Podcast: the only way to get evidence-based policy is to embrace ambiguity in science

In the 2015 Sense About Science lecture (MP3), Tracey Brown discusses the worst casualty of politicization of science, from fluoride to climate change — the truth.

The political controversies over scientific subjects makes acknowledging the truth about ambiguities in the science into a fraught and tribal prospect. Anthropogenic climate change is thoroughly settled science, but there still remain areas where the scientific consensus is elusive — for example, the correct means of reconciling different climate models to merge their findings. Scientists who worry about climate change worry that communicating this nuance will simply give climate deniers talking-points to discredit the idea of anthropogenic climate change altogether.

Brown argues, persuasively, that science advocates have to make truth, not political concerns, their top priority. Whether or not the denial movements — anti-vaxxers, climate deniers, young Earth creationists, and so on — seize on admissions of ambiguity or uncertainty to score political points with scientifically naive supporters (and they will score those points), we still have to advocate for a full and unblemished recounting of the truth.

That's because the only way to get evidence-based policy is to muster political will for it. That political will only emerges from a scientifically literate public, and the public will only attain scientific literacy if they are presented with the messy business of science, where truth is always contingent, and where there are always areas of hypotheses that are unsettled and subject to change.

The reality is that, in the world of science and research, the "truth" is messy, and evolving. There's this moment in an interview that every researcher dreads: "Yes, Dr Knowitall, but are you certain?" But researchers say to me: "The problem is Tracey, people with no scientific discipline can say what they like. They can say we need more prisons to reduce crime, the HPV vaccine is causing chronic fatigue or the climate has warmed by more or less than it has. And in response what do we have? Caveats, probabilities and error bars!"

So we keep the messy bits to ourselves. We flatten out uncertainties because we're afraid that scientific uncertainty will be used against us. Co-opted by extremists. Used as fodder for headlines. Or we stay silent while others do. Because in reality researchers work always with uncertainty. It's the nature of the beast.

Now let's do an "Imagine if …" Imagine interacting with a world where uncertainty was understood as an integral part of scientific enquiry. Where not being 100% certain was OK. The radio interview question was not "are you sure?" but "do we know enough?" and decisions about public health, the environment or crime policy could be taken with the uncertainty out in the open instead of pushed into a side room with the constant threat of it being "outed" by a critic.

Science and sensibility: on the untrustworthy nature of truth [Tracey Brown]

Can you handle the truth? Some ugly facts in science and sensibility
[Tracey Brown/Guardian]