September 2, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich
Science, communication, politics and power
I haven’t written about science communication for a while. It’s a thorny subject. But a few days ago, Ken Rice posted some musings on science communication which made me think.
He argues that when ‘we’ (I suppose he means individuals or nations or indeed policy makers) don’t “deal with various societal problems as well as we had hoped to do”, it’s easy to blame science communication and to wail ‘if only scientists had communicated better’ (my paraphrase).
I think he is right to point out that scientists don’t have the power to make people think and act in certain ways about issues related to science. The words they utter are not magic spells that turn people into frogs, or, indeed, into people that care about climate change or vaccines, for example.
Ken does not refer to the recent intervention by Rishi Sunak in which he argued basically that if only scientists had not been so powerful (“empowered”) and successful in making policy makers impose lockdowns on people, then we would be in better place right now.
So, on the one hand we have a rather convincing argument saying that when communicating with the wider world, the power of scientists is rather limited – they alone can’t shift people’s attitudes. On the other hand, we have the rather less convincing argument that scientists have too much power and can impose their views on policy makers.
It doesn’t follow from the first argument that scientists should stop communicating. The point is that one has to be realistic about the reach of science communication. One thing scientists (and that includes social scientists) can and should continue to do is disseminate new knowledge and information as they generate quite a lot of it themselves. What happens after that is rather in the laps of the gods. As one commenter underneath Ken’s post said wisely: “While there is an information deficit issue, it isn’t the primary problem. Scicom can fill the information deficit, but only if the audience is receptive to having the deficit filled.” Some people want or need new knowledge; some don’t. Sometimes the new knowledge gels with the old, sometimes it doesn’t.
This also goes for politicians. Scientists can provide them with reams and reams of the most recent evidence and impact assessments, calibrated to dozens of scenarios, surrounded by uncertainty data and error bars, and, it seems, pace Sunak, discussions of trade-offs. All this is for nothing if the politicians are not receptive to having their knowledge deficit filled and, perhaps, their old beliefs challenged.
What does ‘following the science’ mean in these circumstances? And what does ‘empowering scientists’ mean or rather not empowering them.
In a crisis, scientists work their socks off to provide politicians with the best information available, which, of course, might change as the science changes (and very often, as during the pandemic, they do this for free). The poor politicians have to sit down, digest it all, with some guidance from the scientists, and then make decisions that affect millions of people. I don’t envy them. These decisions are, of course, influenced by all sort of stuff apart from the scientific information provided by the scientists working with and for the government. The issue of money looms large here.
As Stephen Meek wrote at the beginning of the pandemic: “While good policy is driven by good evidence, good evidence isn’t a guarantee of good policy.” Good policy is based not only on good evidence, but also on good judgement. That type of judgement does not follow directly from ‘following the science’. However, when it turns out that the judgments and decisions politicians have made on the basis of what they heard from various scientists did not quite result in the desired outcomes, the temptation is to wail “but we were just following the science” or, indeed, “if only the scientists had communicated better”.
Strangely, this is not what Sunak said. In his view, political judgement was compromised by over-powerful scientists imposing their points of view on political decision makers – the science communication was too good, in a sense. He claimed that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) had too much influence on decision making such as closing nurseries, schools and colleges in March 2020. I am not sure what that extra power was that the scientists had over the politicians and if they did have that power, couldn’t the politicians have said something – doesn’t the ultimate power lie with them?
On the one hand then we have the argument that scientists as communicators don’t have the power (and neither should they) to shape people’s attitudes and decisions. On the other we have the argument that scientists as communicators/advisors have too much power to shape politicians’ attitudes and decisions.
What does that mean for science communication? What power do scientists have or should have, indeed want to have? From the reactions to Sunak’s announcement, it is clear that scientists want to provide politicians with evidence-based information but they don’t see themselves as the ones telling people, including politicians, what to do. And they would expect push-back if they overstep the mark.
As one scientist said: “Government have the power, so if one member of cabinet thinks that scientific advice was too ‘empowered’ then it is a criticism of their colleagues rather than the scientists.” As Philip Ball said in a seminal article: “In the end, we rightly elect politicians to make decisions and judgments, and not simply to enact what experts or data seem to dictate.” Conversely, it was strange to see that the scientists advising the government did not feel empowered enough to sometimes challenge government policy.
This brings us from science communication to ‘communication’. What is important during and after ‘science communication’, including advice to government, is communication. The process of communication doesn’t stop once information has been provided. People can still ask questions and engage in dialogue, even politicians. Speaking up or speaking out should not be regarded as a power grab. Listening to each other is also important, not only between government and scientists, but also between government, scientists and civil society. People can even try to learn from each other.
In a situation of trust and good will, this should lead to improving the ‘outcomes’ of science communication, whatever they are supposed to be for the good of a particular community or society at a given time. This can range from keeping people informed about what they are interested in or sparking new interests, to keeping policy makers up to date with what they need to know in order to save as many lives as possible at various stages in an unfolding crisis. What happens when there is no trust and good will is another matter.
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