Should science play a greater role in political decisions? 
If so, how? 

by Nick Dell 

                                2013 Philosophy field Course meeting Mayor Josie Osborne (center).

Scientific literacy amongst the voting population is a serious issue. The Canadian Federal Government is cutting funding to “pure” (non-industry related) science at an alarming rate. These actions suggest that, in the eyes of some, scientific information is not relevant for political decisions. Our experiences in Clayoquot Sound spoke to this issue in a number of ways. Josie Osborne, mayor of Tofino, is trained as an environmental scientist but now finds herself in the role of a political decision maker. This causes her to reflect on the ways that science is and ought to be perceived.  

Even in municipal politics, Mayor Osborne declared, scientific literacy is an issue that needs to be addressed and solved in the future. She found that, working as a liaison between fish farms and First Nation’s communities as “translator” of western science into more traditional ecological understanding, her job was crucial in the development and integration of lay communities and the scientific community.

Science ought not to be  so esoteric, she describes, but the problem stems in part from scientists’ difficulty in explaining their findings  to the public. Often scientists do not see it as their role to explain the significance of their results in simple, understandable terms. On other occasions they are simply not very effective at doing so. Yet, who should be brokering discussions about scientific theory and data, if not the scientists themselves?

If there was more community involvement with scientists, public understanding of science might change. Ecological science is difficult. Experiments are difficult to conduct and their relevance to real-world situations are often questionable. Field studies are often short, compared to the duration of ecological processes themselves, and many factors are out of scientists’ control. Research findings are thus often tentative. The models and theories used to frame and interpret ecological research contain many assumptions which are open to constant criticism and revision. Working scientists know this. Yet, the public perception of science is quite different. The public persona of science is that of a static, monolithic, authoritative,even slightly dogmatic enterprise.

 In my personal experience I often thought of science as having definite answers, like mathematics. There is a formula, a periodic table of elements, proven theories etc. that scientists rely on for their truths and conclusions derived thereof, axiomatically. There was a question, they would do a study, they found some evidence to prove a hypothesis and the answer was given with a certain degree of conclusiveness. If it’s good enough for ‘science’, it’s good enough for me.

So, why is science poorly represented in decision making and environmental policy?

One of the factors that Josie mentioned is that the complexity of the decision making process. There are usually many other factors to weigh in addition to scientific concerns. Science inevitably takes on a much smaller role than perhaps it ought to. Scientists can come to be seen as one of many “stakeholders” with skin in the political game. Their voices become drowned out as one of many, equally legitimate concerns.

It seems that this is the wrong role for science in policy making. If people had a better understanding of the way science actually works, then perhaps the public would have an easier time adopting scientific perspectives. Science is not perfect. Nor is it just another stakeholder. In fact there is probably no single pigeonhole for science in the political process. However, greater public engagement with scientists might help to ensure that political decisions are scientifically literate.

-edited by Stefan Linquist

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