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State of Scientific Knowledge in Making Public Policy

By David Stocum on April 2, 2014 in Civic Blog

Image converted using ifftoanyWhat causes earth’s seasons?  The answer given by a gaggle of fresh Harvard graduates was that there are seasons because the distance of the earth from the sun varies over the course of a year.  But this wrong answer failed when the graduates were asked the reason why winter and summer co-exist in the northern and southern hemispheres!  A high percentage of people, even those who are university educated, do not know the most basic facts about the natural world.  Thus we should continue to try to elevate our level of science literacy throughout the K-12 and college years.

Socio-political research, however, suggests that this alone will not produce good policy decisions that require science literacy, because those decisions are deliberately not informed by the open-minded use of scientific concepts, data, logic or statistics.  This research suggests that political and lay audiences do not approach the world with an open mind.  If their value system and world- view is not congruent with the facts and conclusions established by scientific research, those facts and conclusions will be rejected or ignored.  Such audiences are liable to view any consensus scientific interpretation of data as “just an opinion”, or at worst a conspiracy.  New facts in favor of one position or another simply further polarize people according to their peer political or religious beliefs.  This means that “consider the evidence and draw your own conclusions” is not a viable approach to formulation of rational policies requiring scientific knowledge. The notion is growing that scientists should frame their arguments, not in idealistic terms of how right they are, but in terms of their relevance to things that have a clear connection to the basic economic and physical needs of people.

There are five “hot-button” public policy issues that require an understanding of scientific principles and facts to enable the formulation of reasonable federal and/or state policies.  Three of these are intertwined with one another:  environmental protection, renewable energy, and climate change. The fourth is stem cell research, and the fifth is the evolution of species vs. special creation.  The first three can be approached within both economic and health frames, while stem cell research fits primarily into a health frame.  Of course, it is well to remember that these frames are more or less interdependent.  The key to all of them is to engage special interest groups, citizens, and stakeholders with data relevant to the frame, for and against, without hyperbole, and admitting what is not known with certainty.  We need to discuss with these groups how alternative policies on environmental protection, renewable energy and climate change, based on best information, would affect us economically, health-wise, and socially.

A major problem is the attempt to inject politics and religion into the study of science in the K-12 schools and even into university education.  For example, conservative politicians and parents are putting pressure on schools not to include discussion of climate change as part of environmental science because it is too controversial.  A similar problem is the attempt to have creationism/intelligent design taught as a scientific alternative to evolution, even though the former is simply an untestable denial of the latter, rather than science.  Therefore, scientists need to engage those who are responsible for creating the context in which students learn how science is conceived and practiced in our nation’s schools.  Schools should not be allowed to become American fundamentalist madrassas.

Conclusion: One research focus of the Center for Civic Literacy should be to develop ideas and examples for frames that can use science literacy to guide policy making via arguments based on economic and personal well-being, rather than stressing the idealistic “rightness” of the arguments.

david_stocum3David Stocum is Professor of Biology and Director of the Center for Regenerative Biology and Medicine at IUPUI. His research is on the cellular and molecular processes that regulate the regeneration of amphibian limbs. Stocum serves as a core faculty member at Center for Civic Literacy.

Image Source: NASA


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