Interpreting science – implications for public understanding, advocacy and policy formation

Interpreting science – implications for public und...
01 Apr 2013

In 2011, I released a discussion paper entitled Towards better use of evidence in policy formation which discussed the interaction between knowledge and policy making. It points out that the process of policy formation is improved if evidence is first incorporated in a value-free manner and only then should the various values-laden domains such as public opinion, fiscal priorities, diplomatic concerns and electoral considerations be overlaid upon knowledge. When the science itself is presented in a values-laden way it is compromised and loses its privileged place in policy formation. Conversely, the failure to use evidence properly can lead to decision making which is less likely to produce effective and efficient outcomes.

Beyond the obvious domain of ethics, science is never absolutely value-free. The key values domains to consider are, first, expert judgements over the quality and sufficiency of data and, second, the limits of the data available. There are nearly always inferential gaps between what is known and the decisions that are implied by the knowledge. The gaps and uncertainties must be acknowledged. If that is done with integrity then science advice can be delivered in an effectively value-free way. In Towards better use of evidence in policy formation I argued that science should be presented in a manner that is not based on advocacy but is delivered by ‘honest brokerage’ to the policy maker. It is for the policy maker to overlay the other critical domains of policy formation.

We live in a participatory democracy and ultimately it is for the public and the policy maker to use scientific knowledge – the challenge is how to assist them to use it properly. It is therefore important that citizens and policy makers become aware of the uses and misuses of scientific data. Often it is easy to find an apparent scientific claim or data to support any particular intervention or action, or argue for or against a particular policy change – but is that data sufficiently sound or reliable to act as a basis for decision making? There are many traps in extrapolating from a single study, and this is an important reason why expert but impartial advice is needed in bridging science and policy.

A further issue emerges because the media often inappropriately interprets or profiles a particular single report or claim because it will attract attention and have impact, and it is this over-emphasised and sometimes contrary claim that influences public opinion, even in the face of considerable opposing evidence. A more engaged and higher quality of communication between scientists and society is essential if society is to make better use of scientific knowledge.

This discussion paper is intended to highlight some of the matters that need to be considered when interpreting science.



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