by Judith Curry
In political debates that involve considerations of science, it is tempting to characterize scientists who demand particular types of action simply as political partisans. But when scientists make demands of the political process there is often more going on than just an effort to achieve political gain for one’s preferred policies.
Roger Pielke Jr has a superb post entitled Who has authority in political debates involving science? which provides the basis for this post. Some excerpts:
The answer is that for many scientists active in political exhortation the key issue is not “policy” in the sense of “what we should do” but rather “authority” as in “who should determine political outcomes.”
Understanding the current tenor of scientists in politics requires understanding that ongoing debates about science and policy making involve considerations of power politics as much as policy preferences. Of course, scientists who seek such authority are perfect allies to campaigners who seek to exploit the authority of science for their own political gain.
Discussing how the scientific community might relate to policymakers is as important (perhaps more so in highly politicized contexts) as discussing what policy makers “should” be doing in response to various policy issues. Those seeking greater political authority for science may actually be contributing to a loss of trust in institutions of science among parts of society. If science is to well serve democratic governance, then the scientific community needs to move beyond exhortation.
Michael Mann’s recent statements provide a case in point:
Last week in an interview Michael Mann, the Penn State professor of “hockey stick” fame, criticized the Obama Administration on climate cahnge not for the substance of its policies, but rather, for its failure to justify its policies in terms of science. Mann explained:
In Obama’s second State of the Union address, he actually seemed to concede the scientific evidence as a weakness. He argued that we need to pursue a more enlightened energy strategy in spite of the doubts about the science of climate change. … We’ve actually made negative progress from where we were 10 years earlier, when Clinton gave his final State of the Union address. We’ve gone from the science being the primary reason to move forward to the argument that we should move forward in spite of supposed weaknesses in the science of climate change. So we’ve retreated to a position of weakness on this issue . . .
From Mann’s perspective, the substance of the policies of the Obama Administration are apparently secondary to who is held up as the authority in justifying those actions. What matters is thus political authority rather than policy effectiveness.
Pielke’s post links to an article by Jan Paul van Soest at the De Geyment blog entitled Cassandra Science at Planet Under Pressure. Excerpts:
At the Planet under Pressure conference in London (end or March), it’s difficult to avoid thinking of an additional pressure to the ones treated at the conference: the pressure of scientists trying to get the message across. Their insights tempt them to play the role of Cassandra, the ancient Greek beauty who was granted the gift of prophecy, but who was cursed so that nobody would believe her.
The body of knowledge in Earth System Sciences in the broadest sense, is impressive. Yet, most scientists at Planet under Pressure feel their knowledge is hardly translated into actions. Below the surface, frustrations can easily be sensed. Frustration may provoke scientists to even stronger formulate their messages, and choose words that fit better in the realm of societal and political discussions than in the scientific domain: ‘We must’, ‘we should’, ‘an imperative to act’, ‘we can no longer afford waiting’ and comparable phrases are frequently used to mask frustrations.
However understandable, these expressions are unlikely to be effective. The audience may think that the scientist using these terms have a political agenda. This perception undermines the scientific credibility, whether the scientist in question has a political agenda indeed or not. My take is: they don’t; most scientist don’t even really understand the nature of politics and policy-making processes. And to the extend they do, they are doing a lousy job in terms of lobbying and influencing the public and policy debate. Otherwise, more scientists would realise that overstating is not really effective in getting the message across. [JC bold]
“We should communicate more/better”, is quite often heard. Underlying assumption is that giving more and better information will lead to better listening and different choices. However, if you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got. People just don’t change their convictions and belief systems, let alone their decisions and actions, on the basis of more information. Co-operation and collective action builds on trust, said Gutscher, and if that is lacking, giving ever more information has zero or even counterproductive effects.
Imperatives or options
The third pitfall may even be more problematic: communicating science in terms of imperatives actually undermines the politicians’ sense of responsibility. Although some politicians may be risk averse, the key role of politicians is to choose, not to blindly follow someone else’s view. Who would need politicians if science would automatically lead to policies? It doesn’t. Therefore, imperatives can easily be laid aside, and are likely ineffective. They disempower politicians, instead of adressing them in their key role and responsibility: chosing and negotiating options.
The best and most effective ways of communicating science therefore seem to be those that separate knowledge from decision, that provide policy-makers with options instead of imperatives, and with ‘what if’ instead of ‘will happen inevitably’.
These three pitfalls tend to reinforce themselves: the more is known, and the more frustrated scientists get by not being heard, the more tempted they may be to overstate, to provide even more information, and to use imperatives, all lowering communicative effectiveness.
JC comment: I find this to be a very insightful deconstruction of the “warm” communication and policy strategy.