Recently Nature has published an article containing twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims, which proposes that most MPs are not able to interpret scientific statements properly (Sutherland et al., 2013). The article was timely and, I believe, just as well targeted at the electorate as their representatives.
In this article, I turn the question around and propose that most scientists lack the skills to communicate their science effectively to politicians and the general public. In this case, what are the 20 things scientists need to know about communicating science to politicians?
If, according to Burgman (Guardian, 2013) “politicians, broadly speaking, struggle to critically examine scientific advice” it is also a truism to state that scientists are so immersed in their science that they often fail to take proper account of the broader application of their work where perception is as important as fact.
The bottom line is that scientists train for a very long time to be in the position where they can comment authoritatively on a particular area. Politicians cannot hope to understand the underlying science in such depth and become intimidated. The only solution is for the politician to either find a reliable scientist and to trust her, or to ignore the science completely. Sadly, it is often the latter case which occurs – politicians are not so hot on personal trust.
Unfortunately there are problems with the first approach too. For most politicians to trust a scientist is the same as saying find a scientist with whom you agree, and then the politician has already chosen a scientific advisor that is biased to the politicians view and hence unreliable as an independent source of advice.
It has been said that politics considers science to be either august and reputable or something to be dismissed because it’s done by a bunch of boffins. What we need is a more balanced approach where politicians and scientists make a good team, analysing the facts and probing their broader political implications in order to make the best decisions. This is a view that attenuates political constraints and personal beliefs, while accepting that a perfectly scientific solution is often not sufficiently pragmatic to work in the modern world.
A naïve friend of mine once said that the government should implement an independent body of scientists covering the entire scope of policy making. This scientific civil service would then attach its members to ministers and decision makers as some sort of scientific body-guard. The idea is quite ludicrous, but we need some sort of solution. We are entering a world of Big Data, and there is scope in it for some Big Mistakes unless the analysis is carried out correctly and implications are well understood.