Talking about science

The facts are just that

The Nov. 25 issue of Science magazine includes an excellent editorial by Rush Holt, PhD, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of the Science journals. In it, Holt discusses how scientific input contributes to decision making at various levels, including federal and state. He stressed that decisions about regulations and other important policies are made by members of Congress and other national, state, local and international officials – with input from a multitude of sources – not just by the U.S. president alone. Educating and informing Congress and the public about the science behind issues, such as climate change, is more critical now than ever before, if decisions that have implications for science and science policy are to benefit from good science.

Many people are concerned about an anti-science drift in the country today.

“There is now important work to do ensuring that all citizenry, including the president, understand the powerful benefits of science and that decisions made with scientific input are more likely to succeed,” Holt argues.

He also makes the case that “President-elect Trump’s wish to drive economic progress and thereby improve people’s lives cannot come about without advancing science, technology, innovation and an education system that prepares a capable workforce.”

President-elect Trump, Holt writes, “would be wise to appoint a science adviser who is a respected scientist or engineer.”

Holt’s most salient point is that the next administration should be evidence-based. During recent decades, he says, there has been a tendency for ideology to trump (my word) evidence. Letting ideology outweigh evidence is not a new concern. It’s already afoot in the world. Scientific methods should be nonpartisan – neither Democrat nor Republican. These methods were developed to eliminate bias in the search for truth, and when used wisely, they help us to be wiser. Will there be advisers to the next President who understand scientific methods and the criticality of eliminating bias in decision making? That’s absolutely vital to a democracy.

What’s our job?

Holt makes the case that the benefits of science are appealing to people across the political spectrum. Those of us who are scientists, clinicians and educators must become more skilled at presenting scientific evidence, without condescension and as clearly as possible, in words that resonate with people.

“We must make clear,” he urges, “that an official cannot wish away what is known about climate change, gun violence, opioid addiction, fisheries depletion or any other public issue illuminated by research.”

We should seek wider engagement with the public and actively seek opportunities for dialogue about controversial topics, such as climate change, vaccines and stem cell research, even when the data are clear. We should convey the facts, the consequences, options for action, at least partially in dollar terms, and the costs and consequences of not acting. We, as a science community, have room to improve. We can be humbler, clearer, crisper and more willing to engage. That’s one of our challenges.

Happy Monday. Barbara

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