The False Promise of the Scientist ex Machina

In a scene in the movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen is waiting in line to enter a movie and becomes disgusted with a guy near him in the line who is blathering about media expert Marshall McLuhan. Woody finally turns to the guy and tells him that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The guy responds that he must be right because he teaches a course about TV, media, and culture at Columbia University. Woody then walks over behind a large marketing placard and emerges with Marshall McLuhan, who proceeds to tell the pompous professor, “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work…. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” Woody turns to the camera and says, “Boy, if life were only like this.”

To a certain extent, editing Issues in Science and Technology is just like that. I listen to public discussions about public policy that involves science, technology, or health, figure out what expertise would be relevant, and then convince the best expert I can find to write about the topic in Issues. I might not enjoy Woody’s instant gratification, but the general feeling of satisfaction is the same.

I was able to perform a version of this trick at a recent Gordon Research Conference on science and technology policy. (By the way, the Gordon Conference provides an outstanding opportunity to spend several days discussing a wide range of policy concerns with an extremely knowledgeable group of colleagues. The next one is scheduled for August 2008 in Big Sky, Montana.) The group was discussing the most effective ways for the S&T community to participate in public policy debates, and I remembered that Issues had published a piece on this topic by Daniel Yankelovich, the distinguished pollster and political analyst.

I found the article online and immediately developed that Woody Allen feeling. I was one smart—or lucky—editor to have found the perfect person to address the topic. Yankelovich had written about the unwritten contract between scientists and society in the lead article of the very first edition of Issues in 1985. I asked him to revisit the subject for our 20th anniversary edition and to write about what had changed. When we published “Winning Greater Influence for Science,” ( I knew it was good. In rereading it, I realized how good.

In his first article Yankelovich found value in science’s ability to achieve significant autonomy in its ability to set the basic research agenda. Twenty years later, he worried about the downside of this autonomy: a worrisome gap between science and public life. The practical result is that “scientists are highly respected but not nearly as influential as they should be. In the arena of public policy, their voices are mostly marginalized.” He sees this as a serious problem for a society that needs the help of experts to guide a fast-moving, technological-driven world.

The gap between science and the public is evident in their fundamentally different worldviews. The rational, orderly world of science seems alien to the irrationality and discontinuity of daily life, and the two domains differ radically in their understanding of key concepts such as theory, risk, balance, weight of evidence, certainty, timeliness, and neutrality. These differences become painfully apparent when scientists and policymakers talk past one another in debates on intelligent design, climate change, or the risks of natural disaster.

Good public policy requires effective engagement by scientists, engineers, and physicians, and Yankelovich argues convincingly that it is the responsibility of the S&T community to take the initiative. They live in the public world of policy just like everyone else, but policymakers need have no connection to the world of science. Equally important, Yankelovich maintains that the outreach from S&T must extend beyond the policy elite to the general public. Public policy can be effective only with broad support, and the public is too smart to put its fate in the hands of a few self-selected experts.

Yankelovich proposes a number of strategies for integrating science into the policy process. The critical goal is to move scientists from the role of outside specialists to that of issue framers. Their aim should not be to deliver final decisions to policymakers but to provide options. Values, politics, economics, and other factors must guide choices among the options, but it will be enormously beneficial if all the options under consideration have a rigorous scientific and technical foundation. In this way, scientific and technical expertise is brought to bear no matter which option is selected, and the experts remain part of the debate to the end. This is far preferable to a scenario in which the S&T community delivers its preferred option and then goes home. Real power and influence come with being at the table as options are discussed and decisions are made.

In addressing outreach to the general public, Yankelovich raises important reservations about the goal of scientific literacy. Creating a population of lesser scientists is not the route to good policy. Rather, we should be thinking about how to enable people to make sound public judgments that take into consideration scientific as well as numerous other factors. The public must first be made aware that certain S&Trelated concerns are actually important public policy issues, a relatively easy task. The second and much more difficult step is to imbue the public with the confidence and commitment to follow through to reach resolution. Some hand-wringing is necessary and desirable, but we have to find ways to move the public forward to action.

In the spirit of science, Yankelovich is putting his theory to the test. His organization Viewpoint Learning in La Jolla, California, manages real world experiments in public participation in policy decisions that are meant to serve as models for sound public engagement. The key to the organization’s process is the stage they call “working through,” which happens between the stage when information about an issue spreads through the public and it becomes a public concern and when decisionmakers determine a course of action. A knowledgeable public in a democratic society cannot be satisfied with this arrangement. They need to be more involved in the process if the resulting policy is to have legitimacy.

Yankelovich and his colleagues at Viewpoint Learning are exploring how people can work through the development of public consensus. The first step is to overcome the wishful thinking that holds onto to the unrealistic hope that consensus can be reached without making trade-offs or compromising on value judgments. Paricipants must be willing to interact with others and to understand their values and priorities. At this stage, more information is not the answer. This process must inevitably confront emotional and ethical questions. This is where expert-prepared scenarios can be useful. Participants need to have reliable information, but they also need to see that their values enter into the choices. The mistake that many experts make is their wishful thinking that decisions can be made without the intrusion of what they consider irrational value judgments.

As it turns out, Daniel Yankelovich is not the expert to call out of the wings to resolve a debate quickly because the core of his message is that there are no ready-made answers to difficult policy questions, no deus ex machina to resolve dilemmas. Apparently, the satisfaction of the expert-in-thewings fantasy can be achieved only on screen. Yankelovich’s solution is to resist the temptation to ask for a quick science fix and instead to have the scientists and other experts at the table with public representatives and policymakers throughout the options-framing and decisionmaking process.

But what about the fantasy of having Woody Allen—or Stephen Colbert—on call to feed me clever quips when I need them?

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “The False Promise of the Scientist ex Machina.” Issues in Science and Technology 23, no. 1 (Fall 2006).

Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Fall 2006