The Royal Society has a beauty pageant moment

Scientists are good at science. That does not qualify them as advisors on world affairs.

“So, Miss Royal Society, if there were three things you could change about the world, what would they be?”
 
OK, so there isn’t a Miss Royal Society (it’s proving hard enough to get the Society to elect female fellows in respectable numbers). But a report issued by the Society today reads like the answers often heard from toothsome beauties in swimsuits.
 
The report is on issues relating to global population and consumption. The Society’s first request is that “the international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today.” The Royal Society doesn’t want any children to go to bed hungry, you see.
 
Second, they’d like people to stop being so greedy: “The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels.”
 
Third, they want people in developing countries to stop having so many babies.
 
If it really were a beauty pageant, we’d all gape in awe at the gaffe, then share the video with our friends. We could share the 5.7MB PDF of the report, but really, that’s a lot to read when the top three recommendations are, respectively, banal, naive and reminiscent of an edict issued on behalf of the British Empire in the latter part of the 18th century.
 
The case study given for the family planning problem is Niger, where the report tells us “over a quarter of women older than 40 have given birth to 10 or more children.”  The report explains that Niger’s high fertility is not, for the most part, due to poverty, education or access to family planning. The biggest problem, the report says, is the double-barrelled shotgun of Niger’s polygamous culture, and – wait for it – its “large desired family size”.
 
Yes, they actually want all these children! In fact, the report goes on to admit that married women in Niger want an average of 8.8 children. So let’s put that first statistic another way: the majority of women in Niger have, or will have, roughly the number of children they’d like to have. That’s not a problem, surely?
 
Well, apparently it is. The Royal Society’s issue is that, from a global perspective, these women really aren’t team players: they are producing more than their fair share of humans.
 
In science circles, there’s an old joke about theoretical physicists helping out a troubled dairy farmer. It’s not actually that funny, so I’ll cut straight to the punchline where the physicists say, “first let’s assume the cow is a sphere.”  The point is that science is often ill-equipped for realities outside the lab. The Royal Society’s report is well-intentioned, and Sir John Sulston, the chair of the panel that produced it, is both an excellent scientist and by all accounts a deeply impressive human being. The problem is, scientists are good at science, and beauty pageant contestants are generally beautiful. From the evidence presented so far, these are not qualities that seem to qualify either group as advisors on world affairs.
 

A boy stands by his hut in a village near Maradi, a southern city in Niger. The country was a case study in the Royal Academy's report. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times