Scientists and politicians – the same but different?

The approaches may differ, but the end goal has much in common. Collierwilson

THE STATE OF SCIENCE: Why do politicians and scientists disagree on so many issues? Are they really as different as we might think? Will J Grant and Rod Lamberts weigh up the evidence.

Opinion pieces these days seem rife with lamentations about the divide between our scientists and politicians.

We hear, in various forms, how scientists don’t work in the real world, how politicians care for naught but votes and money. We hear how neither properly understands the other; and how there’s a lack of respect across the divide.

But, as Peter Shergold recently noted on The Conversation, complaints without solutions aren’t particularly useful.

Focusing solely on what divides our scientists and politicians does little to rectify the difficulties these divides appear to create, and does little to tell us what their roles and relationship ought to be.

It’s important we have both scientists and politicians equipped to do their jobs, particularly when issues of public health, safety and indeed our long term survival are at stake.

So we’d like to contribute to this discussion in a different way. We’d like to spend a bit of time focusing on what’s right – as well as what can be improved – about the relationship between our scientists and our politicians.

Peas in a pod?

A few years ago, a well-established politician – who shall remain nameless, because the name doesn’t matter – made a bold assertion to a room full of scientists. This politician asserted that, like scientists, politicians require specific skills, experience and expertise to do their job well, and that these things are not necessarily shared by non-politicians.

As with scientists, some will be more skilled, or naturally gifted, than others. Also like scientists, some will use these skills and gifts for public good, and others, less so …

So, if we can lay our cynicism aside for just a few minutes, it’s possible to argue that scientists and politicians both possess expertise lay people do not – expertise that’s essential to the functioning of our society.

The basis and form of that expertise, naturally, differs.

If we look at scientists and politicians on a continuum, it becomes a little easier to consider the similarities and differences between these experts.

Context: lots and little

Scientists aim, in essence, to remove context from their work. Their results should be as independent of social nuance, and as broadly generalisable, as possible.

Politicians, by contrast, must treat context as king: without context, policy-making doesn’t actually make much sense. Politicians must be responsive to the world around them. The creation of policy is by definition a response to a problem or issue in the world as it is.

This separation between scientists and politicians is right and sensible.

If all scientists sought to be as responsive as politicians, we would likely have little more than a string of short-term research endeavours unlikely to address any of the universe’s big questions. If our politicians sought policy solutions devoid of contextual mooring or too generalisable across all situations, we would likely see foolish remakings of the world to fit ideological lenses.

But critically, this doesn’t mean policy-makers should reject long-term thinking, or that scientists should ignore the context or problems of today.

What we are seeking to do here is show that these two radically different yet inextricably linked realms of human endeavour lurk at opposing ends of this continuum. Opposing ends, but still part of the same continuum.

Best of both worlds

So, what do we want our politicians and scientists to be? What would an ideal world look like?

It’s clear that, in an ideal world, we would not have our scientists and politicians utterly divorced from each other, working to address only the grand questions of the universe or the minutia of the moment. To do their jobs well, scientists and politicians must operate in very different settings, but it is also important they act together to understand, manage and improve our lives.

And there’s the rub. We need them to work together, but the myriad differences in worldview between these two critical social actors mean that not only do they not always get their communication right, they sometimes act against each other.

This isn’t always a problem. Tensions generate energy and ideas. Disagreements are not always destructive.

Yet if we do not trust those on the other side – if we see this tension as failure alone – then we have an entirely different kind of problem.

Most of us are neither scientist nor politician. Even if we were, we would necessarily specialise in sub-areas of one or the other. This means we’d have to trust others to do the rest of the work.

Trust between scientists and politicians should not be freely given; it is critical that we all scrutinise legitimately and constantly. But if trust is never given, then where are we left?

When politicians or scientists wield their skills, experience and power well, and in ways that align with our values, they should earn our trust. Once they have done so, perhaps we should cut them a little slack. Give them some leeway to act in our interests. And also give them suitable reward.

If they abuse that trust, that trust should be withdrawn.

And throughout this, we must not confuse legitimate scepticism with destructive cynicism.

Cynicism rarely does more than point out what’s wrong. And there it stops.

Scepticism however is healthy. It not only points out problems, it actively enhances the creation of solutions, be they political or scientific – or both.

This is the eleventh part of The State of Science. To read the other instalments, follow the links below.

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