Uncommon Ground

Science policy

Presenting science to the public in a post-truth era – implications for public policy

Last Friday I attended a very interesting symposium entitled Presenting science to the public in a post-truth era and jointly sponsored by the Science of Learning & Art of Communication1 and the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, more specifically its project on Humility & Conviction in Public Life.2 The speakers – Åsa Wikforss (Stockholm University), Tali Sharot (University College London), and Michael Lynch (UConn) – argued that the primary function3 of posts on social media is to express emotion, not to impart information, that not only are we more likely to accept new evidence that confirms what we already believe than new evidence that contradicts it, and that knowledge resistance often arises because we resist the consequences that would follow from believing the evidence presented to us.

I can’t claim expertise in the factors influencing whether people accept or reject the evidence for climate change, but Merchants of Doubt makes a compelling case that the resistance among some prominent doubters arises because they believe that accepting the evidence that climate change is happening and the humans are primarily responsible will require massive changes in our economic system and, quite possibly, severe limits on individual liberty. In other words, the case Oreskes and Conway make in Merchants of Doubt is consistent with a form of knowledge resistance in which the evidence for human-caused climate change is resisted because of the consequences accepting that evidence would have. It also illustrates a point I do my best to drive home when I teach my course in conservation biology.

As scientists, we discover empirical facts about the world, e.g., CO2 emissions have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2 far above pre-industrial levels and much of the associated increase in global average temperature is a result of those emissions. Too often, though, we proceed immediately from discovering those empirical facts to concluding that particular policy choices are necessary. We think, for example, that because CO2 emissions are causing changes in global climate we must therefore reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions. There is, however, a step in the logic that’s missing.

To conclude that we must reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions we must first decide that the climate changes associated with increasing CO2 emissions are bad things that we should avoid. It may seem obvious that they are. After all, how could flooding of major metropolitan areas and the elimination of low-lying Pacific Island nations be a good thing? They aren’t. But avoiding them isn’t free. It involves choices. We can spend some amount of money now to avoid those consequences, we can spend money later when the threats are more imminent, or we can let the people who live in those place move out of the way when the time comes. I’m sure you can think of some other choices, too. Even if those three are the only choices, the empirical data alone don’t tell us which one to pick. The choice depends on what kind of world we want to live in. It is a choice based on moral or ethical values. The empirical evidence must inform our choice among the alternatives, but it isn’t sufficient to determinethe choice.

Perhaps the biggest challenge we face in developing a response to climate change is that emotions are so deeply engaged on both sides of the debate that we cannot agree on the empirical facts. A debate that should be played out in the realm of “What kind of world do we want to live in? What values are most important?” Is instead played out in the realm of tribal loyalty.

The limits to knowledge Wikforss, Sharot, and Lynch identified represent real, important barriers to progress. But overcoming knowledge resistance, in particular, seems more likely if we remember that translating knowledge to action requires applying our values. When we are communicating science that means either stopping at the point where empirical evidence ends and application of values begins or making it clear that science ends with the empirical evidence and that our recommendation for action derives from our values.4

  1. A training grant funded through the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) Program
  2. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation (story in UConn Today).
  3. Note: Lynch used the phrase “primary function” in a technical, philosophical sense inspired by Ruth Milliken’s idea of a “proper function,” but the plain sense of the phrase conveys its basic meaning.
  4. In the real world it may sometimes, perhaps even often, be difficult to make a clean distinction between the realm of empirical research and the realm of ethical values. Distinguishing between them to the extent possible is still valuable, and it is even more valuable to be honest about the ways in which your personal values influence any actions you recommend.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway on the nature of science and science policy

I read Merchants of Doubt several years ago. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to buy a copy now (or check it out from your local library) and read it immediately. I was thumbing through some notes recently and ran across this passage that sums up the nature of science and its relationship to policy very nicely.

All scientific work is incomplete – whether it be observational or experimental. All scientific work is liable to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have, to postpone action that it appears to demand at a given time. “Who knows,” asks Robert Browning, “but the world may end tonight?” True, but on available evidence most of us make ready to commute on 8:30 the next day.

This is only one of many gems in Merchants of Doubt. Read it and share it with your friends and family.