I am NOT the decider: the limits to science in public policy and decision making

In the last decade, Western politicians and government officials have made evidence-based decision making a key plank in their platforms and operations. From climate change to Covid-19, governments around the world are increasingly leaning on scientists and other experts to help form policy. I welcome scientific input; without it we are blind. At the same time I fear that we sometimes expect too much from science. Science cannot answer moral questions, and it cannot determine our values.

Parliament: Our collective decision making home.

Today, within some circles of our chattering classes it’s in vogue to complain that our democracies are too slow, too ineffectual, and too unresponsive; that somehow how, an administrative state run by experts and only lightly guided by politicians will offer superior results. But for all its shortcomings and imperfections in process, accountability from the election booth provides the best mechanism to ensure that our collective decision making lines up with our collective values. We invest the power of decision making in our elected officials for a reason – we demand that our leaders take responsibility and we then we make them accountable.

Science can never replace public decision making. How many of our civil liberties should we suspend to fight Covid-19? How much global warming is worth extra economic growth? How much poverty should we tolerate in our country? These are not scientific questions, they all require a value judgment and there is no ultimate right answer. In an increasingly technical and scientific age, we need our democracy more than ever. Scientists, economists, and other professional experts are not elected and are not accountable to the public like an elected official. The real decision involves many competing issues on which scientists and other experts are just as dumb as the next guy. There is no “science machine” that can spit out the right course of action for our elected officials to take. The real strength of science is not certitude but doubt. With my data science team, I stress our role in government decision making with our team motto:

We draw conclusions from data, not recommendations.

By focusing on conclusions that the data can support, we help decision makers understand the likely consequences of alternative courses of action. We emphasize that for all its sophistication and mathematics, our input is a simplification of reality but with enough fidelity that we can help ring-fence the decision. We are under no illusion how difficult the real problem is, and we never put the decision maker to an ultimatum with a recommendation. We are not elected.

In digesting expert advice, I think Lord Salisbury’s insights from 1877 still apply:

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you never should trust experts. If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.

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