The real lesson of the EU referendum has little to do with Europe

There were two snippets on the news recently both concerning the forthcoming EU referendum that caught my attention. One was a street interview where a woman said that she was tired of all the squabbling between both the in and out campaigns, and especially because she was a scientist, she wanted some facts. In common with this woman, I am also a scientist and I would like to see less squabbling and more facts but neither of us are likely to get want we want. The other snippet was from David Dimbleby who said that BBC Question Time had been overwhelmed by questions from the public asking the politicians why they were not providing more facts as opposed to just rhetoric. He went on to disappoint all those would-be questioners, the aforementioned woman interviewed in the street and me by saying that it was unlikely any real facts were forthcoming because this was all about politics and that’s not how politics works.  That last phrase I thought was particularly poignant. 

The lack of facts should not be too surprising as, in my opinion, our government is run like an adversarial courtroom or a marketing campaign argued out in a public school debating society. The reason for this might be explained given the number of Member’s of Parliament who are lawyers or who are privately educated

Six months ago Ministers and Conservative backbenchers alike were extolling the virtues of their government’s management of the economy and pointing towards how continued austerity measures were predicted to reduce the deficit. Alternative economic models from opposition parties were rubbished and personal attacks were largely limited to cross-party salvos. All the political parties tried hard to present themselves like the rowers in a boat race, all pulling together under the unfailing direction of the coxswain. There were differences of opinion within the parties, including Jeremy Corbyn's leadership abilities, but on the whole the real savagery was kept under the surface to be fought out in private.

But the EU debate has exploded the boat race metaphor to reveal uncoordinated rowers being yelled at by two coxswains that want to go in different directions. Some senior government politicians who were supposedly pulling the harmonious oars a few months ago are now dismissing their own treasury predictions and challenging their Prime Minister on his political record almost as though they were sitting on opposite benches. Over the past few weeks there have been more 180-degree spins of opinion than handbrake turns in a whole series of Top Gear. Those in the same party but on different sides of the EU debate are making personal attacks on each other to an extent that the chat shows are removing the glasses of water on the table and replacing them with saucers of milk.

Those on both sides of the EU referendum campaign are using opinion polls like market research to find that sweet-spot where they can sell their position like some brand of shampoo. At the time of writing, it was Boris Johnson finding the Brexit sweet-spot and demanding that David Cameron confess his failure on immigration. Within this melee, considered debate is lost, analysis dies and the facts the voters so badly want are sunk without trace. It seems that the issues have been pushed aside and the real goal is to merely see who can win the debating societies gold cup.

But I ask, is the political basis of the EU debate really any different to the way politics works generally? I would argue that it is not, it is just that now it is lay bare and exposed for what it really is. The last general election consisted of the same nonsense except it was largely confined to statistical juggling, fact-selection and sweet-spot hunting on a partisan level. The voting public are acclimatised to this to such an extent that it hardly gets a second thought. But now those that sit on either side of the European issue treat each other on this topic in the same way they collectively treat those in rival political parties. It’s all the same political tactics, it’s all the same political game of thrones, it’s just it has come into sharp contrast because we see that game of thrones being played out on battlefields where it has not been played before with such ferocity. 

So what's all this got to do with a science blog? The answer is that never before has the contrast between the philosophies of science and politics been so starkly exposed. Politics is based upon the philosophy of first taking a point of view (we can call this an ideology) and then making an argument to support it. This is almost the definition of legal rhetoric: “Joe Blogs may have been caught with a bag marked swag over his back, running away from the jewellers, but ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you, is it impossible that he just found it laying on the street and was taking it to the police station as he claims.”  Science works the other way round, it considers the evidence, analyses the options and then comes to a considered conclusion. If this referendum has told us anything, then it has revealed the chasm between the way politicians and scientists think and may even go some way to explain why only around 4% of UK Members of Parliament have a STEM related higher education.

I’m not saying politics can be entirely scientific but it might learn a thing or two about how to go from evidence to the facts, rather than the other way round. As the optimist that I am, perhaps the way the EU debate has broken the partisan mould might be a good thing. It has put on open public display that politicians sacrifice their own opinions in order to stay on partisan message.  It has exposed the political system as more of a marketing campaign than one genuinely concerned about truth. Perhaps in the future the more intellectual media (and I include the BBC) might rely to a greater extent on expert witnesses who actually check what’s being said rather than broadcasting squabbling politicians that may well be defending a party position that they themselves do not really believe. Despite my apparent cynicism of our political system I am a great believer in democracy but I just happen to also believe that dishonest rhetoric does nothing for that democracy.  We can but hope.

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