The vocabulary of public discourse

My last post discusses the possible harm of automatically placing science at the forefront of decision-making.  In some cases it’s simply not true that a scientific lens is the best way to analyze a problem.  It seems that we’re begging for a public vocabulary that lets us meaningfully discuss science.  We need  a way to accept the importance of facts without allowing them to stifle debate.  See for all my problems with the current discourse, I’m also sympathetic to scientists who promote it.  People shouldn’t be able to ignore facts they don’t like. It’s not okay to cherry pick data you happen to agree with.  It does matter that all the relevant experts agree with evolution and anthropogenic global warming.

The solution to this dilemma, however, is not to insist that science is the foundation of policy.  As I also discussed in my last post, doing so is scientifically inaccurate.  Engaging in this rhetoric makes us, for lack of a better phrase, somewhat hypocritical.  How can we speak about the importance of  evidence while ignoring the scientific fact that science is only sometimes the foundation of policy?

We need an intellectual framework which articulates there are instances when science is crucially important, instances when it is somewhat important, and instances when it is relatively unimportant.  Some decisions heavily rely on science while others do not.  Certain disputes are better resolved with politics rather than science and vice versa.

I’d guess that this message will not fly with many scientists.  There’s too much nuance there.  It doesn’t quite fit our science is God and you’re either with-us-or-against-us rhetoric.  My admittedly naive view is that with respect to public communication, science should be neither deified nor demonized.  We should instead strive to highlight that it has its uses and can sometimes be very helpful.

To that end, I’ll suggest yet again that science in decision-making should be thought of as team sports.  How about the image of science as a key but not superstar running back?  The opponent and game plan dictates how much we play.  Sometimes winning the game means handing us the ball 20 times a game.  Sometimes we have to sit on the bench.  How do you know when to stress the running game? By watching game film!

This image, I believe, is the most accurate one we can paint.  Before jumping to any conclusions about the role of science, we must first carefully study the situation.  Then and only then can we say whether science is the foundation or a cosmetic fixture.  Whether we’re the MVP or 6th man of the year.  But these analogies are now getting tedious and I think you get the point.

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