The chaos of scientific advice: Why it’s so hard for politicians to ‘get’ science

Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy tells Science|Busines how to get scientific evidence across to a broader public

Marcus du Sautoy

Climate change, GMOs, stem cells – the list of hot-button scientific topics is growing. The more scientists learn about the world around us, the more fellow-citizens – especially politicians – want to ignore it. This paradox was captured recently in Britain, when the Secretary of State for Justice and key figurehead in the Vote Leave campaign,  Michael Gove, (who also formerly was  education minister), deprecated economists who warned against Brexit saying, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”

So what is to be done? Marcus du Sautoy, a famous Oxford mathematician and professor of the public understanding of science, thinks he knows. In an interview at a recent Science|Business conference, supported by Huawei Technologies, he offers a few answers (here edited for brevity.)

Q. Why is it so hard to get people to listen to scientific evidence?

A. Well, it’s about presenting what we (scientists) do in a way that a non-scientific audience can interact with. Gove is a red herring. The whole Brexit thing was a resentment of the establishment, as if society was a teenager who just wants to kick its parents in the teeth. You see that in America, as well. But there are different ways of being experts. You can be an expert where you are superior and you preach and don’t show your workings. The more effective expert is the one who shows their workings, and gives a person credit that they will be able to understand.

Because people really are interested in science. Their appetite for reading about scientific breakthroughs is high. People find these stories exciting when they engage with them. I do a lot of radio – anything can come in (from audience questions.) Drug taking in athletics. Best board game. Each has a scientific angle. The Glastonbury Festival – I do it every summer - it’s raining and people come into the tent to talk about science. The weekend before I spoke at the (London) South Bank: They came for music but they got maths. I tweet a lot. You can have a dialogue.

Q. Take the evidence for climate change: How do you explain that?

A. It’s in the word, ‘evidence.’ When one is presented with evidence in a way that you can understand, it’s very hard to buck that. It is an essential tool, the research that we have done, to demonstrate a causal connection between the carbon we put in and the climate we get out. People may start with an opinion: They want to be identified with somebody who is like-minded, and they will spout the same things without looking at the evidence. But the evidence is an essential tool in changing people’s opinions.

Q. That presupposes people are rational.

A. People are more rational than we give them credit for. I am somebody who likes to create bridges, not burn bridges. A healthy way to engage people is to give them respect, and maybe challenge them with contrary evidence. The more you engage people with science, the more you give them a role. They are not disenfranchised any more.  Take machine learning. It is going to have a massive impact on society, and society is going to have to decide.  Does it want to trust a driverless car? Does it want a doctor who is actually a machine accessing data? We have to be sure they understand, that there is evidence that is helping frame the debate in a positive way. It’s about presenting the theory to date in a way that can be understood by the public.

Q. Why is it so hard for scientists to advise government?

A. Science is a multidimensional beast. It is often a challenge to have one person be the filter through which all of science is going to be delivered to government. What the advisor should be good at is recognising their limitations. We have to recognise that there are political angles to issues. What politicians want are often yes or no answers. They expect scientists to know what is going to happen. But developing an understanding of risk, of the parameters of unknowability, is important. It’s something politicians have difficulty wrestling with. And scientists, when they are interviewed, have to say something about uncertainty and that will often be taken as an opportunity to say ‘they don’t know.’ So just understanding the language is often difficult.

Q. Your new book talks about the limits of our knowledge. Is science in policy one such area?

A. It’s part of it. It’s in the idea of chaotic systems, like weather, [where] very small perturbations produce big changes. It’s very important in policy to know when you have this: then you need to have a very conservative policy for the future. It’s important in policy and economics that people understand that simple systems don’t necessarily have simple dynamics. I asked Bob May (former UK science advisor) if he had trouble explaining this to politicians. He said they aren’t interested in chaos theory. They’re only interested in their egos.

Marcus du Sautoy’s new book, “What we cannot know”, was published in May. It examines seven areas in which science may never have answers.
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