John Thomas, Jr.’s comment here:
“My point is that science is a large assemblage of parts, and it takes a supple mind to put those parts in order to have a comprehensive result. An artist, if you will. Big Picture person. Visionary. Those people exist and I have seen their work all my life in many aspects of our natural resource economy.”
reminded me of this Commentary I wrote for the Journal of Forestry in 2002 linked here.
I wrote it as the Chair of the Forest Science and Technology Board at the Society of American Foresters. More recently, I was the Chair of the Committee on Forest Policy. Does that give me credibility to talk about these things? I must admit it was sometimes frustrating to be involved in discussions of the 2012 planning rule, given that some external groups treated Science and Scientists more like sacred objects and high priests. Despite the existence of the science of science and technology studies that says that that isn’t an appropriate way to deal with policy. I was always mystified (including during the 2001 Planning Rule, in that case by internal folks) by people who say their science should rule policy, but not other fields of science ;). Anyway, below is the test of the Commentary.
When we use the term “science-based,” I think we really mean that we would like decisions to be informed by the most-current, highest-quality scientific information. Using the term “science-based” can be misleading, as it implies that “science” is the foundation for the decision; in fact, people choose practices that best meet their values. Scientific
and other types of information should inform the decisionmaker of the effects of different choices.
To me, making good resource management policy is both an art and a science. For policymakers or decisionmakers, it’s a little like making lentil soup. They have tasty bits—the research articles, legal expertise, indigenous and practitioner knowledge, and monitoring information. They want each bit to
be of sufficient quality, so they ask us scientists or other experts (the lentil and sausage specialists) for our advice.
The process of turning informational ingredients into policy soup has well-developed sciences to support it— the decision sciences. Researchers in these fields examine the processes for
making decisions and how information can best be used in those decisions in a variety of contexts. Without quality decision science information and quality policy practitioners, taking information from all the disciplines can result in a tasteless jumble rather than a mouthwatering delight.
Potentially even more dangerous is putting the lentil and sausage specialists to work in the kitchen. Since we scientists and other specialists tend to love our particular bit, we tend to overestimate the importance of that bit to the soup, and have an inherent conflict of interest in the soup’s development.
I agree with my colleague Bob Lee at University of Washington that the beauty and attraction of science is that it “gives us rules that protect us from the all-too-human tendency to fool
ourselves, either individually or collectively.”
But because all policy issues cross disciplines, the only truly “scientific” claim for the policy product is that of the decision sciences. I believe that in addition to quality ingredients, our best bet for a nutritious and delicious
policy soup is civil public debate of competing knowledge claims, improving our decision science capacity, and a structured way to learn from our policy practitioners who dependably deliver quality products.