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"Sense About Science" is a partisan agenda pretending to lobby for science

Bruce Newsome, Ph.D. 

26 October 2016

The lobbying group "Sense About Science" is planning to present to the British Parliament on 1 November 2016, and has asked members of the public to write to their Members of Parliament to pay attention to science, but "Sense About Science" itself is a non-scientific partisan lobby group, lobbying for partisan social issues, while pretending to be lobbying for science in general.

"Sense About Science" pushes partisan agendas as if they are scientifically proven, and pretends that its agendas are neglected only because of the general neglect of science, without proving anything.

This is an example of the now endemic conflation of social agendas with social science in Britain.

For some years, I have been pushing for a distinction between real social science and social agendas pretending to be social scientific.

One could study social issues in either a scientific or non-scientific way (perhaps in preference for philosophical study of fundamental issues), but choosing the latter does not entitle one to call oneself a social scientist - at best, one would be a social student. Yet today, anybody who studies anything human or social calls themselves a social scientist, taking the credibility of the scientist without the burden, rather like the autocrat who rigs elections in order to call themselves a democrat.

Hence in Britain we have the "Campaign for Social Science" and "Sense About Science" pushing partisan agendas without the science to back them up, while pretending to be lobbying for more science in policy-making.

I joined the "Campaign for Social Science" early (2014), believing its promise to promote the social sciences, but soon found that it was executed by former journalists who knew nothing about science except their own partisan agendas that they thought "scientific." So far as "Campaign for Social Science" campaigned for anything academic, it campaigned for the study of social issues (social studies), not for anything scientific. Most of their publications were uncited, narrow celebrations of a field, written by one person, who ended up advertising their own work, or their own version of what they wanted their field to be. Sometimes it responded to requests for the social scientific community's perspective on an organization or policy, without canvassing its "expert members" (I am one of them).

This experience prompted me to write "The Campaign for Real Social Science." The "Campaign for Social Science" subsequently changed its leadership (I do not claim any causal credit), but is still not advocating for anything exclusively scientific - it still does not define social science, except indirectly as social studies.

Similarly, I joined "Sense About Science" early this year (2016), in the hope of advocacy of science against agendas pretending to be scientific, but soon discovered that it is not directed by scientists, and these directors are advocating for partisan causes under the banner that "evidence matters", without presenting evidence. Its current focus is the discreditation of Brexit.

For instance, its Director (Tracey Brown, not a scientist) writes regularly in The Guardian (a partisan newspaper) claims that Brexit was the result of the decline of science, a decline which left the public unable to choose against Brexit (to choose in favor of remaining in the European Union). One of these articles was such a hypocritically anti-scientific pretense at science - a complaint about the supposed non-science behind Brexit - that I use it as an exercise for students of social science to spot biased, fallacious, and untrue arguments.

She claimed that Brexiteers "made stuff up" and were not "frank," and did not talk "openly, in public," but she provided no evidence (an unproven argument); she does not admit that any anti-Brexiteer makes things up (suggesting her bias). She pretended that "the research community" was homogenized on the other side, but did not provide any evidence for this either. Her claims - although imprecise - are so sweeping as to be easily contradicted. For instance, what weeks-long democratic referendum for Brexit did she confuse for one that was not talked about "openly, in public"?

Perhaps she was attempting to provide evidence when she blamed a Conservative politician (Michael Gove) for saying that "people in this country have had enough of experts," but she did not make clear what she thought this proves. It certainly does not prove anything that she claims, and adds to the reader's perception that she is biased against only Brexiteers.

In general, her statements are so poorly worded as to be unfalsifiable: nothing is defined, much is inferred, nothing is proven, nothing is clear.

The only verifiable data that she offered was a survey, which, she claimed, contradicted Gove's claim that "people are sick of experts": in fact, it did not even address that claim; it showed that most people want government to consider the evidence or the experts during policy-making, which has been the majority view for decades; they weren't asked whether they are sick of experts; the public could be both sick of experts and desirous of more consideration of expertise by government; and a respondent who wants more consideration of experts could interpret "experts" in many ways, including as people who support the respondent's own agenda. 

Her attempts at "principles" (remember, she is posing as an advocate for "science") are childish and patronizing: "Big decisions are hard. Policymaking is not straightforward." She seems to be paraphrasing both George W. Bush and Tony Blair at the same time, as they justified their mistakes in Iraq in the 2000s. 

Her final conclusion was that "People's attraction to some of the dodgiest claims [still not proven]...was not an invitation to people in authority to abandon [still not proven] the principle of truthfulness in public life." 

If "Sense About Science" was advocating for "truthfulness," it should be advocating (as I have done) for objectivity, lack of bias, logic, non-fallacious arguments, evidence-based arguments, the distinction between data and evidence, falsifiability, and clarity of concepts.

Instead, "Sense About Science" is guilty of all the anti-scientific pathologies, and none of the scientific virtues. It provides no evidence or flawed evidence for its claims, but claims to persuade government that "evidence matters." "Sense About Science" campaigns against Brexit, but pretends this is another campaign for science. 

"Sense About Science" is part of a wider problem of partisan agendas pretending that supporters are enlightened, and opponents are ignorant, while undermining science and thus promoting the "post-truth society" that it claims to counter.