Facts, Reason, and Values: Where Do We Go From Here?

One of my favorite things that I get to do as a part of my job is travel to universities around the country and talk to young chemists about science and policy. It’s invigorating to talk to young scientists thinking through what they want their future career to look like.

As a chemist who has made his career outside of the lab setting, I get a lot of questions from students about the role of science in politics and policy. I also hear from lots of scientists who complain to me about the political process, and how it ignores scientific advice. I wrote a bit about this previously. Here, I want to talk about how science and scientists can engage with the political process in a productive way.

A lot of scientists I know and consider friends get really frustrated with politics. (If recent surveys of the general public are any measure, they aren’t alone.) We scientists tend to value facts above all else. After all, it’s ingrained in us from very early in our careers to question everything and assume nothing. If you want to be a credible scientist, you need to be able to back up every boundary-pushing discovery or hypothesis with verifiable, repeatable data that supports what you’re claiming. Forging our professional careers (and frankly, personal identities) in a system like that, it’s no wonder that we treat facts as inviolable.

People get involved in politics because of values, not knowledge. The passion we muster to participate in civic life comes from an emotional place. I care about politics because my parents instilled in me the values to care at a very young age. An extremely unscientific survey of the scientists and advocates I meet convinces me that my own motivation for engaging is not at all unique. And because values are the motivation, values and identity-based organizations are always going to get involved in controversial debates.

Talking about this with students interested in policy and politics, it’s usually at this point that they tend to have one of two reactions. Either they to throw up their hands and say “Screw politics, I’m going back to the lab!” or they lapse into a frustrated, sputtering silence and eventually ask me “Well, then, where does that leave us? Where do we go from here?”

It’s a fair question. Scientific evidence is important to a lot of issues. Where do go from here? What role can science have in political debates? To answer those questions, I think we in the scientific community need to identify and accept a few realities.

First off, I think we need to find ways to reduce the incentives for spreading misinformation. This one in particular is key. Once people begin to make a connection between their belief structure and factual information, it becomes nearly impossible to break that connection. One interesting outcome of research on motivated reasoning and why people hold on to known false information may provide a way forward. I was really struck by the following comment by the author of a new study, Brendan Nyhan: “Motivated reasoning kicks in primarily with topics people feel strongly about. When you ask people about things they don’t care about, they’re very happy to accept corrective information.” Corrective information has to come early in the process.

Second, we need to find a way to break – or at least minimize – the connection between personal or political identity and factual beliefs. Believe it or not, there are conservative Republicans that believe in anthropogenic climate change. Bob Inglis, a former representative from South Carolina, is a great example. After losing reelection, Inglis launched the Energy and Enterprise Initiative (EEI), a campaign focused on talking to conservatives about climate. EEI has just launched a new online community, republicEN, to bring together “energy optimists and climate realists.” Similarly, there are scientists who practice a religious faith. Katharine Hayhoe is widely considered one of the best climate communicators in the world. She is an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech, a highly accomplished climate scientist, and an evangelical Christian. If you haven’t seen the episode of Showtime’s series The Years of Living Dangerously featuring her, you should. It’s a fascinating look into her work communicating with religious audiences in Texas.

Finally, we need to understand that facts don’t dictate specific political outcomes. We know that the obesity crisis in this country is massively damaging to public health, but no credible scientist or political actor would consider making it illegal to be overweight. There are a huge array of options to address any issue, and scientific facts can help influence a productive decision, but they cannot mandate a specific one over any other. Furthermore, trying to require specific political/policy action based solely on scientific facts leave advocates at a disadvantage. Picking a side in a political battle puts the science you’re advocating at risk of becoming a weapon in that political debate. I’m not saying that’s always a bad thing; sometimes it’s totally worth it. But scientists should knowingly – not accidentally – take that risk.

We need to accept that scientific facts are not a panacea for all of societies challenges. Just because we can claim “97% of scientific experts agree that factoid X is true” does not mean we can drop the mic and walk away. Scientific or factual information is not always useful – or even productive – when the debate really isn’t about scientific or factual information. Disagreement with scientific consensus is not necessarily an indicator of ignorance or stupidity.

All of these things clearly indicate to me that scientists need to engage early on in the process. When people are deeply passionate about an issue, changing their minds in light of new facts becomes monumentally hard. The opening, the window for convincing based on fact and reason, is before that. When issues are first circulating, before political interests have infused reasoning, there is an opening to help people understand factual, scientific information. That can only come if scientific experts are present in the beginning. Scientists can’t just come in as neutral arbiters of fact once political debates have gotten intense and expect to be welcomed. We have to be there before that, participating in the process.

Connect with Chris on Twitter @cwavery!

Photo credit: wyntuitionCC BY-SA 2.0