The Problems of Democratic Societies

The increasing sophistication of our technologically-dominated society raises many problems that are likely to affects millions of people. For example, shall we welcome genetically-modified foods? Should we rely on wind-power for our future energy supplies? Should we forbid smoking because it causes lung cancer? How can we obtain the best answers to these and many other questions? We can try to do this democratically, by a popular vote, or we can ask experts to decide for us.

Both these methods are subject to serious objections. Very few people have the detailed technical knowledge to enable them to give a reasonably well-informed answer, and so the democratic method is an attempt to attain truth by summing ignorance. It is frequently said that scientists should inform the public; this is of course very desirable, but it remains very difficult to convey sufficient knowledge for the public to make an informed decision.

To place the decision in the hands of experts is much better, but there is still the problem of choosing the best experts. Political pressures with the object of putting the decision in the hands of people who are likely to say what you want them to say are very likely to confuse the process.

It is difficult enough to reach a sensible decision when everyone concerned is activated by the highest motives and concerned only to reach the best possible decision. The situation in our society is made much worse by powerful pressure groups activated by commercial or ideological concerns who orchestrate propaganda campaigns to support the decisions favourable to their aims. Thus tobacco companies devoted vast resources to show that smoking is harmless, and environmental groups support wind and solar power. Animal rights movements use violent methods to prevent research that is necessary to improve the treatment of diseases.

Can we rely on Governments to take the right decisions for us? They have access to the best scientific and technological information and thus are very well equipped to make wise decisions. It would be much easier to leave the decisions to the Government, but unfortunately this does not guarantee the best decisions. This is because they are very sensitive to public opinion, and this is strongly influenced by the commercial and political pressures just mentioned. If they go against public opinion, however misguided it may be, they will lose the next election. As a result, they are often under intense pressure to take decisions that they know are not the best ones. A familiar strategy in such circumstances is to postpone the problem by proposing a public enquiry. This may look prudent or statesmanlike, but it is disastrous in the long run. Very often postponing a vital decision is the worst option of all.

As long ago as 2000 a Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution said that Britain would need fifty new nuclear power stations to generate the energy needed without adding to global warming. In response to this recommendation Mr Blair commissioned a review of Britain's energy needs for the next fifty years. He declared that 'The aim of the review will be to set out the objectives of energy policy and to develop a strategy that ensures that current policy commitments are consistent with long-term goals'. It was confidently expected that this would lead to a revival of nuclear power but eight years later practically nothing has been done.

A democratic vote is useful only if the voters have access to expert technical knowledge. It is unrealistic to expect everyone to become experts, but at least they should have the opportunity to listen to the arguments of the experts. An expert is someone with the necessary basic scientific training who has studied at least some aspects of the problem for several years or, better still, has been engaged in research for some decades. It is not too difficult to identify an expert in this sense from readily-obtainable information. Such people will be the first to admit the deficiencies of their knowledge, since they understand the complexities of the problem. They welcome questions from people who genuinely want to know. It is usually the people who know nothing who are the most dogmatically sure that they know the best answer. If debates between experts are widely publicised by the media they could hopefully affect public opinion and lead to better decisions being taken.

Basically it is a matter of trust. We trust the airlines whenever we fly, we trust the shops to sell us food without harmful substances and so on. But an article in the Economist (10.07.2007) said that 'the polls reveal a striking and pervasive public distrust of official information about nuclear power. Only scientists employed by universities, a few television-news programmes and environmental groups are trusted to tell the truth. Government scientists and cabinet Ministers are widely disbelieved'. This statement is over-optimistic, and it would be unwise to trust all television programmes and environmental groups. University scientists are not always trusted. My own experience is limited, but I recall giving a talk on the energy crisis and nuclear power to some children in a State school. They sat in sullen silence during the talk, and afterwards I enquired how they found the talk and was told: 'They did not believe a word of it'. On another occasion I gave essentially the same lecture at Winchester College. The boys had already spent the whole day in the classroom and attendance at the lecture was voluntary. The room was packed and they were bright and enthusiastic, bubbling over with questions on what I was saying and what they already anticipated that I would say next.

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