The JRC’s annual conference has become a key forum in which to discuss the use of evidence in policy. At this scale, in which many hundreds of people attend plenary discussions, it feels like an annual mass rally for science; a ‘call to arms’ to protect the role of science in the production of evidence, and the protection of evidence in policy deliberation. There is not much discussion of storytelling, but we tell each other a fairly similar story about our fears for the future unless we act now.
Last year, the main story was of fear for the future of heroic scientists: the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote prompted many discussions of post-truth politics and reduced trust in experts. An immediate response was to describe attempts to come together, and stick together, to support each other’s scientific endeavours during a period of crisis. There was little call for self-analysis and reflection on the contribution of scientists and experts to barriers between evidence and policy.
This year was a bit different. There was the same concern for reduced trust in science, evidence, and/ or expertise, and some references to post-truth politics and populism, but with some new voices describing the positive value of politics, often when discussing the need for citizen engagement, and of the need to understand the relationship between facts, values, and politics.
For example, a panel on psychology opened up the possibility that we might consider our own politics and cognitive biases while we identify them in others, and one panellist spoke eloquently about the importance of narrative and storytelling in communicating to audiences such as citizens and policymakers.
A focus on narrative is not new, but it provides a challenging agenda when interacting with a sticky story of scientific objectivity. For the unusually self-reflective, it also reminds us that our annual discussions are not particularly scientific; the usual rules to assess our statements do not apply.
As in studies of policymaking, we can say that there is high support for such stories when they remain vague and driven more by emotion than the pursuit of precision. When individual speakers try to make sense of the same story, they do it in different – and possibly contradictory – ways. As in policymaking, the need to deliver something concrete helps focus the mind, and prompts us to make choices between competing priorities and solutions.
I describe these discussions in two ways: tables, in which I try to boil down each speaker’s speech into a sentence or two (you can get their full details in the programme and the speaker bios); and a synthetic discussion of the top 3 concerns, paraphrasing and combining arguments from many speakers:
1. What are facts?
The key distinction began as between politics-values-facts which is impossible to maintain in practice.
Yet, subsequent discussion revealed a more straightforward distinction between facts and opinion, ‘fake news’, and lies. The latter sums up an ever-present fear of the diminishing role of science in an alleged ‘post truth’ era.
2. What exactly is the problem, and what is its cause?
The tables below provide a range of concerns about the problem, from threats to democracy to the need to communicate science more effectively. A theme of growing importance is the need to deal with the cognitive biases and informational shortcuts of people receiving evidence: communicate with reference to values, beliefs, and emotions; build up trust in your evidence via transparency and reliability; and, be prepared to discuss science with citizens and to be accountable for your advice. There was less discussion of the cognitive biases of the suppliers of evidence.
3. What is the role of scientists in relation to this problem?
Not all speakers described scientists as the heroes of this story:
- Some described scientists as the good people acting heroically to change minds with facts.
- Some described their potential to co-produce important knowledge with citizens (although primarily with like-minded citizens who learn the value of scientific evidence?).
- Some described the scientific ego as a key barrier to action.
- Some identified their low confidence to engage, their uncertainty about what to do with their evidence, and/ or their scientist identity which involves defending science as a cause/profession and drawing the line between providing information and advocating for policy. This hope to be an ‘honest broker’ was pervasive in last year’s conference.
- Some (rightly) rejected the idea of separating facts/ values and science/ politics, since evidence is never context free (and gathering evidence without thought to context is amoral).
Often in such discussions it is difficult to know if some scientists are naïve actors or sophisticated political strategists, because their public statements could be identical. For the former, an appeal to objective facts and the need to privilege science in EBPM may be sincere. Scientists are, and should be, separate from/ above politics. For the latter, the same appeal – made again and again – may be designed to energise scientists and maximise the role of science in politics.
Yet, energy is only the starting point, and it remains unclear how exactly scientists should communicate and how to ‘know your audience’: would many scientists know who to speak to, in governments or the Commission, if they had something profoundly important to say?
|Keynotes and introductory statements from panel chairs|
|Vladimír Šucha: We need to understand the relationship between politics, values, and facts. Facts are not enough. To make policy effectively, we need to combine facts and values.|
|Tibor Navracsics: Politics is swayed more by emotions than carefully considered arguments. When making policy, we need to be open and inclusive of all stakeholders (including citizens), communicate facts clearly and at the right time, and be aware of our own biases (such as groupthink).|
|Sir Peter Gluckman: ‘Post-truth’ politics is not new, but it is pervasive and easier to achieve via new forms of communication. People rely on like-minded peers, religion, and anecdote as forms of evidence underpinning their own truth. When describing the value of science, to inform policy and political debate, note that it is more than facts; it is a mode of thinking about the world, and a system of verification to reduce the effect of personal and group biases on evidence production. Scientific methods help us define problems (e.g. in discussion of cause/ effect) and interpret data. Science advice involves expert interpretation, knowledge brokerage, a discussion of scientific consensus and uncertainty, and standing up for the scientific perspective.|
|Carlos Moedas: Safeguard trust in science by (1) explaining the process you use to come to your conclusions; (2) provide safe and reliable places for people to seek information (e.g. when they Google); (3) make sure that science is robust and scientific bodies have integrity (such as when dealing with a small number of rogue scientists).|
