Evidence-based politics is some way off, but the Brexit scandal will be a blockbuster story

 

I’ve always been a strong believer in the scientific method, which is probably why the reasoning behind Brexit has baffled and dismayed me. In medicine, putting truth before dogma has resulted in effective treatments. Unfortunately though, it seems that politics has yet to learn this lesson, and seems to be intent on going in the opposite direction, with ideology and demagoguery trumping everything else.

At this point, I have a confession to make. Back in the 1980’s I wrote about the therapeutic potential of the sense of smell, illustrating with diagrams how it connected to the brain’s limbic system. It went viral and within a few years, many aromatherapists were portraying themselves as a new breed of neuroscientists.

Today aromatherapy is a lucrative industry, with even washing powders claiming to be therapeutic. In vain did I try to debunk, in the academic press, the enthusiastic claims that the essences of mother nature could cure everything from boils to bronchitis.1 This, like the Remain campaign, was ignored or attacked as a negative message.

So it is quite a difficult thing to do, to be pouring cold water on the optimism of the present flag wavers. We may feel despondent about our remorseless journey towards the cliff edge, which will be bad for British medicine and science. But we can take comfort that science itself is still alive and well. We still believe in the scientific method, and we should bear in mind that this has not always been the case; there have been times in history when alchemy ruled and quacks and charlatans held sway. We still have our faith in evidence-based medicine, though evidence-based politics is some way off.

I think it was Sigmund Freud who said that rationality is like dog with only three legs; it limps along, but eventually catches up. Right now the brexiters are charging ahead but eventually, the reality will begin to dawn as the health service struggles through lack of staff, and our best researchers join the brain drain. Those who voted leave, who were often motivated by anger, are going to be even more angry. Who will they blame?  Possibly traitors and fifth columnists like myself, if the Daily Mail has anything to do with it.

But there is another possibility. Remember another scam, the Hitler diaries?  Rupert Murdoch bought into the deception and proclaimed they were genuine, it was a great story, But he was even happier when they were exposed as fakes, because that sold even more copies of the Sun. Little England as a global power, it’s been a great yarn. But the duping of a nation, the revelation that that messrs Farage and Johnson were just snake oil salesmen in disguise? That’s a real blockbuster.

Reference  1. King, J.R., (1994). Scientific Status of Aromatherapy.  Perspectives in Biology and Medicine.  Vol. 37, No 3, P404-415.

* John King is a retired doctor and Remain campaigner.

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10 Comments

  • Since when was the ‘scientific method’ the only way to sift evidence? I think historians and others will have something to say about that assertion…

    The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, is candid. When scientists talk about science, they are the experts. When scientists involve themselves in public policy-making, they are lay men and women, not experts.

    That said, of course Brexit was won with a litany of half-truths and overblown claims by populists and nationalists.

    Those of us opposed to Brexit must come together and fight against it.

    The best vehicle for this movement is the Liberal Democrats.

  • If science is involved then it is the political and social sciences, which take all kinds of factors into account.

  • Peter Watson 19th Apr '17 - 12:22pm

    Surely a keystone of the scientific method is to have a hypothesis, test it and then look at the results to see whether or not the hypothesis is supported. Isn’t that exactly what Brexiters are doing? 😉
    More seriously, I found this article a little disappointing. It would have been interesting to read about how the “scientific method” contradicts Brexit and supports Bremain but after a promising start the second half of the article is no different from any other anti-Brexit articles on this site which are often heavy on opinion but light on evidence. Were those demanding we join the single currency a few years ago any less like aromatherapy snake-oil sellers than those demanding Brexit more recently?
    I don’t think a fight against Brexit can be won by emotional arguments: Project Fear failed and Project Outrage looks little better, so perhaps a more rational evidence-based approach could succeed.

  • @ Peter Watson

    But the Brexiters have missed a crucial step: “If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

  • Graham Evans 19th Apr '17 - 2:42pm

    While economics and sociology claim to adopt a scientific approach to their studies, it is very difficult to set up an experiment which either supports or refutes a hypothesis. This is sometimes also true of the physical sciences, particularly astronomy and particle physics, and even more so the biological sciences, but usually it is possible to infer the truth or otherwise of a hypothesis. This simply is not the case for economics or sociology as there are normally too many variables and sometimes you do not really know whether the variables are truly independent or in fact indirectly correlated. This is not to say that there is no value in economic and sociological research, but ultimately we shall only know whether Brexit is a success or failure by looking back, and even then those who are “proved” wrong will doubtless be able to come up with explanations as to why things didn’t work out as they expected

  • It’s a good point that Brexit itself is an experiment, with Britain as the test tube. Most of us would prefer not to be subjected to experiments. At the very least, consent should be obtained – unlikely in the case of remainers. Thanks everyone for your comments, keep them coming.

  • In medicine, science and engineering there are genuine experts who we all trust every day.
    In Brexit there are none, only economists who will, whatever happens, resolutely claim that they predicted the outcome all along and angrily deny they ever suggested anything else.

  • Peter Watson 19th Apr '17 - 10:11pm

    @Palehorse “In medicine, science and engineering there are genuine experts who we all trust every day. In Brexit there are none …”
    I think this is what Gove meant when he said “people in this country have had enough of experts”. I don’t think either side in the debate has ever presented somebody who was trusted to make their case: so-called experts generally seemed to be as dependent on prejudice, bias and guesswork as the rest of us!
    Rather than pitch a particular type of Brexit, I suspect that the Tories will attempt to portray themselves as a “safe pair of hands” in the midst of all this confusion and uncertainty, and if their opponents focus on emotions (including exploiting feelings of outrage and fear) then I fear that it will make the Tories look more calm and competent than they deserve.

  • Simon Banks 20th Apr '17 - 4:27pm

    Scientific method applies to all situations where evidence has to be evaluated. Sometimes, though, politicians, like scientists, have no hard evidence and must trust their noses.

    Scientific method does of course tell us nothing about values. It’s about working out the best methods for achieving things.

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