Science policy without recourse to science?

As I understand it, one interpretation of the recent frames discussion argues that it is possible to discuss issues of science policy without recourse to science; more specifically, Coturnix, in a comment says the following:

Thus, it is not just that you do not have to explain 100% correct science, you don’t have to explain anything. Just change one’s mind. And many minds are incapable of being changed by scientific evidence – they do not operate in the realm of reality and empiricism. So, you use whatever strategy WILL change their minds. Emotions. Narratives. Appeals to economic, medical, emotional or aesthetic interests.

I have several problems with this interpretation. In the first place is smacks too much of authoritarianism and scientocracy (the rule by scientific elite)–“I know what is best for you; I do not need to explain why this is best for you; or, I can explain, but you are not cut out for such explanations. So, just accept my solutions”.

In the second place, if the discussion is at the level of emotions, narratives, appeals to economic, medical, emotional and aesthetic interests, I do not see why all scientists are asked to follow the same methodology, since it is no longer about science per se. For example, E O Wilson might be willing to address his book to a Baptist minister, and that might even be considered as a good framing decision, but I do not see why every scientist should take the same or similar route.

Finally, isn’t it that we are attacking the problem from the wrong end? The real problem seems to be not with science but the political system–decisions about science policy, which need to be based on scientific input seem to be made in public forums with little or no input from scientists; in the few cases where scientists give their input, the reception is hostile. So, if anything, what needs to be changed is the present political system and the way it makes decisions on science policy issues.

Finally, before I end this post, here are some other bloggers who make similar points:

  1. Cosmic variance: Are scientists bad communicators, when they are talking to the public? Very often, yes. Is it important to be better? Absolutely, both for altruistic and self-interested reasons. Should they compromise telling the truth in order to win people over? No. Does making an effort to engage people on their own level necessarily mean that the truth must be compromised? No. Should they expect the same kind of arguments to work with the public as work with their colleagues? No. Are the standards of acceptable levels of precision and detail different when talking to specialists and non-specialists? Of course. Is connecting to people’s pre-conceived notions, and using them to your advantage as a communicator, somehow unsavory? No. Should we pander to beliefs that we think are false? Certainly not. Etc., etc.; every situation is going to be different.
  2. John Hawks: Despite any confusion about “framing”, Nisbet and Mooney appear to mean something fairly simple: scientists should appeal to non-scientists by presenting their work in a way that conforms to common biases. That may help to communicate (in a way that Coturnix discusses). But I sort of doubt it. This kind of cynical strategy is the province of used car salesmen and other charlatans. And it’s easily exposed by any clever critic who happens to be watching…
  3. Pharyngula: I have the feeling that if I had a Nisbet/Mooney Training Seminar in how to frame science, I’d end up giving fluff talks that play up economic advantages and how evolution contributes to medicine with slides of puppies rather than squid, and I’d never talk about mechanisms and evidence again. That sounds like a formula for disaster to me—it turns scientists into guys with suits who have opinions, and puts us in competition with lawyers and bureaucrats in the media. It’s saying that we should abandon our strengths and adopt the strengths of the other side. Bleh. I think I’ll have to pass.

Have fun!


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