Monday, August 29, 2016

BLOG: Trusting Science in Natural Resource Management

By Kate Tillotson, Upper Elkhorn Natural Resources District

As much as I, as a trained scientist, would like to imagine that good science leads directly to sound policy I am aware that this isn’t the case. We can’t just pump science coins into the policy machine and get out policies that reflect what the science tells us; policy making is simply not that straightforward. Economics, law, and public opinion also play their parts in the development of policy and, as is often the case, rank higher than the physical sciences as fields sought for advice during policy development. However, the need to account for things like economics doesn’t wholly account for the existing or perceived tension between policy makers and scientists, and that tension is worth exploring.

This tension comes in several forms but I’m going to focus on mistrust or wholesale dismissal of science and scientists. Further, there are a laundry list of things that undermine trust in science that include but certainly aren’t limited to 1) industries promoting distrust through the use of skeptics (such as with climate change science), 2) media framing (such that skeptics or non-experts are given equal weight as experts even though that is not representative of the scientific community), and 3) confirmation-bias or information filtering (either in general but specifically on the internet where it is so easy to keep away from information that does not agree with your own world view). Confirmation bias and information filtering are some of the strongest influences on whether or not we trust any new information that comes to us, whether scientific or not. This is especially prevalent given how easy it is to tailor our information sources online: you can pick where you get your news so that it supports your world view, you can unfollow friends on Facebook if they say things you don’t agree with. We filter information actively and passively all the time. I’ll talk about this a little bit more below, but first let’s talk about trust a little more.

What is “trust” in the context of science and scientifically derived information? Trust is roughly equated with “belief” and implies faith without need to further investigate. This is problematic to me because within the scientific community a critical eye is important, that’s why we have a peer review process before results are published. Despite scientific results being inherently provisional, that is up for being overturned or having caveats added by future work, at some point study becomes redundant because results are conclusive or are, rather, within acceptable limits of uncertainty. This applies all across natural resource management, whether it is monitoring water quality issues or tracking the loss of an endangered species: at some point cause and effect are known, the end point is clear, and action is the next step. But action requires trust in the science.

I think Marcia McNutt (current president of the National Academy of Sciences, former editor-in-chief of Science, and 15th director of USGS) said it best when she said, “Science is not a body of facts, science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” This is absolutely true for many people. However, I recognize that people tend to rely on personal experience or anecdotes more than on science and statistics and while anecdotes are grounded in the real world they are interpreted by humans who occasionally make exciting and wildly incorrect assumptions about how the world works. This is especially true when the science and statistics are counter-intuitive, counters our personal experience, or is not something we have experienced: if the information doesn’t confirm our understanding of the situation it is really easy to ignore. In managing freshwater for a quality issue that you can’t see or smell it is difficult to convince anyone that it is an issue until they experience the repercussions of that issue first hand.

When science is conclusive but policy makers or lay people want to continue to study it or simply don’t believe the results, it is worth asking why this is the case. Is it because the science doesn’t agree with what they think it should say? Is it telling us something we don’t want to hear? Is it because the information is unfamiliar, the methods used to get the information or why the information should be relevant in unclear? Ultimately, it’s important to look at why we don’t agree with the results.

Trust and Advocacy
When the scientific community sees something as clearly factual, when do we get involved and advocate? This is a question we tangle with as a group and as individuals. There is a lot to be said for remaining impartial and hoping that sound science and good science communication will lead to sound decisions, but communicating results and interpreting data for public consumption by translating from jargon to be understandable to someone outside of the field of study pushes scientists into the public realm. Often, as scientists, we take our training for granted when discussing scientific matters with the public, which includes individuals who may not have the same level of training. It is arguably our obligation to not only make the process transparent but to demystify the results. It is easier to trust something you understand than to place trust in unknown jargon. Further, trust in science is increased when it is heard from a source that is trustworthy. When a third party is not available to communicate science to policy makers or lay people it often falls to scientists to advocate for their findings. This is often the case when scientists work for policy makers and especially the case when they also take part in carrying out policies that are developed, to whatever degree, from their research. This is the case in Nebraska for many of the Natural Resources Districts, one of which I work for.

Blurring the line between scientist and policy maker in circumstances where scientists also take part in policy development and enforcement is worthy of acknowledgement. Just as it is important for policy makers to recognize and acknowledge when they fulfilling their role as decision-maker and when they are advocating for their constituents or for themselves, it is important for scientists to recognize and acknowledge when they are fulfilling their role as scientist and when they are advocating. It is also worthy of note that policy makers and scientists can both make bad decisions or act in their own best interest, the hope is that there are regulations on each of them such as professional guidelines or checks and balances.

Kate Tillotson earned her PhD in Environmental Science & Natural Resources Management with a focused on environmental communication and water management from Washington State University in 2015. She is currently the water resources manager for Upper Elkhorn NRD. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Upper Elkhorn NRD’s management or board.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the view of The Groundwater Foundation, its board of directors, or individual members.

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