Engage with the unengaged: thoughts on presenting scientific evidence

Not all politicians who choose to ignore research evidence are against science; at the same time, those who have a scientific degree are a small minority. This column argues that scientists who want to have an impact on policies should focus their efforts on the large majority of politicians who are unengaged with science. Such dialogue will require researchers to get out of their comfort zone.

In recent years, populist governments have been voted into power in major Western democracies. Many are either ignoring science or even trying to discredit it, including research and data gathered by the country’s own state agencies. The situation is aggravated by the fact that misinformation (‘fake news’) and the so-called alternative facts (also known as lies) are proliferated and amplified by digital social media.

Of course, politicians can choose to ignore scientific evidence. In a democracy, they have the right to do so because they are accountable to the people who voted for them. Politicians are elected, while scientists are not. But this does not give politicians the right to rely solely on their own beliefs or seek to discredit evidence that may not fit their view of the world.

Still, not all politicians who choose to ignore the evidence are against science. In fact, science is just one factor that influences political decisions. Other factors include religion, ethics and values, electoral considerations, party politics, lobby groups, and the media – to name just a few.

While the climate change deniers and anti-vaccine activists capture newspaper headlines, they are in reality a small minority (not making them any less dangerous when sitting in government). Trying to engage with them is usually a waste of time.

The truth is that the politicians who stand up for science, defend the evidence, or even have a science degree are a small minority. It is a frequent mistake of scientists to focus on politicians who are very helpful, but rather provide an echo chamber for researchers

Instead, scientists should focus their efforts on the large majority of politicians who are unengaged with science. These are not anti-science and most of them are open to listening to the evidence. But for several reasons, they may have not yet discovered the value of science.

It may be that they grew up in a ‘non-scientific’ environment, hated physics in school, did not have scientific institutions in their constituency, fear that scientists may embarrass them with their knowledge, or simply struggle to find the right entry point to start a discussion.

Such dialogue requires scientists to get out of their comfort zone. The language that researchers use is of fundamental importance. Scientific jargon scares people off. Scientists need to communicate in a way that is amenable to people with a non-scientific background.

It’s a skill in which undergraduate students need to be trained. Especially in politics, it is essential to provide a good narrative: scientists must learn to become storytellers. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with using anecdotes. An anecdote supported by the evidence is much more powerful than an anecdote without evidence.

Scientists should provide politicians with the arguments that they can use to defend the evidence in public. Just imagine standing at the center of an auditorium with 500 people – or 20 TV cameras pointing at you – and now defend the evidence. That’s the reality for a politician.

A controversial issue in this context is the use of emotions. Of course, the evidence itself needs to be free of emotions and scientists should not fall into the trap of becoming issue advocates. A scientist’s role is to be the voice of reason. But emotions play a key role in politics and scientists must touch people’s hearts.

Often it helps to show that scientists are human too. Researchers have spouses and children, they have hopes and fears, and they enjoy an evening in the trattoria, watching a Hollywood movie, or supporting their favorite football club. Many times a good discussion with a politician about science can start from an unsuspicious angle.

Moreover, scientists must learn how to show empathy for public concerns. Many citizens feel uncomfortable with a number of technologies – from genetically modified organisms to nuclear power to electromagnetic radiation. Usually, these concerns relate to phenomena we cannot see, listen, feel, smell, or taste. It is a very natural reaction that helped us to survive the Stone Age.

While many scientists may find such concerns unfounded given the evidence, it is a matter of respect to take them seriously. Scientists must avoid hubris and need to engage in honest discussions about these issues. Very often it turns out that the concerns are not at all about the science, but about an entirely different matter – say, the business ethics of multinational companies.

Only by such engagement can an environment be created in which the contribution of science to the issue at stake is valued by both policy-makers and citizens. This is necessary because there is plenty of evidence that policies that are based on science are more sustainable than those that are not. Scientific evidence does not change with a change in government or a change in political majorities. Therefore, the use of evidence is the best way to design policies that are resilient to short-termism.

 

Author:

Jan Marco Muller is Acting Chief Operations Officer of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).