Sir Peter Gluckman on the proper role of science
The Harper government muzzled scientists. Donald Trump's administration is now doing the same. But a better relationship between science and government is possible. Sir Peter Gluckman is the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand. This episode draws on a conversation he had with host Paul Kennedy and a talk he gave organized by Canadian Science Policy Centre, and hosted by the Institute for Science Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. His point: science's proper role is to help decision-makers make scientifically-informed decisions. **This episode originally aired February 22, 2017.
Science in a troubled age
"Is scientific advice of any value at all? If experts in a post-trust, post-truth world are marginalised as elites and can't solve our problems anyhow, do they have any value? In my opinion, scientific advice in this context is more important than ever...
Scientific uncertainties can be inappropriately exploited and injected into complex societal debates. We've seen many values debates obscured by inappropriate co-option of science to avoid the values debate. We've seen that in climate change, where there wasn't really a lot of debate over anthropogenic climate change for a long time. But there were awkward economic debates to be had. We're seeing it over the safety of genetically modified foods and so forth. And I think this issue of science being misused as a proxy for societal values-based debate is very bad. I think it short-changes democracy."
Science as elitist
"The scientific community is not beyond reproach. Science can get easily caught up in an elitist framing, particularly when we're arrogant. Because we must admit that science cannot solve every problem. Nor can we claim that it does. Nor can we claim that we know better than politicians how to solve the problems of the world.
We've seen many examples of scientists expressing considerable hubris and arrogance in trying to say they know what to do and ignoring the many other dimensions of addressing a problem. And of course, science is not the only input into policy-making."
Science vs common sense
"I think the issue [is] how you interpret the data. For example, you could pour a whole of the data into a computer and it might turn out something like: "where people eat more ice cream, there are more burglaries" -- to use a silly example. It doesn't mean that ice cream eating causes people to be naughty and steal things. What it's just telling you is there's a confounder, and the confounder is on hot days, people leave their windows open, and where windows are open, burglars are more likely to enter them.
You can't look at data without having an understanding of the system within which the data is looking. And particularly, just using that simple example, if you knew nothing about anything else you might naively think that eating ice cream caused people to become burglars.
But when you get into things like the relationship between poverty and crime, or environmental contamination and ill health, these issues become really important. And you have to have expert domain knowledge to interpret what the data might be saying to you, and to ask the right questions of the data."
Making science accessible
"I think if we go back to when I was a young scientist -- which was a few decades ago -- I think those scientists [who] appeared in the media were seen to be show ponies. It was disregarded. They lost respect from their colleagues. Now I think we understand that scientists who are good communicators are critical parts of the relationship between science and the rest of society. And that relationship is critical if science is to be well-used by society."
Scientists as knowledge brokers
"Scientists especially in the brokerage role need to recognize that in a democracy, policymakers have the right to ignore -- but hopefully not to deny -- the evidence, even if in my view it's unwise and ultimately counterproductive to do so. But the reasons they might ignore the evidence might involve many values-based considerations that scientific knowledge could inform but cannot resolve: political ideology, public opinion, fiscal consequences, diplomatic consequences, etc. The nature of democracy means that there are always multiple trade-offs at play in every decision a government makes, and different stakeholders have very different perspectives."