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Talking Policy: Shawn Otto on Science in Politics

In the wake of significant technological and empirical advancements, the political world finds itself increasingly reliant on knowledge from the scientific community—knowledge concerning energy, climate change, global trade, agriculture, disease and public health, and more. But at the same time, the scientific community finds itself increasingly isolated from the decision-making process—discovering, instead, politicians and policymakers who are uneducated and unadvised in developing scientific knowledge and yet making decisions tied to these issues. World Policy Journal sat down with Shawn Otto, author, screenwriter, and the organizer and producer of the last two U.S. presidential science debates in 2008 and 2012. In his recently-released book, The War on Science, Otto documents the various anti-science attacks that seek to discredit the objectivity and politically consequential developments behind the scientific process. He argues that policymakers must recognize their dependency on science, and that science must recognize itself as the political force it has always been.    

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: You present many arguments as to why science and scientific literacy is indispensable in democratic society. The thrust of these arguments seems to hinge on the major premise: “We now live in an age where every major policy issue is either caused by or informed by our knowledge of science.” Can you explain this connection between science and policy?

SHAWN OTTO: Science was essentially involved in the founding concept for what we think of today as democracy. Thomas Jefferson [...] appealed to the thinking of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke, and he coalesced that [thinking] into the idea that if anyone can discover the truth of something for oneself—using the tools of reason and science—then no king, no pope, and no wealthy lord is more entitled to rule than the people are themselves. In that way, science, as the tool that we use to create evidence, is the most powerful force for equality and civil rights the world has ever known.

WPJ: Do you see that focus on rationalism—Enlightenment thinking—playing less a role in decision­making now as it may have then?

SO: I don't know about back then, but it is certainly playing less of a role now than it did in the second half of the 20th century. A generation of leaders has come up through the humanities (and largely without having had to study science in college) and has been heavily influenced by postmodernist thinking and the idea that all truth is relative, and that science is just one of many other ways of knowing—when, in fact, science is objective, to the degree that it creates knowledge that is measurable no matter the political identity, religious identity, gender identity, the sexual orientation, or the racial or ethnic identity—or economic interest—of the person taking the measurements. [...]

WPJ: I'm wondering where the methods of science and the methods of policy or political decision-­making interact. Can they work by the same kinds of methodologies?

SO: Science is itself a form of journalism; it is a long, evolving book of what we know about the world. To the extent that such knowledge affects our ability to affect the world, it creates power, and that power is always political. But in a democracy, that power relies on journalism in order to provide a feedback mechanism to the public. So there's a dynamic between the journalism of science and the journalism of reporters or public affairs that currently is experiencing a big gap. We have vastly accelerated our ability to affect the world using science and technology, but we have not kept up with the mechanism for incorporating those advances in our public dialogue or, to a great extent, in our foreign policy.

WPJ: Is it in a strategy to approaching foreign policy that you want to see this parallel occur? How exactly are the methods of science to be employed in policy decisions? Can [science and policy] really play by the same rules?

SO: [...] The first [of those questions] gets at a virtuous circle of democracy that people like Jefferson envisioned, where there is a governance issue, the educated and informed mass of the people—through their elected representative—commission science to develop knowledge about it and then debate the best policy based on that knowledge. So science plays a role as a non­sectarian, universal foundation of knowledge for the policy debate. [...] To the extent that we can do that, we have a uniformed basis for public policy. To the extent that the authority of science is eroded by its own complexity tied together with large investments in public relations campaigns to confuse the public and policy makers about it, there are opportunities for democracy to be short­circuited by invested interests who seek to protect their own authoritarian interest. [...] Science presents a constantly creative and disruptive force in that discussion.

WPJ: “Basing public policy decision on evidence.” But, again, this, in a way, seems to presuppose that policy decisions are verified in the same way as scientific reasoning—that there is a truth criterion that holds for both. Yet, policy decisions do not have the luxury of trial and rigorous procedural experimentation. It’s arguable whether the very social areas policy seeks to affect can even be studied or described in the same way.

SO: [...] I'm not sure if that's true. There is a lot of effort in moving toward ongoing monitoring and adjustments with policy responses based on evidence, for example, the efforts that Sir Peter Gluckman and the New Zealand parliament were implementing in response to their teen morbidity problems. They commissioned specific research. They didn't know exactly what the best outcome was, because they were building new knowledge. There wasn't a lot of policy basis to go off of, but they at least were able to develop a road map.

WPJ: This was the issue of teen pregnancy, correct?

SO: Well, it was teen morbidity in a lot of different ways. It was teen pregnancy, teen drug use, and teen suicide.