|Pascal Lamy: 1. ‘Deep change or slow death’ We need to involve more citizens in the design of publicly financed projects such as major investments in science. Many scientists complain that there is already too much political interference, drowning scientists in extra work. However, we will face a major backlash – akin to the backlash against ‘globalisation’ – if we do not subject key debates on the future of science and technology-driven change (e.g. on AI, vaccines, drone weaponry) to democratic processes involving citizens. 2. The world changes rapidly, and evidence gathering is context-dependent, so we need to monitor regularly the fitness of our scientific measures (of e.g. trade).|
|Jyrki Katainen: ‘Wicked problems’ have no perfect solution, so we need the courage to choose the best imperfect solution. Technocratic policymaking is not the solution; it does not meet the democratic test. We need the language of science to be understandable to citizens: ‘a new age of reason reconciling the head and heart’.|
|Panel: Why should we trust science?|
|Jonathan Kimmelman: Some experts make outrageous and catastrophic claims. We need a toolbox to decide which experts are most reliable, by comparing their predictions with actual outcomes. Prompt them to make precise probability statements and test them. Only those who are willing to be held accountable should be involved in science advice.|
|Johannes Vogel: We should devote 15% of science funding to public dialogue. Scientific discourse, and a science-literature population, is crucial for democracy. EU Open Society Policy is a good model for stakeholder inclusiveness.|
|Tracey Brown: Create a more direct link between society and evidence production, to ensure discussions involve more than the ‘usual suspects’. An ‘evidence transparency framework’ helps create a space in which people can discuss facts and values. ‘Be open, speak human’ describes showing people how you make decisions. How can you expect the public to trust you if you don’t trust them enough to tell them the truth?|
|Francesco Campolongo: Claude Juncker’s starting point is that Commission proposals and activities should be ‘based on sound scientific evidence’. Evidence comes in many forms. For example, economic models provide simplified versions of reality to make decisions. Economic calculations inform profoundly important policy choices, so we need to make the methodology transparent, communicate probability, and be self-critical and open to change.|
|Panel: the politician’s perspective|
|Janez Potočnik: The shift of the JRC’s remit allowed it to focus on advocating science for policy rather than policy for science. Still, such arguments need to be backed by an economic argument (this policy will create growth and jobs). A narrow focus on facts and data ignores the context in which we gather facts, such as a system which undervalues human capital and the environment.|
|Máire Geoghegan-Quinn: Policy should be ‘solidly based on evidence’ and we need well-communicated science to change the hearts and minds of people who would otherwise rely on their beliefs. Part of the solution is to get, for example, kids to explain what science means to them.|
|Panel: Redesigning policymaking using behavioural and decision science|
|Steven Sloman: The world is complex. People overestimate their understanding of it, and this illusion is burst when they try to explain its mechanisms. People who know the least feel the strongest about issues, but if you ask them to explain the mechanisms their strength of feeling falls. Why? People confuse their knowledge with that of their community. The knowledge is not in their heads, but communicated across groups. If people around you feel they understand something, you feel like you understand, and people feel protective of the knowledge of their community. Implications? 1. Don’t rely on ‘bubbles’; generate more diverse and better coordinated communities of knowledge. 2. Don’t focus on giving people full information; focus on the information they need at the point of decision.|
|Stephan Lewandowsky: 97% of scientists agree that human-caused climate change is a problem, but the public thinks it’s roughly 50-50. We have a false-balance problem. One solution is to ‘inoculate’ people against its cause (science denial). We tell people the real figures and facts, warn them of the rhetorical techniques employed by science denialists (e.g. use of false experts on smoking), and mock the false balance argument. This allows you to reframe the problem as an investment in the future, not cost now (and find other ways to present facts in a non-threatening way). In our lab, it usually ‘neutralises’ misinformation, although with the risk that a ‘corrective message’ to challenge beliefs can entrench them.|
|Françoise Waintrop: It is difficult to experiment when public policy is handed down from on high. Or, experimentation is alien to established ways of thinking. However, our 12 new public innovation labs across France allow us to immerse ourselves in the problem (to define it well) and nudge people to action, working with their cognitive biases.|
|Simon Kuper: Stories combine facts and values. To change minds: persuade the people who are listening, not the sceptics; find go-betweens to link suppliers and recipients of evidence; speak in stories, not jargon; don’t overpromise the role of scientific evidence; and, never suggest science will side-line human beings (e.g. when technology costs jobs).|
|Panel: The way forward|
|Jean-Eric Paquet: We describe ‘fact based evidence’ rather than ‘science based’. A key aim is to generate ‘ownership’ of policy by citizens. Politicians are more aware of their cognitive biases than we technocrats are.|
|Anne Bucher: In the European Commission we used evidence initially to make the EU more accountable to the public, via systematic impact assessment and quality control. It was a key motivation for better regulation. We now focus more on generating inclusive and interactive ways to consult stakeholders.|
|Ann Mettler: Evidence-based policymaking is at the heart of democracy. How else can you legitimise your actions? How else can you prepare for the future? How else can you make things work better? Yet, a lot of our evidence presentation is so technical; even difficult for specialists to follow. The onus is on us to bring it to life, to make it clearer to the citizen and, in the process, defend scientists (and journalists) during a period in which Western democracies seem to be at risk from anti-democratic forces.|
|Mariana Kotzeva: Our facts are now considered from an emotional and perception point of view. The process does not just involve our comfortable circle of experts; we are now challenged to explain our numbers. Attention to our numbers can be unpredictable (e.g. on migration). We need to build up trust in our facts, partly to anticipate or respond to the quick spread of poor facts.|
|Rush Holt: In society we can find the erosion of the feeling that science is relevant to ‘my life’, and few US policymakers ask ‘what does science say about this?’ partly because scientists set themselves above politics. Politicians have had too many bad experiences with scientists who might say ‘let me explain this to you in a way you can understand’. Policy is not about science based evidence; more about asking a question first, then asking what evidence you need. Then you collect evidence in an open way to be verified.|
That was 10 hours of discussion condensed into one post. If you can handle more discussion from me, see:
Psychology and policymaking: Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers
The role of evidence in policy: EBPM and How to be heard