As a dedicated enthusiast for music of all sorts, I have strong preferences for how it ‘should’ be presented. To my mind it’s fine for those on stage to talk a little when they are playing short, popular pieces, but patter’n’perform holds little attraction for me when attending a formal classical concert. Words have their place, but only as an accessible (inexpensive) written programme note.
There’s some interesting discussion going on in the LinkedIn Dundee IHP-HELP UNESCO Centre Group just now.
The Dundee UNESCO Centre is concerned with professional fields such as water law, and some of us have been discussing the role of the ‘Expert’ in bringing this critical issue more into the public eye.
This week has seen an announcement by H.M. Government that, in a part reversal of national policy, badgers (but not deer) may in some circumstances now be culled if farmers believe this will reduce the risk of their dairy herds developing TB.
The debate about bovine tuberculosis (TB in cows) has raged for years. It has cost UK taxpayers vast sums of money, as key stakeholders in the consultative process (many of them farmers), top scientists and government advisers have striven to resolve the matter. Likewise, many farmers see bTB as a real threat to the continuation of their way of life. But hundreds upon hundreds of hours of vexed high-level debate over the past 10 or 15 years still it seems leave the central questions unresolved.
The issues are often presented this way: are badgers the reason that cows get TB? and if so should the badgers be culled (i.e. shot or gassed)? and by whom, at whose expense? (Or, conversely,do badgers in fact get TB from cows, not the other way around?)
This is of course, as with many other complex situations, a simplification of the inter-related underlying tensions.
Nonetheless, in some observers’ views this contest at base is about the ‘rights’ of farmers to do as they wish on their land, the ‘rights’ of badgers (and their human admirers – rarely farmers) to live unmolested wherever they reside, and the relevance and rights or wrongs of the hotly challenged scientific evidence: the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for instance, has said it is opposed to culls ‘based on solid science, not sentiment.’
And underlying all this, but less frequently acknowledged in popular debate, are matters of business, profit, loss, politics and science.
Business or bucolic?
Whilst even attempting to summarise the various positions is to invite challenge, questions and considerations could be said to include: why the development of an effective bovine (and/or badger) TB vaccine has been so slow (humans regularly undergo TB vaccination); issues concerning the possible efficacy or additional damage risks which culling might have; the requirements in European farming policy in respect of vaccinated cows; the costs to taxpayers of compensation by the UK Government for farmers whose TB-positive cattle are destroyed; the business case for milk from certified uninfected herds; and the view of some people that indigenous UK wildlife should be left in peace.
To many urbanites the plight of cows, badgers and farmers (not to mention the credibility of veterinary scientists and government officials) seems trivial, but this is a very serious matter to most of those involved.
Entrenched and conflicting positions
The major stakeholders have conflicting and entrenched views. They will find it difficult for a long time yet to achieve any consensus, perhaps in part because they perceive this at some level to be a battle for rural life (the farmers) or hearts and minds (the badger lovers), with the politicians hovering nervously between the two.
* Can debates in which protagonists have such different fundamental bases actually be resolved?
* What role does or can science have in a matter which is in some minds more about business cases ans / or ways of living?
The Spirit Level, first published in March 2009, is a book which has slowly emerged to take centre stage in the debate about human equality and well-being. In this publication Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett produce a wide range of sociological and epidemiological evidence that, to quote, ‘at almost any level of income, it’s better to live in a more equal place‘.
Initially this was widely regarded as a reasonable position, but The Guardian reports there is now a serious onslaught on the idea from some right-wing think tanks.
‘Professional wreckers’ challenged
Professor Wilkinson has responded vigorously to the criticisms, saying he is shocked by what he believes is a worrying trend in political discourse, also happening in the USA, where some right-wing institutes have set themselves up as ‘professional wreckers of ideas’. (A riposte to this claim is made here.)
‘Do they even believe what they are saying?‘, he asked. ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter if their claims are right or wrong; it is about sowing doubt in people’s minds.‘
Nurturing public scepticism
No doubt Professors Pickett and Wilkinson can take care of themselves in this debate; their evidence base is massive and has been subject to continuous peer review (formal scrutiny by colleagues) via the academic papers they have published.
What may be more worrying is if Richard Wilkinson is correct also in his analysis of what is going on behind the scenes, as political interests nurture public scepticism about any ideas which don’t suit their preferences.
It is one thing to offer a critique based itself on carefully considered analysis and data. It is quite another to throw a dense foggy question mark over debate simply by repeatedly insisting that, in some general way, the whole idea is dodgy.
The acid question mark
Whether climate change, evolution, immunisation or equality, it’s easy if one is so inclined to insert an acid question mark into the debate; but it’s much harder to help people to understand the evidence and to make a balanced judgement.
Is it actually possible for most ‘ordinary’ people to distance themselves from the acid question mark, to be aware of, and understand for themselves, the complexities of data bases and their implications? Or do most of us most of the time just have to ‘trust the experts’?
Ruining rational dialogue
Ideas wreckers do more than damage specific ideas. They damage the whole notion and ethos of trying to determine what we can conclude from what we ‘know’.
Challenging this blanket refusal to engage in real dialogue is a fundamental problem; without the engagement of all involved the whole set-up becomes simply an argument, a row or popularity poll based on who shouts loudest, one in which the voice of reason is likely not to be heard or carry weight.
How in the face of ‘ideas wrecking’ can those who seek a discussion on the basis of the evidence (recognising too what still needs to be checked out) make their case? Is there any way other than having the best PR and shouting loudest?
And have those seeking genuine dialogue ‘lost’ as soon as they, like their opponents, start to shout?
Do ‘ideas wreckers’ in the end have to be taken on publicly by those whose ideas are cast into general doubt, in much the same mode of generic attack as the wreckers choose, when they cast doubt on the ideas originally?
How can constructive, meaningful dialogue or debate even exist, when one ‘side’ seems intent only on wrecking the credibility of the other?