Preston Manning: Who should speak for science in the public arena?

Financial Post

Scientists don't often speak directly for themselves but are quoted by politicians, civil servants and media commentators. PHOTO BY DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES FILES

One of the most important questions raised by governmental responses to the COVID crisis is «Who should speak for science in the public arena?»

Every government in the world claims that its response to this health crisis is «science-based.» Scientific papers and authorities are liberally quoted in describing the nature of the virus, the best ways to combat its spread, and the role of science and technology in developing vaccines as the ultimate protective solution. Often it is not the scientists speaking directly for themselves but politicians, civil servants and media commentators. 

This shaky grasp of the application of science to a public issue makes it more likely that the politicians’ choice as to what science to reference and how to apply it will be more strongly influenced by non-scientific factors such as political ideology and partisan positions. Civil servants may well have scientific degrees and expertise but they are lodged in public bureaucracies, hierarchically organized with multiple divisions of responsibility and a fundamentally different approach to information processing and decision making than that prescribed by the scientific method.

Thus the filtering of scientific observations and hypotheses through a bureaucratic system is likely to bring yet another bias to the application of science to a public issue. And in the case of the communication of science by public media commentators, this cannot help but be influenced, at least in part, by the media-world reality that negative is more newsworthy than positive, «feelings» are more newsworthy than «facts,» disagreement is more newsworthy than consensus and short-run is more newsworthy than long-run. Public policy guided mainly by «newsworthy science» is not truly science-based policy. Calling for an expanded and direct communications role for scientists in the public square on public issues is not, however, without its own challenges.

For example, the language and style in which scientists normally communicate with each other are not usually the best language and style for communicating with the public.

One of the largest will be the annual Canadian Science Policy Conference in November. A priority question to be addressed by such gatherings is «Who should speak for science in the public square?». 

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Source: Preston Manning | Financial Post 

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