Shortlog - a log of everyday things



By the glow of my monitor, I work...

Drew with hands folded

Sarah writes on the role of scientists in influencing policy makers. This sparked Opinions and Thoughts™, which I felt were Too Long To Properly Fit In A Comment, so here they are in a post. At the risk of appearing to miss the forest for the trees:

I disagree with this use of the term "rationalities" when referring to how people make decisions. It carries too much of an implication of intent and consciousness. There's enough experimental record on the books to show that humans are not solely rational creatures, and I see no argument to convince me that a group of humans trying to make decisions will be any more or less self-affected than their bretheren. Perhaps a more suitable word would have been "interests" or "motivations," either of which would reflect the humanity of the policymakers. Moving on, though:

Yes, you can look at a problem in different ways, and depending on the person, you might feel that a particular aspect of a situation is more important than another. I think these are similar to the aforementioned "lenses" with a key difference: they are all bent into a different form by the people who view them. There is, in general, no objective, closed-form answer to "how would $ROLE act in this situation?" Even your scientific lens and my scientific lens may show a different picture. When it comes down to it, it's how individuals see things that actually matters. Aggregating people isn't perfect, but it does scale better than trying to understand each person.

"Politicians can be utilitarian and focus on the outcome or they can be ontological and focus on the process."

Oh, sure, politicians can be utilitarian, provided the utility function represents their personal interests. Snarky comments aside, politicians have to face tons of different interest groups on a regular basis. They're doing their best to satisfy whoever will get them good press and reelection - it's "rational" for them to do so. How can they get reelected? Right now, it's done through extensive (and expensive) advertising, which gets funded primarily by donations from industry groups that are looking to buy policies favorable to them. Systematically, we get precisely the legislation industries want to buy.

Except that again, there's that unpredictable human element, and the fact that industries are run by people. So we wind up getting the legislation that industry leaders want, because it serves their self-interest.

"As scientists, we need to create a demand for evidence and play off of the policy-makers' need for legitimacy to advance our own research." Wow, Sarah, I didn't know you could actually say something that manipulative and evil. Spot on, though - as scientists who want to influence politics, we have to play their game. Industry gets this, and flexes as much power as they can. Structurally, academia doesn't reward sociopaths the way industry does. Time to step up our manipulation...

"(As evidence providers, we cannot be our own advocates but must remain unbiased.)"

...well, that ruins that idea. The fact that we lose credibilty if we try to be remotely prescriptive puts us at a distinct disadvantage when competing with industry for influence. We have to go at the problem indirectly, but industry doesn't. So industry wins, unless we beat them at their own game, by convincing policymakers of the following:

  1. That we can get enough of the public to understand the topic, or at least well enough to recognize
  2. that they are acting in opposition of what their now-educated electorate would want them to do, and
  3. that said electorate care enough about this topic to influence their voting decisions as a result.

We can only really directly affect point 1. Point 2's truth value is the indirect change that we'd like to effect (+1 word reuse). It's interesting to note that we have little to no influence over point 3, and that in fact, point 3 can't hold if the two-party system doesn't disagree on the issue. The system is not designed to allow us influence.

So, after a bit of deciphering, I think we've divined the key point - that we scientists need to present the knowledge we create in ways suitable for consumption by our particular audience. An audience of policy makers is much different from that of scientific researchers. I think this is in no way different from what one should learn from any technical writing class. As has always been the case with rhetoric, the burden lies on the speaker (or writer) to create a compelling and convincing fact-based argument.

tl;dr Know your audience, and manipulate them by playing off their motives, 'cause industry sure will.

Arg, this all sounds incoherant. That's what I get for trying to write critiques at 4am.