At the interface of science and policy, part 1

Posted January 4th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Civics 101, Interfaces of science and policy

Anyone with a modest amount of scientific training or just enough knowledge to be dangerous, can usually read a paper in almost any field in some way related to their own and cherry-pick results to support some preconceived notion, or to use as a fig leaf for disagreement with widely shared values and policy goals – Andrew Dessler provides a clear example of this. He also points out the value of scientific assessments as a way to avoid this kind of cherrypicking and distortion of science so often found when it is used in the policy arena. I not only agree but would add that, given the narrow way in which most scientists are trained, cherry picking and distortion are also a common pitfall in any kind of interdisciplinary endeavor, even if well-intentioned. I would also go a step further and add assessment as a fourth and indispensable layer in in his list of (three) parts of the scientific process, when the science
is intended for use in policy:

  1. individual scientists working under the scientific method,
  2. the results of the individual scientists undergo peer-review and are published for the community to evaluate, and
  3. important claims are then re-tested in the “crucible of science” — they are either reproduced by independent scientific groups or have their implications tested to insure consistency with the existing body of scientific knowledge.

plus: 4. Valid claims are reviewed and assessed in context of the full body of peer-reviewed literature and other relevant knowledge by teams of scientists drawn from the various relevant fields of study, in consultation and collaboration with stakeholders who have important knowledge about context. This is to insure not only that knowledge claims stand up against the full body of peer-reviewed literature, but also for their relevance to specific policy questions. As was pointed out at RealClimate:

We’ve emphasized over and over that the science that should inform policy should come from thorough assessment processes like the IPCC and the National Academies. The views of individual scientists (including us) should carry less weight – partly because of our specific biases (due to the field we work in or our personalities), and partly because a thorough discussion and peer review process (like that leading to IPCC reports) will lead to more considered, informed and balanced statements than any individual could muster. Media representations of what individual scientists supposedly said should not be used for policy at all!

As a former employee of the National Academy of Sciences and the now defunct Office of Technology Assessment, and as a lead author for a chapter in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, I can also attest to the thoroughness of this process of review and BS detection.

A rough definition of assessment is to gather and provide information relevant for making a particular decision. Given that it is typically a contested process (see for example Rick Pilz’s discussion from last January about the US National Assessment of Climate Change and links therein), key issues for the interface of science and policy are how it is conducted, how to assure quality of information,
and what information is even relevant for purposes of decision-making. This is a big topic about which much has been written but I am going to wade into it with a discussion of the two new books I previously mentioned: Interfaces between Science and Society, edited by Ângela Guimarães Pereira, Sofia Guedes Vaz and Yours Truly, and The
No-Nonsense Guide to Science
by Jerry (Jerome) Ravetz, both of which are rooted in a new vision of the role of science.

How science is used in policy depends on many things, of which the much discussed issue of how problems are framed is only one. In Interfaces, in a chapter on “Why knowledge asessment?” Silvio Funtowicz frames assessment itself as a voyage like that of Ulysses. This voyage begins with existential disatisfaction that leads to awareness and commitment to a program of research and action. He goes on to identify no less than 5 different conceptual models of how science interacts with policy, beginning with: “Perfection/perfectibility: the initial modern model.” This model is comparable to the often described “linear model” in which scientific facts lead to correct policies, and is rooted in “the classic technocratic vision” in which there are no limits to progress or to control over the environment – an illusion which has gotten us into a pathological situation. Failure of control is addressed in the second “Precautionary model” that acknowledges
uncertainty in science – that needs to also be considered in policy decisions. The absence of conclusive facts and potential for misuse of science through framing leads to a third “framing model” which addresses this problem by engaging stakeholders in framing of the problem to be investigated. This of course increases the risk of political interference in science, which is addressed in a fourth “model of science/policy demarcation” – by creating institutional boundaries between providers and users of science, and by insuring that accountability for policy decisions rests with policy-makers. Given that there are a plurality of legitimate perspectives and value conflicts, the purpose of the fifth “model of extended participation,” is to engage stakeholders in assessment through a process of open dialogue and learning. The catch is that, if all sides do not come to the table prepared to learn and to negotiate in good faith, the process is a sham – and is subject to other kinds of abuse by the likes of Benny Peiser, Frank Luntz and Donald Rumsfeld, to mention a few…

A difference in this last model is that science itself becomes accountable to an extended peer community of citizens no longer content to “[relinquish] the task of envisaging the future to a professional elite.” This leads from an emphasis on rights to an emphasis on responsibilities of citizenship. Among the premises of the book, outlined in an introduction by Guedes Vas and Guimaraes Pereira is that, although connections between science and policy are well recognized, scientists are for the most part operating on the pure science model, in which assessment is reduced to peer review of technical issues. Conditioned by narrow disciplinary training, many are also uncomfortable with the management of uncertainty, complexity and value commitments.

To put this point into context, see for example Kevin Vranes discussion of tension the recent conference of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco where he encountered on the one hand, those being careful to “caveat even the most minor questionings of barely proven climate change evidence, lest they be tagged as “skeptics” and on the other, concern over whether uncertainties in projections of future climate had been downplayed too much, for fear of not being listened to. This all among scientists who do not question or downplay the risk of climate change and who accept the consensus of the IPCC. He concludes:

…dealing with uncertainty is exactly what Congresspeople do, and they do it a lot better than we do. For scientists, uncertainty is an abstract concept, something that feeds into an academic study, a place where the stakes are low and time-scale is long-term. For politicians and unelected decision-makers, uncertainty is life-or-death, yet decisions must still be made. Politicians constantly make decisions amid levels of uncertainty that would stifle the publication of any academic climate change paper. We need to realize that, give the politicians their due, and get the hell out of their way. Give them the science and the uncertainties and let them make the decisions. Overplaying our hand is a dangerous gambit, and may spell big trouble for us in the future.

Then see Kevin’s own post be used distorted by Iain Murray on the blog of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, as fodder for the so-called skeptics denialists of climate change, by calling it “tension between science and alarmism.” Then he tries to make a case that, points made by Kevin and also Mike Hulme are in agreement with “a point we at CEI have made for years” – in fact, the first part of his point sounds like something that could have been said by all but the zealots, on both sides:

Quite right. The problem of global warming is not a scientific one. Science can only inform policy choices that have to take economic, political and moral considerations into play as well. Politicians, not scientists, are the professionals at doing that. As soon as we allow the economic, political and moral considerations to be dictated by the science, or, even worse, by a politicized version of the science, then we have abandoned democracy for a form of techno-ochlocracy – rule by those who shout the loudest about the science.

But then he says:

I hope Kevin is right and that more scientists will step up and condemn those like Al Gore who distort the science for their own ends while condemning reasonable skepticism as a distortion instead.

As if Kevin had condemned Al Gore for distorting science for his own ends, and as if the so-called skepticism of CEI were reasonable or in any way comparable to normal scientific skepticism that has been downplayed in the policy arena for fear of exactly this kind of confusion. This is a clear example of a truthiness and bad faith negotiation. What is needed at the science and policy interface then is a way to exclude these polluters of public discourse. My hunch is that if, as Kevin suggests, scientists were more upfront about uncertainties, stakeholders would not be as vulnerable to this kind of confusion because they would have a more realistic image of the role of science. Openness about uncertainty also transforms the debate to one of values rather than technicalities, thereby creating a space for stakeholders to actually participate in deliberation about what trade-offs they are willing to make. As I said in the 2nd
on this blog – if the so-called climate skeptics wish to debate climate uncertainty, BRING IT ON!!!!

To be continued…

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