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Sunday, 6 August 2017

Politics, Economics and Science

There are degrees that purport to qualify their graduands in 'Political Science': there are even some professorships under that title in British universities. That there is some degree of scientific precision in some aspects of the study of politics has been proved in recent British general elections, where 'Exit Polls' that systematically ask voters how they have actually voted have displayed an astonishing degree of accuracy; as demonstrated 24 hours later when all the votes are counted. I describe this accuracy as "astonishing" because it contrasts with Opinion Polls conducted right down to the day before the election, which are often wildly wide of the mark; thus, politicians and commentators who rely on them can grossly be misled, as were most of both those groups when the Tories' chances were over-rated and Labour's popularity was grossly under-reported in the polls before the election this year. This appears to show that people are in large measure unsure how to vote [or whether they will vote] until the last minute, while it can be inferred that many do not tell the truth in advance of their casting their ballots. After voting, people seem more confident that they can not be swayed in their decision-making by the lift of the questioner's eyebrow or their sniff of disapproval; so then they tell the truth, and the statisticians and psychologists who set and assess the actual questions to be asked are vindicated in the precise methods that they use.

The scope of 'Political Science' is much wider than this, of course. Where it combines statistical rigour with sound social analysis or experimentally validated psychology, interesting and potentially useful data are produced. But where it attempts to explain the underlying factors which make a population of humans behave in this way or that to determine the direction of government it can only follow the conclusions presented by sociology, psychology or history: and within each of those disciplines there is no agreement on what are the rock-bottom principles emergent from the study that should be followed by government with the same degree of authority as applies to Botany, Geology or Medical Science. There are, of course, fundamental disputes within the natural sciences; but there is also a sufficient consensus to validate measures that are taken to support public health, safe transport and the control of thousands of potentially dangerous substances.

Politicians with some degree of common sense - and many such people still exist, though their expression of their views is often limited by the need to have the support of their party at the next election - make a mix-and-match pragmatic personal portfolio of ideas drawn from the natural sciences, and from academic politics, history, psychology and sociology; and accept that they must be willing to change their understanding in line with new facts [including new false interpretations that capture the public mood]. This inner assessment of the situation is necessarily combined with what the electorate in the particular constituency where the politician is based understand and want. This is a precarious situation to be in and politicians usually recognise their vulnerability within the nexus of shifting popular opinion.

The biggest intellectual problem that many politicians face is that of Economics: the pseudo-science that has been captured by the Econocracy, the hegemonic advocates of the crazy dogma that markets can become so developed - on their own - that they produce results that could not be bettered by any amount of detailed direction from the political machine. The tragedy to which that dogma has given rise is that in the countries that have partially opened up their markets to untrammeled competition it has increasingly become apparent that untrammeled [or even relatively unrestricted] free operation of markets conduces against humans having an inner sense of wellbeing. This is now the very nub of political debate in the USA and in the United Kingdom, and must be a major theme in this blog for the next few days.

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