations aside, however, it is inarguably the most robust method for proposing, testing, questioning, and ultimately explaining phenomena of our existence and wider world. Of providing the facts as we know them at any given time, and an agreed basis upon which to build a functioning democracy that serves society, not to the best of the ability of those in charge, but the ability of the best available evidence.

Yet, science is under attack in nominal democracies, with the UK and US serving as the two most insidious examples of this. In an era where the disempowering effects of disinformation empowers malevolent actors, both state and individual. In an era where unprecedented social interaction has generated a culture of in-group bias that places more emphasis on feelings and beliefs than a scientific truth – which is by nature a fact.  Rather than question the results of scientific inquiry through a critique of the methodology used, or criteria, the results are dismissed as discordant with a particular view, belief, or ideology.

Debate is created where no debate exists. Controversy created where no controversy lies. Doubt generated where there is otherwise a consensus.

The authority of science is undermined, and scientific facts are subject to summary dismissal.

And these issues are complicated when transparency in the function of the state, and in the relationship between the executive and science, is absent. In transparency is where findings and actions are always open to continued question (hence why good science is reproducible, and why effective policy actions should not require smoke and mirrors from the executive). And this is why we place trust in the findings, if they have stood up to the scrutiny of repeated testing and are coherent through multiple lines of inquiry.

Because if they have, that trust reflects that the finding is considered an approximate truth behind a matter (approximate because 100% certainty is not required, nor possible, rather science brings us closer to what the truth may be). It can be taken as fact. And on such a basis is the foundation of a strong liberal democracy.

And this is why science has authority: the method. It’s not authority by decree, imposition, or dicta. It’s authority by method. That is why it is the best we have. It is why the truth of its findings are not discretionary.

To be clear, I’m not naïve as to envisage some utopia where all decisions of the executive, or the basis for legislation, are predicated entirely upon a perfect translation of science into policy. This obviously will never happen. But in the context of transparency, and if we consider science as a de facto branch of the governance of the state, then let us return to the ship analogy of Plato’s Republic. Imagine the Ship of State has the executive at the wheel: it can steer where it likes. But imagine that with the executive on the quarter deck is science.

Now imagine that the entire ship can hear the discourse on the quarter deck because it’s all hooked up via intercomms (i.e., a free press). And imagine that we, the passengers and crew of the ship, from which the executive manning the wheel derive their mandate to steer the Ship, could know – as we should – what the intended destination is, what course will be taken, and upon what factual basis these decisions were being made. We could hear the scientific branch, unfettered by the executive saying, “we said Route A would be preferable, Route B is likely to be quite hazardous. Route A will mean less of those on board get (sea)sick, and the rations will be distributed more equitably.”

And then, clear as day, be able to hear the executive say, “shut up nerds, we’re steering this ship our way. We don’t care who gets (sea)sick, they can take care of themselves. We’re taking the majority of the rations into the captains and commissioned officers quarters, the rest of the ship can fish – like true entrepreneurs – and donate scraps of the rations to each other. Listen, this ship is called Britannia, and we now declare it Unchained. We’ve had enough of experts.”

And if you think being able to have that level of transparency, such that both aspects of that conversation would be visible and audible to us, is a fantasy, than I’m sorry to say your concept of an open, functioning democracy has already been numbed to the din of disinformation, and the creep of authoritarian populism.