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Sunday, 27 September 2015

Anne Glover's urgings to show a little trust dealt a death blow by VW

The pronouncements of Anne Glover, former chief scientific advisor to the President of the European Commission, have this week been shown to be what they are – just plain and utter nonsense uttered by a person who at best can be described as na├»ve. The confession by VW that it had installed technology in its diesel cars to produce misleading emissions test results leaves Glover looking very foolish indeed. The VW case well illustrates why we should not, as Glover urged in her FT article of July 2014 (Finding an Element of Trust) show a little trust. Ironically her article states (presumably based on the best evidence available at the time!):

“We trust industry where it suits us: in the toothpaste we use, the pizza we buy or the car we drive. But people seem to have a problem in trusting industry when it comes to influencing policy making."

So in the light of VW, and in the tradition of Epimetheus, Glover’s text must be re-written based on the best evidence now available:

“We trust industry where it suits us: in the toothpaste we use, the pizza we buy or the car we drive, except if it is a VW Diesel vehicle. But people seem to have a problem in trusting industry when it comes to influencing policy making, and VW well illustrates why this is so, and why my words are just nonsense, being the product of a reductive and fragmented mind caught-up in the delusion of rationality and objectivity.”

And this nicely illustrates why we should not be listening to people who talk about best evidence, but should instead be thinking about the consequences, unexpected or otherwise, both for ourselves and future generations, which is how we give meaning to the phrase sustainable development, which at the moment is just empty rhetoric, uttered many times by many people, including no doubt Glover herself. Giving meaning to this also sometimes means saying no to scientific developments, and embracing other forms of equally valid techniques – walking a different path, reconceptualising the notion of progress, accepting that with science and technology, there are different options and no such thing as the one best way, the sole truth. And this is why art is important, and why we should not be listening to those who, in pursuit of economic agendas, appropriate art for the purpose of communication (propaganda?) and to solve the (imaginary) creativity deficit.

VW provide the answer to why we should not trust industry and why also we should not trust scientists who naively believe that dialogue with such industries is the way to deal with unethical behaviour. History shows that the way to deal with VW and others is through legislation that results in fines and imprisonment. How many more examples do we need before we begin to understand this fundamental truth?

What the Glover episode reinforces is a message that society has yet to learn – scientists with their reductive minds and their simple solutions based on simple understandings of complex problems, should not be allowed into positions of power and influence.  Yet they conspire among themselves to do just that – the lure of technocracy as Habermas calls it.

We should of course already have learned this lesson from history – the pronouncements of scientists like CP Snow is a good example, for he foolishly waxed lyrical in his Two Cultures lecture and book, about how science would save humanity and rid the world of poverty. As more intellectually sound observers noted however, Snow was a technocrat with grossly simplified understanding of global development problems, and in this he is not alone, for this is the way that many scientist think.

By all means we should receive advice from scientists, but please no more nonsense about having seats in government, and certainly let us also have more advice from other researchers, like behavioural scientists, who can also explain why scientist say ridiculous things. Science is not the sole source of the truth and certainly, what science has to say should not be prioritised and valued above what other research paradigms have to offer. To do as Glover advocates, and to prioritise science, is to tacitly admit that science has become a handmaiden of the economy, and you should know what handmaidens are expected to do!

And if we could achieve a state of affairs of not valuing one way of understanding the world above others, and in doing so also recognise that all understanding of the world are but self-constructed realities which are then projected onto the world (even if those who create them do not understand this), this would certainly be worth calling progress, for times change, but not it seems do human minds, who cling to their beliefs, whatever they may be, scientific or otherwise, with a stubbornness that shows the nonsense of trusting entirely in this mythical thing called reason. We have, literally, stone-age minds, yet behave as though that were not the case, and in so doing, place at risk not only our own existence on this planet, but that of other life forms who have just as much right to exist as we do. This too is a fundamental truth that is yet to be understood. We live because they do. They are not a resource – they are life whose existence should be respected and celebrated.

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