How to Get Scientists and Politicians Talking the Same Language

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by David Willetts in the News section of the 3 June 2017 issue of the New Scientist. David Willetts was the UK’s science minister from 2010 to 2014. Currently, he chairs the British Science Association.

Willetts begins, “ELECTIONS can be a frustrating reminder of how deep the mutual incomprehension is between scientists and politicians. And the reasons are that researchers don’t like how politicians appeal to instinct and revere as “intuitive wisdom” what scientists see as ignorance and prejudice, or their use of creative ambiguity rather than precision to reconcile conflicting views. But scientists seem to politicians like a pressure group after funds, one with a patronizing assumption of superiority. The question here is what is the justification for the funds. But the majority of published research has already been paid for. So why not pay attention to it? Moreover, the money, and really big money is to be found in debunking science, not in conducting quality research. Although it might be desirable to drop the patronizing attitude, the scientists are superior in their methods and in their subject knowledge.

An important point that the article misses is that good scientists should caveat their results. Findings can always be wrong and science is always an ongoing project that is subject to change. Nevertheless, it presents the best answers that are available to date. Claims of certainty should always be rejected.

Scientists need to make their voices heard and politicians need to see their value. Every major policy review should include a consideration of the relevant technological advances. In the United States there is a Congressional Budget Office that provides studies on the various costs of different policies. There should also be a Congressional Scientific Office (CSO) that provides the best scientific counsel. The CSO could also conduct research and design experiments to resolve political differences. Of course, this change in the United States would require a new administration.

Willetts also argues about the importance of a good liberal arts education. Nonscientists should learn some science and inferential statistics. Scientists and engineers need to learn some of the humanities. HM remembers that when he attended Ohio State University, a bachelor’s degree in engineering took five years. The engineering faculty had decided that four years of engineering were required to become an engineer, but it was important to have a full year of liberal arts. It is important for politicians also to have some understanding of these issues. One problem is that lawyers predominant and legal thinking alone is dangerous.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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