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How can national leaders reap the benefits of science and critical thinking?

Politicians and the public don’t seem to trust scientific advisers — a situation that could use a remedy

Illustration of scientist with scientific concepts
Clear and understandable communication is critical to building trust among scientific leaders, politicians and the public. (Illustration/Roy Scott)

Politicians ostensibly are paid to lead — to make decisions on a broad range of issues for the good of their constituents as well as the larger community and nation. While personal knowledge is no doubt helpful in decision-making, no one person could be expected to hold expertise in all areas. However, they should know who does and they should seek out those experts.

“I think one thing that we under-appreciate in this country is the value of having a bank of people who are trained to think about our problems more broadly,” said Amber B. Miller, dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and professor of physics. An experimental cosmologist, Miller has taken her own training as a scientist beyond academe: She has served as chief science adviser to the New York Police Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, on the advisory board for Columbia University’s Center for Science and Society, and as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a proponent of the use of scientists as consultants and critical thinkers in the policymaking process.

“When government or communities need people to be able to work hard problems, scientists — and particularly physicists — are a good group of people to ask because that’s what they do professionally,” she said. “As a physicist, you’re trained to take problems apart and ask what we know, what we don’t know and how we can move more things from the ‘not know’ column over to the ‘know’ column.”

In fact, many politicians and policymakers do tap scientists for their expertise on complex subjects, said Jeffrey Fields ’07, assistant professor of the practice of international relations.

Fields, who earned his PhD at USC Dornsife, worked as an analyst and senior adviser at the Department of Defense and as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department supporting the Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation before joining USC’s faculty. His current research examines U.S. foreign policy, terrorism and counterterrorism, international security and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

I think the public and pundits sometimes have this oversimplified view of the way that policy gets made, that it all happens in the Oval Office.

Jeffrey Fields

“I think the public and pundits sometimes have this oversimplified view of the way that policy gets made, that it all happens in the Oval Office. Maybe the president is there with his national security adviser and a few other people, and they say, ‘Well, let’s make this deal with Iran,’” he said. “But it really doesn’t happen that way.”

He points to the 2015 international effort to curtail Iran’s nuclear program as a prime example. There, decision-makers brought in scientists with a deeper understanding of nuclear programs to analyze the situation and provide recommendations.

“There’s only so far a nonscientist can go,” Fields said. “Scientists are going to have to weigh in, especially in talking about what’s feasible or how things work.”

While physicists and engineers played a crucial role in the Iran nuclear deal, their recommendations did not escape scrutiny. For example, the verification agreement, which outlined how the coalition nations would confirm Iran’s compliance, allowed the Islamic republic as many as 24 days to prepare for inspections. Many in government and the media expressed outrage at giving nearly a month’s forewarning, suggesting that it allowed Iran plenty of time to cover its tracks.

To the average person, so much lead time seemed clearly foolish, Fields said. “But that 24 days wasn’t just made up. Scientists said there’s absolutely no way in that time period you can hide evidence that you are violating this agreement with respect to uranium enrichment.” They knew that telltale traces of radioactivity would be impossible to remove completely, he said.

This inquiry, while politically motivated to some extent, is also symptomatic of a larger distrust of science among both politicians and the public.

Failure to communicate

Much of the suspicion aimed at scientists may stem from a single factor — poor communication. G. K. Surya Prakash, holder of George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry and professor of chemistry, has made several forays to the nation’s capital to encourage support of research on climate-friendly energy sources, with limited success. He places much of the fault on himself and his colleagues.

Clear and understandable communication is critical to building trust among scientific leaders, politicians and the public.

I think the problem with scientists is that we are poor communicators.

G. K. Surya Prakash

“I think the problem with scientists is that we are poor communicators,” he said, explaining that scientists are trained to be precise and accurate. This can make communicating with nonscientists — including politicians — difficult.

“With science, unless you know all the facts, you cannot be very precise,” he said, “which leads scientists to speak in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. And usually people, especially politicians, don’t like that. They want ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.”

Norbert Schwarz, Provost Professor of Psychology and Marketing and founding co-director of the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center, agrees. In fact, he said, adherence to good scientific principles actually lowers credibility in most people’s eyes.

“The good scientists usually acknowledge that future findings may change the conclusion, and that should enhance the credibility of science because it shows that the science is done well. Yet, for most people, acknowledging that you have doubts, acknowledging that you may change your mind, is typically something that undermines trust.”

So why then do people not believe what the scientific evidence clearly shows? Why would someone — politician or otherwise — veer from a rational conclusion to embrace a less credible idea?

The unreliable mind

For many, Schwarz said, the answer may lie in how the mind works.

“People use one very powerful heuristic, called social consensus or social proof, to determine what is true,” he said. In other words, if most people believe it, there is probably something to it. Social consensus is partly why websites like Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes are so popular. “If most people think that a restaurant is good, we’re more likely to go there,” Schwarz said. Likewise, if most people, especially those in close social circles, believe global warming is not real, then it probably is not.

The problem here is that, while we rely on consensus, we are very bad at tracking it.

Norbert Schwarz

Unfortunately, the mind is not very reliable at keeping account of the actual numbers. “The problem here is that, while we rely on consensus, we are very bad at tracking it,” Schwarz said. “If you ask people how many believe something or how often they have heard a statement, you find they really are not good at keeping tabs.”

So people fall back on familiarity. The more familiar something sounds, the more likely they are to believe it. Because if it is familiar, it must have been said by others who in turn must believe it, which leads back to social consensus.

In a somewhat worrisome turn, Schwarz’s research shows that all it takes is one voice to build familiarity.

“You can literally have a single voice say the same thing over and over again. Just one squeaky voice that keeps saying the same thing,” Schwarz explained, and it is enough to cast doubt or solidify a belief.

What then to do?

Schwarz, Prakash, Fields and Miller all agree: Scientists must communicate more and do a better job of it in order to elicit greater confidence from politicians and the public.

“In my opinion, professors and scientists should become a little bit more vocal,” Prakash said, “and then the elected representatives will pay more attention.”

Fields points out that government officials working with scientists also could be better at communicating the details behind issues to the public, and he worries that the complexity of issues may pose challenges.

“They’re talking about all these peer-reviewed studies and their results and it’s really complicated to explain. Al Gore had to make an entire movie about climate change to try to explain it, which may be just what we need — more creative ways to present issues, especially when it comes to science,” Fields said.

Schwarz concurs and believes the research can help illuminate better ways of getting the points across. “I think we have to look at how people evaluate whether something is likely to be true, and have to take that into account when we design messages,” he said.

For her part, Miller believes that academic institutions can and should play a lead role in building trust through better communication. She believes that leadership at academic institutions such as USC Dornsife should encourage scientists and scholars to be more vocal and support them in doing so, a critical step in building trust with the public and politicians alike.

“I think that academics should be capable of explaining their work in a way that the public or a journalist can understand. Part of what is appealing to me about university leadership is the ability to have a role in shaping that interface, to really think about how we encourage our academicians and others to be more open to that kind of communication,” she said.

It is an important first step in making sure people, including politicians and other leaders, learn to trust and reap the benefits of science and critical thinkers.

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How can national leaders reap the benefits of science and critical thinking?

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