The polarisation of debate is a common characteristic of our society. My dim memories of a first year philosophy class (augmented by a dip into wikipedia) recalls the ‘Hegelian Dialectic’ as a clash of opposite concepts, a “thesis” and “anti-thesis” leading to a “synthesis” that integrates these two, and produces a higher understanding than is found in either concept on its own. I would not pretend to explain or even understand Hegel; I only point out that the underlying idea, that the confrontation of opposites lead to a synthesis, is in contrast to what seems to be the all too common outcome of debate, which polarisation; two sides, led by strong advocates, become increasingly entrenched in their own points of view with little regard or respect for their opposition. Legal advocates are not employed to present a reasoned judgement based on a balanced consideration of the arguments – instead, the advocates’ role is to defend the parties they represent to the best of their abilities. Legal advocacy is based on an important principle – that all individuals, no matter how venal they may appear in society’s eyes, are entitled to a competent defence of their point of view in a court of law. Their advocates are charged with representing them as they would do themselves had they the proper training and understanding of the legal system. However, those same principles of advocacy do not always serve us well outside the courtroom. The debates between religious fundamentalists and atheists, between the advocates of capitalism and socialism, and peace protesters and hawks, are all examples where opposing viewpoints are often led by a relatively small numbers of highly motivated individuals whose opinions lie at either end of a spectrum of ideas, with the bulk of individuals being both less committed to advocacy, and also less dogmatic in whatever their views actually are. In my view, this problem is exacerbated by the insularity that comes from the existence of relatively closed or close-knit groups of like minded individuals. This kind of community support, while in many ways a wonderful thing and central to being human, is not always conducive to openness to new ideas that contravene the current wisdom held within those groups.
The debate on badgers culling and its potential impact on bovine TB in Great Britain is an example of this kind of polarised debate – a caricature of this would point to an rural urban divide, which though overly simple (there are many farmers against badger culling, and equally many city-dwellers sympathetic to the plight of farmers), points to a differing experience of reality that inform the differing values on each side. Without pointing fingers at specific websites, I would invite the readers of this blog to do a search for arguments both for and against badger culling – at each end of the spectrum, the same types of arguments are raised as support of their particular cause. This is not to say that all arguments regarding badger culling (either for or against) are irrational. Indeed because the facts are so unclear, the debate is made even more difficult, and there are many advocates on both sides who consider these facts in a reasoned way. The danger of course, is that the rational argument becomes lost in the polarisation of the debate.
It is in this regard that Science can play a crucial role. Scientists are human – usually but not always better educated than your typical person on the street, but with certainly no inherent moral superiority or advantages of character. As humans we are subject to the same type of prejudices and misdeeds, both petty and signficant than any other. As individuals we are fully capable of ignoring evidence and promoting our own points of view at the expense of the truth, with Sir Isaac Newton‘s altercations with Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz, and the behaviour of Sir Richard Owen being notorious examples. We as individuals are more than capable of corrupting science, sometimes inadvertently but sometimes wilfully. What makes us different is the standard by which we are judged as scientists. The dirty tricks of political campaigns mean little after an election is won. History is continuously rewritten by the selective, interpretive memories of the individuals’ doing the writing, and because historical knowledge can be erased, recovering the truth can be impossible. In contrast science is bound by the unalterable truths of the natural world and is always ultimately judged by its relationship to it. Good scientific research will raise a hypothesis and present arguments both for and against the truth of it, providing data and/or analyses which add to these arguments, rather than simply replacing them. The science of bovine TB is as yet unclear, but it is progressing. The development of the policy of bovine TB must reference that science, so that any further decisions, be they ethical, economic, societal or political be based on the clearest understanding possible of the underlying facts.