Guest column with Maria Wetterstrand

Combining science with politics

“Politics can’t solve society’s problems. We need a governing elite of experts who can deal with society. People who know what’s best. Democracy only creates problems.”

Yes, I know it’s not a genuine quotation. But it captures the spirit of an attitude towards politics versus expert knowledge that I often encounter. When the euro crisis was at its worst, many self-proclaimed experts called for the abdication of politics and ideologies, suggesting instead that experts should deal with the crisis-struck countries.

A RECENT ASSIGNMENT I had as a freelancer involved giving a lecture to a trade organisation on “Understanding politics”. After all, the industry should represent its members and – as such – this organisation worked for changes that would benefit its own industry. Although they didn’t see it that way. They were experts, and they knew “How things really are” or “What the reality is”. That is to say, things that politicians don’t know. And as politicians don’t know these things, they make bad decisions. That was their basic attitude.

At other times, I encounter the same attitude from trade unions. They know “What the reality is” and “What things are like for ordinary people”. The problem is that the experts from the unions and industry rarely agree with each other.

IT’S OBVIOUS TO the Federation of Swedish Farmers that we should produce more food in Sweden, while for a personal finance consultant the most important thing is that food should be as cheap as possible. A third party might be more concerned about the biological diversity of the agricultural landscape, campaigning for a ban on artificial fertilisers regardless of the cost to farmers and consumers. For the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, there is no questioning the fact that the rules for maritime emissions in the Baltic Sea should be the same as those on the Spanish Atlantic coast, for reasons of competition. But it’s just as clear to a marine environmental researcher that the rules in the Baltic Sea need to be stricter, since this is a more sensitive environment.

COMING BACK TO the euro crisis, not even economists agree whether it’s best to cut back or spend. And regardless of who gets to decide, there’s an imminent risk that ecological and social sustainability will be overlooked in the package of measures, since no one has asked for the expertise of scientists or social scientists in this context.

ONCE, WHILE I WAS still a spokesperson for the Swedish Green Party, we were visited by the board of Vattenfall. They came to us with the attitude that we were wrong, because we didn’t understand. So they spent half an hour explaining obvious facts that we were already aware of. Eventually, I grew tired of this. “I think you should at least consider the possibility that we may already have understood,” I interjected. “We just don’t think the way you do.” They were so confused that they didn’t know how to go on.

POLITICS BECOMES MORE complicated the longer you are involved in it. When I was 17, everything was straightforward. Just like the “experts”, I was convinced that everyone would think the way I did if they only understood what I meant. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In order to take a position and sort through all the experts, an ideologically based political compass is needed that shows which direction to head in. Through democracy, the people can choose whose compass setting they prefer. Those who only listen to experts risk having to change their opinions on a weekly basis.

DON’T GET ME wrong. I love it when experts get involved in social debate. Especially when the experts think the same as I do, of course, but also when they don’t. I want more experts and researchers to discuss politics and social issues. Not least when they represent values other than economic values. Environmental scientists, social anthropologists, architects, cultural historians and many others can contribute perspectives that are often missing. But just as you want me to have at least some idea about energy issues before I debate phasing out nuclear power, I also want the experts to have a little knowledge of how politics works.

THOSE WHO GET involved in the debate should do so with an understanding that there are other experts, other scientific fields, other interests and different ideological outlooks. It’s easy to denounce politics because it doesn’t do what one’s own expertise says it should. But the role of politics is to sift through the jungle of knowledge and opinions, take an ideological and sometimes even moral overview, and then lead the way to an appropriate political decision. That’s what politicians are “experts” at, and it’s no mean feat.

/Maria Wetterstrand

mariawetterstrand2Maria Wetterstrand is a biologist, former politician, and now an independent social debater and Chair of the Swedish Environmental Objectives Council.

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Cover of Science Faculty Magazine Issue 1 2015