Science interpretation for dummies – from lawmakers to journalists

That science is under siege has become a truism. Every conversation I have with a scientist, almost every public issue debate, every story I do about global crises, touches on censorship, religious and ideological beliefs, and a lack of education.

Three scientists aim to address that in a new commentary published in Nature. “There are serious problems in the application of science to policy,” note the authors, but the usual solutions  proposed, to increase political involvement by scientists, or give more scientific advisers more power, are unrealistic. Worse, they say, those fixes ignore what they call the core problem: scientific ignorance among lawmakers.

William J. Sutherland, David Spiegelhalter and Mark A. Burgman offer a sort of crash course in skills to needed to grasp “the imperfect nature of science.” It has 20 tips with examples in “interpretive scientific skills” aimed at public servants, politicians, policy advisers and journalists, to help parse evidence and avoid influence by vested interests.

“The harder part — the social acceptability of different policies — remains in the hands of politicians and the broader political process,” they note.

Their points include:

  • Differences and chance cause variation.
  • No measurement is exact.
  • Bias is rife.
  • Bigger is usually better for sample size.
  • Correlation does not imply causation.
  • Extrapolating beyond the data is risky.
  • Controls are important.
  • Randomization avoids bias.
  • Scientists are human.
  • Data can be dredged or cherry picked.
  • Extreme measurements may mislead.
  • Feelings influence risk perception.

Cliched? Sure, perhaps. But still useful, even as reminders.