zip your mouth and shut up.” Credit: pHotosHo0x

August 17, 2017; Slate and Issues in Science and Technology

Science is a never-ending process of constant questioning. Answers are seldom final; as new data becomes available, conclusions that seemed certain may be proven wrong. On any subject, the best data may describe a reality that’s complex, nuanced, and perhaps contradictory. This complexity isn’t easy to reduce to the sound bites, tweets, or slides that have become our preferred way to communicate. More and more, we are learning how small a role science plays in our hyper-partisan political debates. For policymakers and nonprofit leaders, this is a tough reality to accept.

There is good reason to fear that the world of politics and policy cannot tolerate the complexity of scientific debate. Not only, as NPQ has recently covered, do politicians seek ways to discredit findings they disagree with, but scientists worry that published results can be taken out of context. Those who reject evidence use its nuances to deny consensus and oppose action. So, what do scientists do when faced with this dilemma? Unfortunately, as Keith Kloor’s recent article, “The Science Police,” concludes, under this pressure, the quality of science itself is put at risk.

The scientific community has come to the consensus that human activity is causing serious environmental damage and that global collective action is required before the harm is irreparable. (It may already be too late.) Scientists agree that “urbanization and agriculture, among other aspects of modern society, severely fragmented wild habitats, which, in turn, reduced ecological diversity and eroded ecosystem health.” From this conclusion come recommendations about land use policies that may be disruptive and politically controversial.

When a Canadian researcher submitted a paper to Nature, a well-respected, peer-reviewed journal, he found good science was not enough to get his work published. Nature’s peer reviewer offered this reason for rejection:

Unfortunately, while the authors are careful to state that they are discussing biodiversity changes at local scales, and to explain why this is relevant to the scientific community, clearly media reporting on these results are going to skim right over that and report that biological diversity is not declining if this paper were to be published in Nature. I do not think this conclusion would be justified, and I think it is important not to pave the way for that conclusion to be reached by the public.

Nature’s fear of the potential political impact of publishing stunted the dialogue that is critical to good science, despite evidence that advocacy does not damage scientific credibility. Ecologists Brian Silliman and Stephanie Wear write, “Many in the conservation community fear that admitting some key principle or strategy is wrong will embolden those in opposition to conservation.”

Protecting good public policy from the inability of policymakers to properly deal with complex issues and the uncertainty of good science carries the danger of harming science itself. At the same time, policymakers need to be concerned about reducing issues to binaries. We need to base policy on the best available data and accept that in the future we will learn more, which means we may learn that some of what we thought we knew was false. That may be a hard sell in an electoral world where tweets and Facebook posts never fade, but only if we can get there will we be able to make informed and intelligent decisions.—Marty Levine