Scientists sitting on the fence

Scientists sitting on the fence

Photo by Gui Avelar on Unsplash

Scientists are the quintessential fence-sitters.

We love the maybe, could be, might possibly be, and the equivocal. This comes about from our training, for we are sceptics.

The idea is that nothing should be taken on face value. There must be evidence in order to understand whether or not there is sufficient information to make a decision. And if a decision is not possible, then to form an opinion one way or the other. Only most scientists are afraid to state opinions in any strong sense when they are wearing their mortarboards. Usually, they will hedge in case they’re wrong. Along with the scepticism, there are the egoic responses of not wanting to get anything wrong at any time. Just normal human behaviour.

The problem with all this is that it gives scepticism a bad name.

It’s as though sceptics are always humming and aahing and never coming up with an answer. But this is not the true meaning of scepticism.

What it really means is to be questioning, review the facts, and run with what the evidence suggests.

This does not mean splinters in the butt from the fence or outright denial. As long as key questions are asked and enough evidence is available to reliably answer them, it’s okay for a sceptic to give that yes or no answer.

The everyday sceptic

Most people in everyday life find evidence gathering disconcerting. It is much easier to just give the yes and no answer without evidence and call it an opinion if questioned about the facts. Our politicians have taken to this with glee.

This puts scientists in a very difficult position in society.

Less and less evidence is in play. Plus the science that generates evidence is delivered by people who are letting their scepticism run away with them, making any advice they give feel as equivocal as the delivery. When we need them to stand up and be forceful, the pressure forces more wallflower behaviour.

Interestingly in the health story, particularly with the current COVID-19 crisis, everyone has been happy to listen to the white-coated ones and governments have taken that advice and run with it. It’s as though they’ve resorted to the science and even though those scientists can be sceptical and never truly sure of themselves or their predictions.

Luckily for the health officials, epidemiology theory is reasonably tight and well understood. The fundamentals are accepted around the world by most of the experts. So the patterns of infection and what to do about them are both well known and quite likely to happen, but even then they can’t make predictions about whether or not infection rates will change in a particular way on particular days or particular weeks.

So they still remain somewhat ‘maybe, could be’ about their statements.

The politicians on the other hand are more than happy to let the decisions on the hard calls on matters of public health be made by scientists standing next to them on the podium. Particularly because it needs to be there to justify some of the actions that otherwise people would not accept.

Being locked down, essentially under a form of house arrest, is a hugely draconian measure. And no politician would be able to get away with that in modern democracies without the strongest justification.

So we have this enigma going on where specific evidence is used and accepted and the politicians in particular leverage it to their advantage. And then we also have the majority of science, which is not considered or adhered to and, typically, ignored.

Ecological scepticism

Ecologists are in a particularly difficult position.

These are the scientists who try to understand nature and how nature works. They have trouble with their experiments as we’ve previously noted. The evidence that they gather is often equivocal itself thanks to weak inference so that hedging and being unsure about the specifics become the norm.

Only we need the ecological scientists to stand up now.

Issues left behind because of that scepticism and nervousness are critical to our survival. We can’t sit on the fence when it comes to soils, to food production, to the ecology that drives that connection, and the diets that we are consuming. It’s time to deliver serious calls about these things. Equivalent if you like to people in lockdown. The level of impact that ecological science needs to have is as strong as that.

Please browse around for a while on Alloporus | ideas for healthy thinking there are over 400 posts to choose from

Science and Policy

Science and Policy

In a recent article on why science gets shut out of policy Anthony Bergin from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute contends that

“The extent to which scientific knowledge gets traction in policy will depend partly on the state of science knowledge on the issue, and partly on the degree of controversy surrounding the issue under consideration. It will also depend on the degree of public and political attention the matter gets.”

He goes on to suggest a few reasons for why scientists are not all that good at getting the message across in what is always a consensus and value driven process. Similar to the thinking in Are scientists ready?

In short, scientists too often revert to their necessary scepticism in the face of uncertainty and so come across as weak communicators.

Alternatively Bergin suggests that

“Too often, scientists tend to think they know what is best or what is needed, and then they are disappointed, frustrated or angry when their ideas and hard work are rejected or put on the shelf.”

In other words, they also form and promote values too, just like all the other players in the game. Then their egos get in the way, just like all the other players in the game. Lovely.

I doubt that Bergin is correct in his claim that policymakers do care about scientific evidence if it helps them make decisions. If it helps them make the decision they want to make, perhaps, but that is not quite what he meant. My experience with natural resource management policy is that policymakers understand very little of the science despite their access to considerable in-house and review style expertise. Their political masters understand even less.

Needless to say they all care when evidence helps the spin.

And before everyone whines that policy makers are not in the business of politics, dream on people. It’s 2018, the decade when fake became more influential that fact and public servants found it harder than ever to serve the public when the minister of the day wants her own specific outcome.

So Bergin is right in his tone.

Science into policy is very difficult especially for the scientists.

Scientists do have to front up with confidence, develop communications skills, and learn that their audience has never understood a probability, let alone an inference level.

The use of scenarios makes good sense. It’s the approach that helps AfterBefore Systems to understand options for investment in land management, as does delivering advice in multiple forms. Only my academic experience suggests very few scientists are any good at either of these things. They are hypothesis testers not scenario modellers. They are geared towards output as peer-reviewed papers that create some of the most turgid reading experiences known to man. The poor dears are staring at a very steep cliff.

As with most opinion pieces in this space, the conjecture is easy. In this instance, policy and science are hard to reconcile given the nature of the people involved.

Equally the suggestions are sound. They are easily summarised into “chill out and communicate”.

But wait. The premise here is that inference and evidence will be used should they be understood and available. There is an assumption that human beings are so rational that in the face of evidence they will make the decision pointed to by the evidence.

I doubt it.

Sometimes the evidence is clear. The voluntary inhaling of smoke into your lungs affects your health. Cut down the forest to make arable land and, in time, you will have to fertilize to get a crop. Burn enough fossilised carbon and it will change the composition of the atmosphere. But even blindingly obvious evidence will not always be heeded.

This creates the biggest psychological challenge for the scientist. Trained to find evidence and believe in inference, the scientists is incredulous when obvious evidence is ignored for the short-term expediency of the policy. And this will happen. It has many times already and will continue to happen for as long as there is politics.

The real challenge is making sure that the important evidence gets noticed. Perhaps by being truthful about what happens if it is ignored.

More on this general topic

Are scientists ready?

Post revisited – Leaders not heroes

Time for scepticism