How should science and politics mix?

The disciplined process of the scientific method is ideal for many uses in public policy. However, scientists will not be taking the politicians role anytime soon.  The right mix has been on my mind for some time as we watch the world struggle with some weighty problems.  As I write this, we are still in the throes of the public health crisis caused by COVID-19 and the resulting debates around reopening, mask wearing etc.   At the same time, the world is grappling with man made climate change and the debates around if it exists and, if so, what solutions should be pursued.

So how do we think about the role that science should play in politics?

Let me propose that:

The strength of science should be leveraged to:

1)        Assist politicians in setting & informing policy priorities.  Scientific predictions should be consulted as one input toward setting and pursuing priorities.

Predictions are always wrong.  That should not stop us from leveraging their power, nor should an incorrect forecast cause us to ignore future forecasts.  Instead, we should simply push for refinement of methodology to improve predictions moving forward.

Similarly, we should use science to assess the impact and/or benefits of problems or improvements under consideration.  Science is much better than the alternative of guessing, gut instinct or even human reason at determining correlation, cause and assessing impact / benefit.

2)        Science should be called upon to propose solutions to our problems or improvements for the lives of citizens.  Similarly, the scientific method can test the solutions and improvements to ensure effectiveness before our public funds are wasted on full scale implementations.

One other sticky debate that can prevent us from getting optimal value from science in policy is which scientists / science to use. It seems intuitive to me that we should use the predominant view of science, which would be chosen based upon a mix of the majority opinion of most scientific experts and the stature of the scientists giving their opinion.  That seems intuitive, and, yet, there is a thorny problem that still lurks called motivated reasoning.

Motivated reasoning (seeking evidence that my current opinion is correct) is a clear danger here.  We see politicians and their supporters all the time finding dissenting opinions and then trying to use them to justify their preferred path.  That is not the way the best science works.  Peer review is important for a reason.

One final thing on the strengths of science in policy.   We must not get caught in a trap of thinking that when the predominant opinion changes it means that science is broken and cannot be relied upon.  For instance, we have all lived through the saga of whether it is healthy to eat eggs.  It seems one minute eggs provide too much dietary cholesterol and we should not eat them.  The next moment, eggs are the perfect protein and we should eat them up.  As counter-intuitive as it may seem…  that is science working and not science that is broken.  Open mindedness is the hallmark of great science!  Discipline yourself to celebrate when scientists change their view.

Now, there are areas where science should have only a limited role.

1)        Politicians must assess the optimal mixing of the un-mixable.  Scientists, and the public at large, can assist but they cannot make the final judgement call.

        During the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians had to make the impossible choices regarding the tradeoffs between risking:

  • the lives of citizens,
  • the suffering of families and friends associated with resulting deaths,
  • the suffering of illness,
  • and the suffering of the families and friends associated with those illnesses

Versus reopening the economy to avoid:

The economic losses associated with

  • Lost jobs
  • Lost businesses
  • Opportunity reduction
  • The mental health issues associated with isolation, economic worry and loss of opportunities.  That might include simple suffering up to the extreme of suicide.

There is no agreed upon method to make such tradeoffs.  That makes for tough choices.

While this is something that politicians and economists do consciously and/or unconsciously in many arenas, it is impossible to do with perfect clarity.  

In setting speed limits, for instance, we do not show an equation that shows:

  • the number of people that will die,
  • the number of people that will get injured
  • and the property damage from accidents

versus

  • the convenience
  • and productivity of a higher speed limit.  

Yet, that is the obvious decision that is being made.  

These decisions are currently more art, philosophy, and marketing versus science.  That is not the strength of scientists.

2)        The politicians must have the ultimate accountability for their platform.

Voting by the public holds politicians accountable.  That would be totally counterproductive for scientists.

The scientific method necessitates an equanimity around being wrong.  A scientist that becomes invested in the outcome of their experimentation has lost the objectivity necessary to be great in the field.

Conversely, a politician must have the courage of their convictions to be effective.  They have to stand firm and be willing to face the consequences if they cannot produce the outcomes that the public desires.  Of course, another different type of open mindedness is welcome in politicians as well.

To summarize:                Politicians should consult the predominant scientific opinion to set priorities, identity solutions and assess the impact.  Politicians should include multiple opinions when making decisions that involve weighing unlike things i.e. lives with economics.  However, ultimately they alone will be held accountable based on the quality of their judgement and impact by the voters.

So there it is…  a proposed framework for how to use science in politics.  Just my opinion, what do you think?

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