by Judith Curry
Bishop Hill spotted an essay with the title of this post that was published in Science and Public Affairs (UK). The essay is written by Lord William Waldegrave, who is an investment banker and former Cabinet Minister. He is Chairman of the trustees of the Science Museum and President of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. This article is based on a talk he gave at the Royal Institution in 2003.
I reproduce the entire essay below:
Here, I set out a few pointers for more effective interchanges. They apply equally to other decision-takers as to politicians: the issues are no different whether the advice is for the management of a big company or an investor looking at a biotech flotation – or indeed a funder of research and development.
The most vital thing is that politicians should understand the provisional nature of scientific conclusions, and should probe the consequences of a scientific U-turn. My hero in this connection is Donald Thompson, who was a Minister in the then Department of Agriculture in 1989. He understood that scientific conclusions are not set in stone, and asked, ‘What if science changes its mind about the transmissibility of BSE?’ This, as it turned out, was a crucial question to ask. As a result, the Government put in place controls which caused the parts of animals most likely to carry the infection to be removed from the food chain, although scientists were then saying this was unnecessary.
To appreciate the provisional nature of science, politicians must be a little educated in the history and methodology of science. Being aware that scientists change their minds helps them to do sensitivity analyses on the consequences of the current orthodoxy being abandoned. This is not as easy as it sounds. The politician can be left with excuses to avoid decisions, or with no help towards a decision that has to be made.
Politicians also need education in the incompleteness of science. Its very great achievements in particular areas – e.g. against some forms of cancer – make it difficult for lay people to conceive how little is actually known about other things, e.g. prion diseases.
Given the ignorance in some areas, politicians must have access to plural advice. But here is a real difficulty. Should Ministers give equal access to flat- earthers? Alternative medicines? Creationists? How do you set the bounds for what is rational dissent? There were dissident scientists on BSE. They were normally rubbished, and not just for their science, by the insiders. And sometimes the dissidents are bad scientists who happen to have got something undeservedly right. So Ministers need to understand the weakness as well as the strength of peer group review. They need to be helped to assess who, according to the current orthodoxy, is wrong but rational, and who is dealing in magic.
These are some practical proposals for scientists advising the government:
(1) Never present to a Minister on a scientific issue without a potted history of the development of the subject first (e.g. shifts back and forth in consensus on air pollution and forest damage)
(2) always include an analysis of dissident views and how much it would matter if they were right
(3) never try to confine advice to what you think the Minister wants to hear (this is the sin against the Holy Ghost)
(4) never confine advice to that derived from the Departmental Research programme, the UK Government-funded research programme, or even UK research
(5) never use scare tactics to try to increase your funding: the Treasury is cynical enough as it is
(6) Treat popular journalists with deep suspicion – even if they offer to make you famous.
And some practical proposals for politicians:
(1) always ask for a seminar and insist that dissidents are present
(2) if you are told there are no dissidents, check with the Royal Society; ask around
(3) if a serious journalist says you are being badly advised, ask him or her to come and see you
(4) never say something is ‘totally safe’or ‘absolutely certain’ even if you are goaded by the press
(5) if you ask your Chief Scientist or whoeverto speak for you, make sure he or she doesn’t start fancying themselves as a politician and forget the rules you have set yourself
(6) Give yourself time to think.
These should help – but there will inevitably be cock-ups.
JC comments: I find this essay to be quite striking. I suspect that Waldegrave’s perspective is probably quite representative of politicians and industrial decision makers. It seems they want to see both sides of an issue. It is small wonder that they don’t respond too well to scientists providing polemics about deniers.