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Best Scientific Advice Acknowledges Uncertainty; 'Multicriteria Mapping' Avoids Unjustified Simplicity

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 17, 2011
Updated: Thursday, February 24, 2011

The urge to oversimplify complex scientific evidence can degrade its usefulness for policy makers, a renowned science and technology expert says.

"When the intrinsically plural, conditional nature of knowledge is recognized,” Andy Stirling wrote in an essay in Nature, "I believe that science advice can become more rigorous, robust and democratically accountable.”

Stirling is a professor at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, where he conducts research and postgraduate teaching on the governance of science, technology and innovation. He has worked with numerous government, business and private organizations seeking scientific guidance for policy decisions.

One problem, he says, is a tendency to focus on risk as a response to incomplete knowledge. He quotes the twentieth century University of Chicago economist Frank Knight: "measurable uncertainty, or ‘risk' proper….is so far different from an unknown one that it is in effect not an uncertainty at all.”

Preoccupation with risk, he suggests, can divert attention from the possibility of surprise and the benefit of diverse views. For instance, he says, scientists and policy makers were late in realizing that certain hydrocarbons were interfering with the ozone layer and that unusual transmission mechanisms existed for the spread of "mad cow disease” in animal breeding and the food chain. Neither source of harm was initially identified as a risk, and early warnings in dissenting opinions were dismissed. Evidence is usually presented in aggregate form, he notes, and committees often are pressured to reach a consensus—even where there may not be one. Unforeseen possibilities abound, he says, even in such seemingly straight forward matters as consumer product safety and airline safety.

"There is a need for humility about science based decisions,” he asserts.

Stirling says pluralistic, conditional approaches to scientific evidence are less susceptible to political manipulation than single definition representations. He describes his own involvement in 2003 UK science review of genetically modified crops. "Reporting included explicit discussion of uncertainties, gaps in knowledge and dissenting views, and was described as ‘neither a red light nor a greed light' for GM technology, ” he writes. "A benefit of this more open approach is that it helped GM proponents and critics work more effectively together during committee deliberations, without a high stakes ‘winner take all' dynamic.”

Stirling developed multicriteria mapping as one way of being plural and conditional, participatory and deliberative, when considering science and policy options. He says other useful methods include interactive modeling and scenario workshops. Read the essay here.

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