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Posted by on Dec 21, 2013 in Skepticism and Science | 2 comments

Politicians don’t know what they’re doing

A few days ago, my fellow SINner Jacques Rousseau posted about policy-making and science, arguing we shouldn’t be so harsh on politicians – they might be doing their best, you know?

I beg to disagree. Putting aside the fact that I think comparing politicians to scientists is demeaning to the latter, there’s an obvious, large difference between the two groups of people: scientists are really trying to get us to a better place (whether they’re interested in that or not), while you never know with politicians (and, IMHO, they almost never are).

But there’s another difference, more subtle, but pretty much important: Politicians don’t know what they’re doing. Yeah, that’s right. We already have evidence-based science, and science-based medicine, but politics and policy-making are just not.

The greatest revolution in medicine in the second half of the twentieth century was the generalization of clinical trials. There is record of such experiments since 1747, when aboard the Salisbury Dr. James Lind tested four treatments for scurvy, but it was not until the sixties that became routine. Today, random controlled trials are the standard for evaluating drugs and treatments, measure their effectiveness and observe their effects.

In the meantime the actual tests on the ground and not a laboratory, are somewhat rare in the field of public policy. Social programs are implemented without testing and we change the function of schools without pilot tests. Why not try these actions on a small-scale before they are universal? Is it not reasonable to empirically evaluate two alternatives instead of discussing their (alleged) virtues?

Randomized controlled trials in Medicine and Policy-Making

So almost all the decision-making that has an impact on our lives, health, wealth, well-being and expectations just so happens to be the result of wishful thinking.

We need -and deserve- science-based policies and we should demand them from our elected officials. They ought be held accountable for their their actions and omissions – saying things are hard to get done is giving them free passes – well, if it was so difficult (or economically unfeasible), why on earth did you go on a campaign, raised funds and had yourself elected, in the first place?

  • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

    Is this a deliberate exercise in false dichotomies? Politicians know what they are doing to lesser or greater degrees, as do scientists. The two pieces argued for nuanced interpretation/analysis of some of the things they do, where sometimes we might not be understanding the context in which they work. That in no way means a “free pass”. You’re disagreeing with a complete straw person.

    • http://de-avanzada.blogspot.com/ Ðavid A. Osorio S

      Maybe I didn’t read them that way. I’m sorry if I misrepresented your views.