“Bold ideas, unjustified anticipations and speculative thought are our only means for interpreting nature” – that’s what Karl Popper, one of the great philosophers of science, believed. It was the job of scientists to have the courage to seek out new explanations and weigh the evidence that followed.
So is politics an art or a science? If you were to watch Bill Clinton work a room, you’d probably say it was an art, and of course Peter Mandelson (RIP) was famous for his work in the ‘dark arts’ of politics. On the other hand politics clearly has science characteristics as well. Political parties continually offer what they claim are new and better ways for organising society, the results are monitored and an evaluation, honest or crooked, reached. Then the cycle begins again.
Had Popper seen Sinn Féin’s ideas announced yesterday for raising and saving money, he almost certainly would have approved. The ideas are bold, the anticipated outcomes can’t be proved in advance and what the party is offering is the result, in Martin McGuinness’s words, of "applied imagination" – what Popper would have called "speculative thought".
What Sinn Féin are putting forward – taxing phone masts and plastic bags, cutting MLA pay, allowing the Housing Executive to borrow against its assets – is minor and modest, set against the financial cliff this society has to scale. But they’ve had the guts to come up with proposals to set against the Conservative benefits butchery, and that’s a start.
Popper believed that the true scientist was the one who wasn’t afraid to put forward ideas and have those ideas disproved. “Those among us who are unwilling to expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation do not take part in the scientific game”. Gerry Adams says that his party is not being dogmatic and is prepared to look at ideas put forward by other parties.
Good. Now what’s required is an open, thoughtful analysis of the Sinn Féin proposals and, if they’re available, better alternatives set alongside them. The Shinners have had the imagination to come up with fresh ideas and the courage to “expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation”. If the other parties see themselves as genuine practitioners of political science, they'll surely do likewise.
Come on, Peter, Margaret and Tom. We’re waiting.