WPJ: Let's take displacement, the rising number of refugee populations. And yes, statistics may be consulted to account for various factors—public health concerns, economic changes, etc.—but even all this data would be contested. This issue seems to exist in a realm where both the language schemes and truth requirements are a bit different [from what’s needed to validate truth claims in the sciences]: You can't just say it is true that intervention in Syria will lead to result Y in case X. You can't play that out in a model. It seems as though causality in the social realm just isn't as clear-­cut as it is in the sciences.

SO: Absolutely. But there a lot of areas of the sciences that have huge input into public policy where we are not taking that into consideration either in our public dialogue or in our policymaking process. Climate change is an excellent case and point. There, the physical sciences are strongly suggesting what is happening and what is causing it, and even suggesting directions that we need to take or policy outcomes that are going to successfully address it. It's not able to predict it all, but it is certainly able to predict some. I think that there are a lot of—in the realm of environmental impact, technological impact, and health impact—science has considerably more to say, just because the science there is more mature than it is in the social sciences.

WPJ: But it seems that even in some areas where science applies, it is almost as though research from other contexts work just as well, if not better. Take something you mention in the book like drone technology, which seems like it would be a science/technology question, but the conversation may not really be a scientific or technological one at all; it is rather a moral question or a juridical question that must be considered within the context of ethical reasoning or international lawif not a strategic question as to whether drones are even effective. One may even argue that by trying to force policy questions into scientific discourse we are seeing an incursion of one discipline inappropriately into another.

SO: No. Not the way that I'm talking about it, it's not. I wouldn't suggest taking a technocratic approach to any problems like that. All I'm saying is that when we can develop evidence, we should. And we should be basing public policy on the evidence that we can develop. There are two separate conversations that have to happen. One is: What is happening—what is really going on? The second is: What should we do about it? In the absence of the first, we can still have the second conversation, which happens all the time in public policy. [...] We're going to have better public policy outcomes if we are able to get past our confirmation biases and all the other ways we tend to fool ourselves—and be fooled—by investments from vested interest (our own or those of others). To the extent that we can base something on universal evidence—or, at least, have it informed as a public policy by universal evidence—we can promulgate fairer and more just public policy that is less influenced by wealthy stakeholders and more influenced by an egalitarian approach including what we have learned from nature about what is really going on. I'm not saying that science has a better answer, because I think that they are two separate realms [policy and science], as you point out.

WPJ: If they do exist as two separate realms, though, then what can help bridge this gap or allow this kind of critical approach to enter into an area that's maybe more complex or riddled with nuances and social problems?

SO: I think that one of the biggest things is to improve our public dialogue. Right now, science has—for a couple generations—really been walled off and separated from the public policy dialogue and from the national conversation, much to our detriment. We are happy to discuss other complex and intellectual topics that have varied ability to input real knowledge into the policy debate—like economics, foreign policy, or even the candidates' faith and value approaches to a topic. Certainly in that case we should also be expecting candidates to bone up on the knowledge from science and bring that knowledge to bear in their public policy prescriptions and their ability to debate them, because that's what we do in the rest of these topics in a democracy: We debate complex topics in our national policy dialogue.

[...] Right now—taking us into the foreign policy realm—we have over the last 30 years created a global economy without globalizing our regulatory structure or regulatory demands. [...] Regulation is what we do about what we know and, generally, it's about what we know from experience and using the most robust experience we have, which is experience based on scientific experimentation. That's where we interact both on a domestic and foreign policy level.

WPJ: And you think that the policy realm is somehow impoverished in this kind of critical thinking, evidence­-based research, inductive methodology?

SO: Yes. The National Academy of Science has even issued a report about this last year, talking about how our foreign policy core is really quite science illiterate, and how our diplomatic corps needs to include that considerably, because so many of the complex foreign policy issues that we are facing have large influence from science and technology. Most diplomats really do not have a high­ enough level of understanding of that currently. So it's not just my opinion—that's National Academy. The Defense Department tackles it in a different way in their Quadrennial Defense Review, talking about how, for instance, the global economy and the internet are providing pressure to establish international norms of behavior. And this of course is happening, first, economically, but that's also going to be producing moral and ethical and environmental labor norms and behavior as time moves forward, because those are all foreign policy questions and they have multiple impacts—they disrupt ways things have been done.

WPJ: You note often how most policy or decision-­makers are informed particularly by the humanities in their earlier educations. Ostensibly, these disciplines should be teaching some similar methodological trains of thought as do scientific disciplines. Do policymakers lack the scientific training or the kind of scientific spiritor inductive methods?

