i-646dfa695257fe647dcb2a2e8a0ed38c-IMG_0199-thumb-400x266-72664.jpgBack in December, Rees Kassen wrote an editorial for Nature arguing that if scientists want political decisions to reflect good science, they have to get involved.

scientists[...] think too highly of their own view of the world and fail to appreciate the complex, multifarious nature of decision making. Our mistake is to think that science will be given a privileged voice on an issue. This is almost always wrong. From a politician’s point of view, science is an interest group like any other.

As if to confirm this point, a response was published in the most recent issue of Nature by Brett Favaro, in which he asserts “Nuh uh!”

Scientists must be impartial arbiters of data, not political agents. They need to be able to negotiate with governments, irrespective of their political hue, and to advise politicians in a useful and timely way.

Scientists have been trying to play “impartial arbiters” for decades, and what has it gotten us? Half of the political spectrum in the US disputes the reality of evolution and climate change. We have a political system in the US that is happily fact free about the simple things, does anyone really still believe that impartial facts will convince someone on issues as complicated at global climate or public health? The public and even policy makers listen to people that are passionate, and the sad fact is, scientists are often afraid to rise above the data and actually advocate.

Favaro asserts that academic researchers can’t compete dollar-for-dollar with professional lobbyists, so we shouldn’t even try. I call bull-shit. If scientists are passionate and vocal about our issues we can make ourselves heard.

Update (2/28/2012): Brett Favaro weighed in below in the comments – check it out!

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PS – To any graduates students reading this: if you’re interested in making yourself heard politically, check out the ASBMB’s Hill Day. It’s a free trip to DC where you learn about policy making and meet with your congress people to try to influence their votes. I did it last year and had a blast. Go apply!

Comments

  1. #1 Justicar
    February 16, 2012

    I think this has something to do with people failing to distinguish between objective analysis of data, and cold, methodical evaluation of the implications of that data and the rather separate issue about being passionate about advocating one’s discipline and work. It is entirely possible to be objective about what the data show and extremely passionate about collecting the data and figuring out what it means. There’s no necessary nexus between objective, analytic reasoning and enthusiastic supporter of the work – no matter how the results turn out to be.

    Sadly, people tend to think that two people possessed of equal passion but opposing conclusions are in some fashion on level footing because of their passion.

  2. #2 Kevin
    February 16, 2012

    Sadly, people tend to think that two people possessed of equal passion but opposing conclusions are in some fashion on level footing because of their passion.

    Precisely. This is the way human brains are wired. People who are passionate and sure of themselves and their opinions seem inherently more credible. A major problem scientists have in trying to convince people is that we’re trained to always nurture doubt. This works great for science, but when in arguments, that doubt seems like a weakness.

    That, coupled with the fact that we think data speaks for itself means that scientists tend to be terrible persuaders.

  3. #3 Buck Field
    February 16, 2012

    Kevin claims that with passion and being vocal, we can make ourselves heard.

    While anyone can be heard in this way, that fact has little bearing on whether anyone listens, and essentially none relative to political decision-making systems where illegal wars killing hundreds of thousands are applauded, and as Kevin points out: the environment is basically fact-free.

  4. #4 Justicar
    February 17, 2012

    A major problem scientists have in trying to convince people is that we’re trained to always nurture doubt.

    Add to that our nagging habit of trying to honestly represent the confidence in a given set of data, or line of research. That’s a great way to help advance science; it’s also a great way to open the floodgates for anyone who’s unencumbered by such inhibiting factors as accuracy, precision or integrity. Admit that there’s even the remotest possibility of doubt in something and it’s like you’ve just sent a notarized note saying it’s all just a big guess. It’s so annoying.

    Of course, I lay some non-trivial blame at the feet of educators in the earlier years. A first year biology major had the following to say, after accusing me of being ‘elitist’, in response to my ripping him a new one for his chicanery in arguing:

    But yes, most of the math you learn in secondary and university is irrelevant in my opinion outside of a science (which may even include political science) related field.

    If this is what one sees in someone who’s going to be, ahem, part of the educated portion of society, we’re seriously fucked.

    Unrelated note: who wants to start a kitty on whether he’ll ever be graduated with a science degree?

  5. #5 jami
    February 18, 2012

    This is exactly why I am coupling my science degree with political science and communications. Maybe scientists need trained liasons (science communicators) to to help with influencing policy. This is exactly what I plan on doing, and I think it is becoming a needed field of study.

  6. #6 Kevin
    February 18, 2012

    @ Buck – You’re right, being listened to is a challenge, but no one is going to listen if we’re not saying anything.

    @ Justicar – I won’t take that bet. The good news is that many of the people we graduate in science fields have a good head on their shoulders – the trouble is the rest of the population is convinced that science is hard and they can’t possibly understand it, so they don’t even try.

