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Planetary decisions – a game of popularity or fact finding?

By evidentiary in  
November 30, 2016

What is our appetite for the truth and why do we need it particularly if it is inconvenient or will involve uncomfortable change?

In an address by the pope to experts attending a plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on November 25-29 to discuss the impact of scientific knowledge and technology on people and the planet, the pope said that scientists need to be free of political, economic and ideological interests in building a cultural model to tackle climate change  (http://bit.ly/2gGkbBf). This is a worrying, powerful and pertinent statement.

 Science is one of the only tools that humans have to assist us in making objective, evidence based observations and interpretations of how the world around us works. This of course includes how humans themselves function and our efforts to understand the universe beyond our tiny planet.  This is because science uses sets of rules and standards that have been developed over centuries. These have shown to be trustworthy and the conclusions we can draw from these structured observations give us a firm foothold for making well informed decisions to guide our future direction. If we break or make blunt this tool however we also dim our ability to shine the light ahead and risk walking off into the darkness of uncertainty with no re-traceable path.

Anyone involved with evidence based decision making knows that the reality of a situation, as exposed by the evidence, is not always environmentally, socially, politically or economically convenient, it may be opposing our desired position, it may be contrary to our strongly held values and beliefs (see blog http://wp.me/p4899z-9S) or it may be an unpopular position to take. Our choices are to a) collect and understand the evidence and act upon its findings, b) to collect and understand the evidence and choose not to act on the findings or c) not to collect the evidence. In my work at Evidentiary I see all three choices being made by clients.

It is no surprise that political realities demand that options b) and c) are often taken. This  has been popularized through screen titles such as “An Inconvenient Truth“.  The ruthless pursuit of numbers to perpetuate power will always be a driving force behind political decision making hence the selection of options b) or c). For me what is even more worrying however is that, if we adopt b) and we do not record the reasons why we have rejected the evidence, then our capacity to learn and improve, to develop that firm foothold on which to base future decisions is diminished. This is a situation that jeopardises not only our current decision making but critically also the decision making of future generations. This therefore becomes a societal moral and ethical issue and not just a political one.

Where there is scientific uncertainty there is scope for political maneuvering, disturbingly obvious in the climate change debate. There will always be uncertainty in science by definition, so there will always be scope for preying upon those with low scientific literacy when fishing for votes. Compounding this there are several other factors that operate in the favour of “policy making’s lapses into crowd pleasing, political pandering, window dressing and god acting” (Pawson, 2002) as opposed to acting according to choice a). These are:

  1. Where the evidence suggests that unpopular change is needed for a long term benefit
  2. Human faith encourages us to believe that we will find a way around or through these wicked environmental problems given our intelligence, religious beliefs and technology
  3. Belief that the problem will disappear
  4. That those in power have the greatest ability to make the best decisions on our behalf
  5. Time lags between attaining desired levels of certainty in the evidence v’s those of political decision making
  6. Individuals representing science and the scientific process can be discredited

…….and I am sure that there are other factors that you may like to add to the list.

So what does all this mean? While ideally we strive to increase the use of choice a) it is naive not to acknowledge the political realities of decision making. It is negligent for decision makers to adopt choice c) for outcomes that impact on public well being. The increasing forensic public scrutiny, involvement and understanding of science based issues will see increased exposure and accountability of governments adopting such an approach. So what about choice b)? Even though a decision maker may choose not to act on the findings of the evidence, there is a moral and ethical obligation to leave a legacy for future generations to be able to incrementally progress decision outcomes for public good. This means at least documenting our reasons for not using the findings of the evidence. Further to this, surely the principles of good public sector management involve transparency of process, for without this we are at least certain of one thing …and that is that our future is as uncertain as our past projections.

In order for the pope’s desire that “scientists need to be free of political, economic and ideological interests in building a cultural model to tackle climate change” to become a reality, I suspect he will need to call on some higher intervention.

References

Pawson, R. (2002). ‘Evidence-based Policy: In Search of a Method’. Evaluation April 8
(2): pp.157-181(25).

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