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We face real-world decisions now about everything from sea level rise, to energy infrastructure to what food is best for you. (AFP/Getty Images)

Are Scientists Naive About Politics?

by Adam Frank
Nov 12, 2013

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Climate change is not the only place scientists and politicians get in trouble with each other. Energy policy, endangered species, stem cells, heck, even defining what constitutes a healthy diet can cause tension between the domains of policy and the domains of research.

Scientists say they just want to stick to the data and politicians say the world isn't that simple. So, who is right and who is really being simplistic about the way the world works?

I have been sweating over this question ever since starting the 13.7 blog. Trying to take my role as a science communicator seriously, I struggle to balance my values as a human being with my commitment as a scientist to let the world speak for itself.

Turns out this balance is exactly the crux of the biscuit when it comes to science and policy.

Recently I stumbled across The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics by Rodger A. Pielke, a professor with the Environmental Studies program at the University of Colorado. His book is short but cuts deeply across the core issue for our era: we can't escape the impact of science in culture and yet we don't understand how to use science in consciously and wisely shaping culture.

The topic is important enough for more than one post. So, for today, let's start with a simple question. What do you think the relation between science and policy should be? Most folks, including most scientists, would answer this question with the so-called "linear model" of science and policy. As Pielke puts it:

The linear model is often used to suggest that achieving agreement on scientific knowledge is a prerequisite for political consensus to be reached and then policy action to occur.

As an example of the linear, model Pielke points to text he found an EPA website:

Through research that is designed to reduce uncertainties, our understanding increases and as a result, we change our assumptions about the impacts of environmental problems and how they should be addressed.

Yeah, that sounds good to me. Politicians ask scientific experts for expert opinion and make informed judgments based upon those opinions. The problem, however, is it never (well, rarely) works that way. Even when there is a clear understanding of the basic science and its conclusions — as in climate studies — the real world intersections between science and policy are more than linear. Sheila Jasanoff, a leading researcher on science and society, states it plainly:

Studies of scientific advising leave in tatters the notion that it is possible, in practice, to restrict the advisory practice to technical issues or that the subjective values of scientists are irrelevant to decision-making ...

To be clear, Pielke and others are not arguing that scientists are usually being dishonest when asked to serve in an advisory role. The real problem is the very murky understanding of what those advisory roles mean both in theory and in practice. We'd like to think that science could serve to simply inform debates that are of consequence to us. But instead science often ends up as a tool of political debate.

Each side brings in their own experts and their own expert analysis of data to further tactical political goals. This becomes obviously skewed in cases like global warming where opponents are forced to trot out the same handful of anti-climate change research at every congressional hearing. Still, the very process of climate denial underscores the shaky ground science and policy stand on.

While it would be easy enough to blame the politicians for this state of affairs, that would be unfair (at least in cases that don't involve flat-out denial). After all, tactical political maneuvering is their job. As Pielke points out, there is a clear distinction between politics and policy.

Policies are specific actions that institutions take to reduce uncertainties about the future (i.e., control the world around us). Politics is the horse-trading required to get the actions a given interest group advocates turned into policy. As Pielke demonstrates, when the values of each group differ significantly it will be difficult for science not to become a tool of the political debate.

If scholars of science and society are telling us the linear model is na´ve then what is the alternative?

Sophistication.

Science is too important to the future of human culture to bring idealizations or denial into the debate about its real use in guiding policy. We face real-world decisions now about everything from sea level rise, to energy infrastructure to what you should eat (hint: Kraft Mac and Cheese).

Somehow science has to be part of those decisions. Thus we must see the real pathways of science and policy in order to find the best pathways for science and policy.

The first step for me, at least, in diving into this literature, has been to shake off my own idealizations about science and politics. By looking at recent history its clear there are a range of options for this relationship. Unpacking those options will be the subject of a future post. For today, it's enough to see that, while we might hope for the linear model, reality is far curlier.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

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