De-politicization of science (implications for science policy)

For the past two years, and certainly with more fervor since the US general election a year ago, I’ve been working to understand what the new political “populism” in the West means for science, science policy, and science communication.  I had a chance last week to help put together a briefing/workshop on the emerging science communication landscape for the US National Science Board, the presidentially appointed — with six year terms, so no one yet from the current Administration — governing board for the US National Science Foundation.  My charge was to help them understand the “motivated reasoning” hypothesis being explored by comms researchers like Dan Kahan at Yale U, who posit that it isn’t ignorance or scientific illiteracy that is driving what we (in the editorial sense) dismiss as “denialism” — rather, it is a matter of allegiance to tribal identities and to value sets that transcend what they see as blind support of science/scientific process.

I’m pasting in a copy (redacted to remove my agency affiliation, etc., since I did this strictly in a closed session and as an interested researcher/practitioner, not as a DOE employee) of the powerpoint I used to guide this 3-hour comms workshop, the first in NSB’s history.  I think it raises issues we need to address in Bellagio.

There’s also a related paper I just posted to the library from Issues in Science & Technology.

NSB REB ppt (no logos)


5 thoughts on “De-politicization of science (implications for science policy)”

  1. Hi Rick

    Interesting. I guess it is a question of balance. Being scientifically literate shouldn’t lead to blind allegiance to a particular scientific position or theory either. I don’t doubt the strength of tribal identities, but I suspect as communicators we are best to work towards increasing scientific literacy because it is probably the best antidote to the “faith” that tribal members put in the doctrines to which they subscribe?



  2. Good stuff, Rick. Rockefeller is clearly about finding solutions, making a difference; and that means getting involved in the political process.

    It’s not always a matter which comes easily to science. When we started ‘Science meets Parliament’ in 1999, the 160 participating scientists thought the individual meetings they were having with federal MPs were to teach them a thing or two about science. What they didn’t realise was the prime purpose of the event was to educate scientists about the political process.

    It was a two day event, day 1 for training and sorting out strategy; day 2 for the meetings with MPs.

    On day 1 we had a succession of people coming in to discuss the best way to talk to politicians, including a conservative MP Wilson ‘Ironbar’ Tuckey. Wilson was a rugged individual who won his nickname from the way he managed customers in his outback pub, and thought of scientists pretty much as recalcitrant customers.

    We also relied on a unique survey of all federal politicians, on their preferences on being lobbied: how many people in the group, what sort of records could be taken at the meeting, how long it would last.

    The aim was to get scientists listening to the needs and wishes of their audience, to think about how they could contribute solutions to problems the MPs raised, and how they could tie their science on to an existing agenda. It’s much easier to position your science as contributing to a problem already identified than trying to create a new agenda.

    It’s all about playing on THEIR territory.

  3. Thanks Rick,

    Particularly your side-sentence about the workshop being “the first in NSB’s history” illuminates what is at the heart of our original idea as to where an “evidence-based science communication” is meant to go: Yes there is scholarship providing theories which nobody in practise considers, and yes there is the practical need to respond to such policy challenges as you describe them, which are mostly ignored by scholarship. Let’s make a guess how many PCST practitioners (journalists, PIOs, etc.) can at least vaguely explain what Motivated Reasoning is (Q1: maybe 5%, most likely due to a personal social science background; my students learn about MR Theory etc. in the 2nd semester), and how many practitioners have ever considered these insights about attitude formation to inform their approaches for influencing — attitude formation (Q2: maybe 0.5%). Thirdly, how many in our scholarly community have ever made substantial efforts to connect their evidence directly to the practical challenges you mention (Q3)?

    We could add dozens of relevant theories such as MR, many of which have a solid empirical underpinning. We may even go back to concepts such Apophenia, i.e. eventually human evolution determining our decision making.

    First I was wondering what scares me more: the fact that decision-makers have so little scientific understanding of how humans process information and groups form opinions or whether it is the capability of this new generation of populist post-truth politicians you mention, who are most effectively making use of many of these behavioural insights (possibly intuitively without being aware as well that science has explained and proven much of this empirically, from Skinner’s box to the Ash Experiments to more recent experiments…). But then I was asking myself what OUR role as PCST Scholars is in this, i.e. the responsibility for much more effective ways of transferring knowledge and anticipating needs. Moreover such a responsibility would be twofold: (i) for listening and translating properly, but also (ii) being aware of a potential misuse of such evidence, considering that manipulation has always been the flip-side of a well-meant influence of decision-making (be it in policy or with lay-people), taking us back to the work of people as Bernays and Goebbels (for once intentionally mentioned in the same sentence).

    Potential strategies and solutions is what Bellagio is expected to deliver. Considering that publishing academic papers certainly hasn’t done the job, neither in general nor in the more targeted scicomm research outlets, and considering that also many training programmes in our field are basically still trying to empower researchers to ‘speak even louder’ instead of making them aware of the (psychological / sociological / political) complexity of the communication challenge (as in Rick’s workshop as far as I understand), such solutions and strategies would probably require quite disruptive changes both in practice and in scholarship. Are our communities prepared for that? Has the quantitative growth of our field been counter-productive for being aware of needing such a change? Could “post-truth” eventually be the catalyst for such a change? A wake-up call?

    1. I’d also be interested to discuss at Bellagio what we mean by “evidence-based science communication”. It’s a phrase that seems to have gain popular traction of late… but what does that mean for SC researchers and practitioners?

  4. Rick, judging from the PPT sides this was a great workshop: thanks for sharing. As to Jenni’s question: I think the PPT represents that balance or blend between evidence-based or evidence-inspired, and what my former colleague from the National Academy of Sciences (US), Jay Labov, called wisdom from Practice. We need both because the complexity of the task does not allow us to be guided by studies alone.

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