New Guides for Interpreting scientific claims and understanding policy making

One of the greatest issues that scientists face during uncertain financial times and in advancing scientific understanding is determining how best to craft a message surrounding our work.  Recently, Nature published a list of Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Claims.  Among the topics addressed are understanding the influence of chance and cause in variation, the understanding that correlation does not imply causation, and that feelings influence risk perception.

This list was published as guidance for policymakers to determine how best to interpret scientific claims, but as someone who has worked in laboratory screening and basic research for 15 years, these are also excellent reminders for guiding consumption of science and discovery of subjects outside of my area of expertise!

In response, Chris Tyler from The Guardian published a list of 20 things scientists should know about policy making.  While this is specific for the UK and Parliament, the lessons here can be extrapolated to the US Congress.  Among things scientists need to consider is the understanding that policy making is hard.  I have done some work with policy-makers at the local level, and lobbying at the state and national level so I understand the push and pull of different views on a topic.  It’s important to remember that not everyone will be happy with the outcome of a particular piece of legislation – and sometimes those people are the scientists who fight so hard to get legislation passed.  For better or worse, public opinion does matter – a directive that tells us, as scientists, that we need to do better with making science approachable for everyone regardless of age and educational level.   And at the very end of the day, politics and legislation boils down to money.  If you can make a strong argument for how your policy initiative is not going to be a waste of time, and even better will be budget neutral, you’re sure to win hearts and minds.

These days it seems misunderstanding of science is not just restricted to policy makers, but is popping up all around us.  This is made worse by groups using information to mislead the public, so I view these lists as excellent additions for anyone thinking about scientific discovery and how to make reasonable decisions about how to interpret scientific claims, and an excellent reminder of how policy making works.

Do you agree?  What do you think is missing from these lists?

By: Corey Snelson


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