Is our world too complex to be trusted to politicians?

I am not the only person to comment that the environment has been largely sidelined in the 2015 General Election (see “A plague on both their houses“).   As a result, my efforts to find points of contact between the election campaigns and my life as an ecologist have taken some odd twists and turns.   What, for example, should an ecologist make of Ed Miliband’s attack on David Cameron’s handling of the situation in Libya in 2011, and on the Tories’ angry response?

But first, some good news: less focus on climate change in the election has, at least, spared us from the ranting of climate change deniers.   I have often found myself wondering why the opinions of few non-scientists have gained so much traction over the past decade or so. The answer, I suspect lies in the very nature of climate science, and the complexity of the systems with which it is concerned.   Note my use of the word ‘complexity’ rather than ‘complicated’. This is an important distinction. A car engine is complicated because there are many interconnected components. Nonetheless a good mechanic will understand how they all fit together and, more importantly, be able to diagnose faults and have confidence that any adjustments that s/he makes will solve the problem. Scientists understand ‘complexity’ rather differently and, crucially, recognise that cause-effect relationships are less straightforward.   This means that complex systems are less deterministic. Tinkering with one component will not necessarily have the effect you want and, indeed, may even make it worse.   Consequently, predictions need to encompass a range of outcomes, each with an estimate of its likelihood.

Climate scientists understand this and gone to great lengths to understand the uncertainties associated with their predictions and to publish these in the peer-reviewed literature. Unfortunately, this has, in the process, provided fuel to those who, for their own reasons, want to play down the implications of global warming. They can tug and tug at every thread left hanging out of the fabric of an argument and gleefully draw everyone’s attention away from the substance of the debate.   It is exactly the same tactic as that used by Creationists looking to undermine evolution.

No politician would be as naïve as climate scientists. All their policies are packaged and presented as neat, deterministic cause-effect relationships.   This is the case even when we know that, in reality, we are dealing with aspects of society, economics, international relations, or whatever, all of which are complex systems and, therefore, resilient to meddling by politicians elected with a five-year mandate.  We all want to believe the promises that politicians will Get Things Done; the issue is which set of policies we want, not whether they are being hopelessly naïve in offering them to us in the first place.

Ah yes … international relations.   This brings me back, neatly, to Libya.   The Conservatives, in their manifesto, claim credit for “….intervening to prevent a massacre in Libya”. This is true; however, they were dealing with a complex system, and short-term measures to prevent a massacre did not prevent the country’s political system subsequently unravelling, creating a space for militias and, indirectly, contributing to boatloads of migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea.   Miliband clearly hit a sensitive nerve, because the Tory response was to attack him rather than to defend their policy.   To be fair, Cameron was dealing not just with a complex international issue but also with a British public jaded by lengthy, costly and ineffective interventions elsewhere in the Muslim world. And, as every Tory leader loves to be compared with Winston Churchill, we should remind David Cameron that he is in good company in his blunders in Middle East policy.

Though the details differ, climate science and international relations both belong to the same class of “complex problems”.   The difference is that practitioners of the former are frank about the issues that this raises, whilst politicians prove to be reluctant, time and time again, to publicly contemplate alternative outcomes to their policy pronouncements. And it is not just foreign policy where politicians and policy makers are reluctant to be frank about their practices and to put all their evidence in front of the public (see “The madness that is ‘British Values’” for another example).

All the political parties are guilty of this. It is the nature of the game that they play, the need to be seen to Get Things Done (or to show that the other lot failed to Get Things Done) before the cycle grinds round and we are all looking towards the next election. I am trying not to sound too cynical about the system but my professional life brings me into contact with many issues that require more time than a five year political cycle.   Perhaps – dare I write this – democracy has some limitations in our modern age?

One thought on “Is our world too complex to be trusted to politicians?

  1. Pingback: The politics of complexity (and the complexity of politics) | microscopesandmonsters

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