Dumbing down science

Posted on August 27, 2009 at 10:00 pm,

Peter Mandelson’s suggestion this week of cutting off internet access to filesharers has got me thinking.

I’ve not been thinking about the ethics of illegal filesharing (it’s morally equivalent to taping songs off the radio), its impact on the music industry (good for obscure artists, bad for the big labels), or the futility of trying to stop it from happening.

No, what I’ve been thinking about is how politicians form their opinions when it comes to science and technology.

The fact of the matter is that very few politicians understand technology. Mandelson’s suggestion showed phenomenal ignorance about how the internet and filesharing works, and gave the impression that he was just trying to tell the big record labels what they want to hear. Anybody familiar with the technology could have told him in great detail how this (and all the other half-baked schemes to punish those who fileshare illegally) was a completely unworkable proposal. And yet he still went ahead and made a fool of himself.

Mandelson is far from unique in his ignorance of science and technology. Given the kind of technology-driven society we live in there are remarkably few top politicians with a scientific or technology background. But that alone doesn’t explain why politicians often sound clueless to those who do understand it. They could, if they chose to, ensure that they consulted with experts before pronouncing judgement. But in this case, as with plenty of others, they clearly chose not to.

So why do they do so? Some of it may be a desire to grab a headline, even at the expense of alienating clued-up voters. Some of it may be a desire to please big business – in this case, the big music labels. But I think that there may be a deeper issue within political culture. I think that it may come from the way that the mass media portrays science and technology.

Read almost any newspaper on almost any day of the week, and you’ll come across an article which portrays a recent piece of scientific research in a misleading way. At best, this is simply dumbing it down to ensure that everybody can get the gist, but often it distorts the findings in order to make it interesting or sensational.

Most of the time, this approach is fairly harmless. But when it provides support to climate-change deniers, or persuades parents that MMR will give their child Autism when all the evidence says that it won’t, then it becomes very dangerous.

If politicians have caught this dumbed-down approach to science from the media, then it would explain why filesharing (often dubbed “pirating” – presumably to make it glamorous and sensational) has become seen as a dangerous menace that has to be stamped out at all costs, and why public statements rarely note that filesharing is often done within the law, and that the nature of technology makes it impossible to prevent.

If more politicians listened to those who know how science and technology works rather than filtering it through a media-style distorted lens, then perhaps we’d have sensible policy proposals on science and technology. Perhaps the responses to issues like BSE, Foot and Mouth, Swine Flu, and filesharing would be in proper proportion to the evidence.

That doesn’t mean that the experts should call all the shots. Having technical knowledge doesn’t mean that you understand the wider social implications which policymakers should take into account. But a policy proposal that isn’t based on good technical evidence isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.