    @ Jami – Good for you. I think we do need liaisons, or even better – someone that can speak both languages and train scientists to be their own spokespeople.

  7. #7 Jim Thomrson
    February 19, 2012

    http://www.fort.usgs.gov/products/Software/LIAM/

    I learned a bit about the LIAM negotiation model in a USFWS short course. It was developed for environmental resource allocation negotiation and is pretty insightful as to the roles of various players and how to deal with them. If there is a resource pie to be cut up, first you have to convince the rest of the players that you get a piece of the pie, then you can negotiate about how big. Anyway, if one is serious about being heard in a negotiation, some study of the LIAM model might help.

  8. #8 Brett Favaro
    February 28, 2012

    Hi Kevin

    So happy you read my article!

    Thanks for your response to my response. I think your interpretation of my point was different than the meaning I was trying to put forth, so I’d like to make a couple comments. I suspect you and I agree on more than you would think.

    You seem to think I was advocating that scientists say nothing. I disagree. Let’s track back to the original article. My interpretation of Kassen’s thesis is that he believes for science to inform policy we need to expect to actually be part of a political party, either by running for office, volunteering in support of a candidate, or mentoring in a politician’s office.

    While there is a kernel of truth here (e.g. that is a way that you could influence outcomes as an individual), I argue this is self-defeating for a number of reasons. First, governments change all the time. If you spent 20% of your time as a scientist networking, attending political events, etc, and another government gets voted in, you have to start from scratch. Second, only 9% of scientists in the US self-identify as political conservatives. If partisan channels are supposed to influence policy, how are we supposed to work when a right-wing government gets voted into power? Third, the perception of impartiality is damaged when one stumps for a political party. This is simple conflict-of-interest logic. As it is now, scientists don’t have anything to gain by arguing climate change is a bad thing. However, if we were running for office on a climate change platform, and referenced our own personal work as support for our goals, it would be met with suspicion EVEN IF we were 100% correct.

    There is a difference between being an advocate for a political party, and an advocate for evidence. My opinion is that Kassen’s arguments cloud the two. A lobbyist has a clear goal; convince governments to form policies in support of something. A scientist’s goal is different; our goal is to discover truths about the world. The two jobs require very different skill sets. I would submit that if lobbying were an easy job, then lobbying as a profession would not exist.

    Furthermore I call bullshit on your “bullshit” :) As individual scientists lobbying for a cause, we do not carry with us the money or collective influence that professional lobbyists carry – in fact, in Canada at least, our science grants explicitly forbid use towards discretely political ends. Money isn’t everything, but it is informative to at least understand all the forces in play here.

    One final point; my thesis was that we need offices specifically designed to liaise between politicians and scientists, rather than expecting individual scientists to form these liaisons for themselves. Far from saying scientists should be voiceless, I argue that this would empower researchers to a much greater degree, and would give an apolitical way to accomplish the outcomes that would be in the best interests of society. You seem to agree with my overall thesis (your response to #5 above). I’m advocating for change at the level of governance that would give even the most apolitical, anti-social, but correct scientist a permanent route to informing policy creation. Idealistic? Maybe, but that’s what we should be advocating for, not the merits of our own personal thesis projects.

    So in summary my article was intended to be far more than a “nuh uh,” but instead to provide an alternative long-term path to giving science the privileged voice that it deserves. Thanks for the post, and let’s keep moving forward towards an evidence-based society.

  9. #9 Kevin
    February 28, 2012

    @ Brett – Thank you for taking the time to respond! It’s always incredible to me that something I post here can actually draw the attention of the people I write about.

    I think you’re right – based on this comment, I agree with you more than I thought (still not 100%) – but I went back and re-read your original response and had the same reaction I originally did. Perhaps it’s a function of the fact that your comment here is almost 4 times as long as your response in Nature, and I don’t think that 150 words did your argument justice.

    my thesis was that we need offices specifically designed to liaise between politicians and scientists, rather than expecting individual scientists to form these liaisons for themselves. Far from saying scientists should be voiceless, I argue that this would empower researchers to a much greater degree, and would give an apolitical way to accomplish the outcomes that would be in the best interests of society

    I think this is a great idea, and would be happy to get involved in such an organization. However, I disagree with the idea that this could be apolitical. Non-partisan maybe, but not apolitical. This may seem a semantic point, but I think it gets to the heart of where (I think) I disagree with you. Despite our best efforts, climate change is a political issue. Evolution is a political issue. You and I know that there are objective truths there – it seems absurd that something like gravity could be a political issue, why should other types of science be? – but these things ARE political. Trying to make an organization that does its best to ignore that reality seems like a lost cause.

    To be honest, I’m not hugely conversant with Canadian politics (folks on the political left down here in the States tend to view Canada as a progressive wonderland), but in America, one of our two major political parties seems to have no interest in facts – they believe they can make their own reality. Trying to get through to those people by being objective strikes me as naive at best.

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