SO: Well, they even lack the idea that there is such a thing as objectivity. This whole concept is even taught in journalism school, that there's no such thing as objectivity. It's healthy and helpful to acknowledge one's biases, but we're having a larger and larger input from objective knowledge [i.e., science] in all kinds of policy questions. So that's one: just understanding the appropriate role for subjective and objective thought and knowledge, and knowing when and how to balance those two realms. The other thing is that a lot of folks that have come through the humanities really have not even had a statistics class and they don't necessarily know how to think about inductive reasoning or about creation of scientific and knowledge and how that even might be different, and whether it's just the opinion of the scientist or an expert [...] or if it's something more than that. [...] We need a higher level of science literacy. And that doesn't mean a scientist; that just means people who are literate in what the scientific process means and how to incorporate it into thinking.

WPJ: Do you think that the scientific community perhaps assumes too much of a political/civic audience—that if only we can foster a scientific literacy, if only we can present infallible evidence, if only we can show them reason, they will respond reasonably? Yet, it seems that this isn't often the case. Even when the scientific community reaches consensus, this is often times not enough.

SO: Absolutely. That's the classic idea, the deficit model of education. If Democrats just had more education, they wouldn't think that vaccines caused autism, or if Republicans just had more education then they would realize that humans are causing climate change. When in fact the evidence shows that just the opposite is true: As education levels go up among Democrats and as they become more affluent, they are more likely to be vaccine deniers, and as education levels go up among Republicans, they are more likely to deny human­-caused climate change. So it's not a matter of giving more education; it's a matter of breaking down the partisanship around scientific issues. That can happen in a variety of complex ways; they don't have to do a lot with increased science literacy, but they do have to do with increased participation of science and scientists in the public policy dialogue.

WPJ: It makes the mission of science even more difficult. You write about “competing mental models” and how the authority approach of science does more harm than good: It either allows opponents to reject the claims as statements made by an out­-group which need not be considered, or it projects the message of science as an authoritative figure, which is, again, antithetical to the whole project of science. But if people are unwilling to actually go and see for themselves, as the spirit of science champions, then how does the scientific community effectively communicate their message without resorting to this authority model: trust us, we know what we're talking about?

SO: That's a short­circuit or shorthand that scientists often use, because they are either short on time or short on patience and don't want to engage people in the process. There's a great quote by Isaac Newton near the beginning of the Scientific Revolution: "A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true." The idea of know­how is really important and it has been a core of American self­-identity (there's even a phrase: “American know-­how”) which has to do with our ability to break things down and understand how they work, and then to put them back together and make them work better. That process is part of how you break that division down. It's not, however, always successful, as I showed with the Galileo example, where he told the story of a physician having a friend in to observe a dissection of a human cadaver. He knew that his friend believed that all the nerves originated in the heart because that's what Aristotle had written. They did the dissection and ....

WPJ: "If only it was not written in Aristotle's book then I ...”

SO: [Laughing] Right. "You have so plainly demonstrated it to me that the nerves come from the brain that if I hadn't read it in Aristotle, then I would believe it." That idea, which Francis Bacon talked about too, what a man wishes were true, he more readily believes. That's what we constantly have to overcome, and that's what scientists themselves have to overcome within themselves. They are constantly fighting the battle against confirmation bias themselves, so they ought to realize that the general public is going to be facing the same thing with less knowledge; it's going to be even harder for them. Therefore, the process and the know-­how part of it are really important. And you're never going to get everybody. But that's not the point.

WPJ: You’ve hit on my final question: Who do you hope picks this book up and reads it? With something like this—a book over 500 pages, often times tackling dense material—do you fear that those willing to take the time [to read it] are already on your side, that you will just be preaching to the choir?

SO: It's definitely a concern. What I hope is that there's a fair number of people who know that something is wrong, but aren't sure why and can't articulate it—and don't have the historical background to really put a finger on it. Whether they are policymakers or whether they are engineers, this book provides that. I don't think that this book is going to be picked up and read by your crazy Uncle Joe who's a climate denier. But it may be picked up and read by Joe's brother or sister-­in-­law who then has some factual tools to refute that disinformation and to express their emotional reasons why it's important to them. [...] 

WPJ: Is there hope in reaching the crazy Uncle Joe?

SO: The crazy Uncle Joe generally is an authoritarian who is going to be influenced by other authoritarians, and science is an anti­authoritarian process. [ ... ] My job is to write it because I believe it to be even-­handed and true to the extent to which I can make it that way, and it'll be up to the readers to decide whether or not they value it. [ ... ] Science—like journalism, like leadership—isn't about telling us what we want to hear; it's about telling us what we need to know.

*****

*****

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Photo courtesy of bipolarorwakingup]

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