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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > May-June 2008 > Bookshelf Detail


Speaking Honestly to Power

Sheila Jasanoff

The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Roger A. Pielke, Jr. x + 188 pp. Cambridge University Press, 2007. Paper, $29.99.

Consider these recent events in U.S. politics: Chris Mooney's 2005 book charging the Republican Party with declaring war on science becomes a surprise bestseller. The staid Union of Concerned Scientists launches a public campaign to protect the integrity of science in federal policy making. U.S. researchers working at one of the most exciting frontiers of biomedicine—human embryonic stem cells—feel politically embattled and despair of receiving federal support. The White House alienates climate scientists by refusing to accept that greenhousegas emissions have reached critical levels and must be promptly controlled. Policies for science, usually uncontroversial, polarize along party lines. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton marks the 50th anniversary of Sputnik's launch with a vigorous pledge of renewed commitment to scientific discovery and innovation. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush's science adviser, John Marburger III, calls on social scientists to find better criteria for measuring and justifying the value of public spending on science.

From The Honest Broker.Click to Enlarge Image

To find this scene in the 21st century in a nation built on the twin pillars of faith in democracy and faith in the Enlightenment is nothing less than astonishing. Rarely in American history have the normally cooperative relations between the scientific community and the nation's political leaders seemed so adversarial. Many are asking what went wrong and what can be done to bring political action back into closer alignment with science, evidence and reason.

Roger A. Pielke, Jr., addresses one aspect of this important question in The Honest Broker, his recent book on science advice. Pielke offers a blueprint for scientists to use when they are assisting in public decision making and considering how to situate themselves in policy contexts. Following his guidance, he believes, will result not only in better policies but also in healthier, more productive relations between science and politics.

Pielke has backgrounds in mathematics, public policy and political science and has long been immersed in the science and policy of climate change. He thus seems ideally equipped to cross the divide between science and politics. In The Honest Broker, he makes a valiant effort to distill a generation's work on the links between these two domains and to express conclusions in language accessible to most scientists. That the book fails in its honest and deeply felt mission is therefore all the more regrettable.

Pielke's recommendations rest on a map of the science policy world that proves too simple. Briefly, he dips into the political scientist's toolkit to represent this field as a two-by-two matrix, shown at left. On the horizontal axis are two views of science that potential policy advisers may hold: first, the linear model, which takes the position that knowledge is always a prerequisite for action and should sometimes compel policy; and second, the stakeholder model, which maintains that policy-relevant science should not be considered value-free and that user and use considerations should have a bearing on the production of knowledge for policy.

The vertical axis represents the views of democracy held by potential advisers. Here again, Pielke recognizes two positions, which he names for James Madison (the fourth U.S. president) and political scientist E. E. Schatt­schneider (1892–1971). Pielke describes the Madisonian view as interest-group pluralism, in which scientists act like any other political advocates, putting their knowledge in the service of special interests. In contrast, Schatt­schneider stands for a view that might better be characterized as guided democracy, although Pielke does not use that term. In this vision, the expert uses specialized knowledge to clarify policy choices and to inform decision makers of the range of options open to them.

Using his two-by-two matrix, Pielke differentiates four theoretically possible advisory roles: pure scientist, issue advocate, science arbiter and honest broker of policy alternatives. To give readers a sense of what these roles entail, he invites them to imagine that they have a visitor from out of town who seeks advice on where to dine. In the role of pure scientist, Pielke says, the local adviser might simply give the visitor information about the characteristics of a healthy diet; as a science arbiter, the adviser would act as a concierge, ready to answer any questions the visitor might have; as an issue advocate, the adviser might try to direct the visitor to a particular favorite restaurant; and as an honest broker, the adviser would provide information on all restaurants, thus expanding the visitor's scope of choice.

As the book's title indicates, the role of honest broker is the one dearest to Pielke's heart. He believes that scientists have an obligation to behave as honest brokers much more frequently than they currently do; all too often, he complains, they operate instead as issue advocates, propelled by their beliefs in the linear model and in interest-group pluralism. Pielke's greatest scorn is reserved for those scientist-experts who take politically interested advocacy positions without admitting to themselves or others that this is what they are doing. Borrowing a metaphor from weapons manufacture, he calls these dishonest experts "stealth issue advocates."

Pielke's pedagogical energy and his criticisms are directed primarily toward working scientists. Accordingly, he notes that he dismissed the comments of a reviewer who read an early draft of his book and complained that his account of the linear model was well-known to scholars in science and technology studies (STS). Pielke acknowledges that that field has contributed many insights into the nature and workings of science and technology and their relations to policy. He claims, however, that such STS knowledge "has yet to be fully appreciated among practicing scientists who continue to wage political battles under the logic of the linear model."

In The Honest Broker he therefore sets out to translate the findings of science and technology studies for a largely ignorant scientific community and to tell scientists how they should behave once they take this new knowledge on board. Unfortunately, the book falls short in its translation efforts. Errors in the representation of STS scholarship, in turn, limit the force of Pielke's recommendations.

Much of Pielke's critique hinges on his impatience with the linear model of science policy, which he believes is empirically false and politically risky. On the empirical side, he cites many propositions documented by STS researchers that contradict the assumption of linearity: More knowledge does not necessarily end conflicts but instead increases uncertainty; robust agreements about how to resolve value conflicts can be reached without the benefit of new science; and, far from keeping politics out of science, acting in accordance with the linear model can have the paradoxical effect of politicizing science.

To hammer home these propositions, Pielke invites readers to do a thought experiment distinguishing between "Tornado Politics" and "Abortion Politics." First they are to imagine that they are in an auditorium with 50 other people when someone exclaims that a tornado is fast approaching and the group must decide whether to take refuge in the basement. Next readers are asked to imagine that they are with the same group in the same auditorium faced with the question of whether or not to permit abortion to be practiced in their community. Each issue confronts people with the political question, "What should we do?" But only tornado politics, Pielke argues, demands a systematic search for new knowledge (that is, science) to answer such questions as when, where, how soon and with how much force the tornado will strike. By contrast, no amount of new knowledge could lead the proponents and opponents of abortion to agree on what to do.

Trouble sets in for both science and policy, Pielke asserts, when scientists treat abortion politics as if it were tornado politics. This move invites people to smuggle their political preferences into the scientific debate, precludes consensus and politicizes science. Pielke also believes that the linear model of tornado politics inappropriately narrows the range of policy choices when the honest broker should be seeking instead to widen it.

There are two major difficulties with this analysis. First and most important, scholarship in the field of science and technology studies has shown that the dividing line between forms of political engagement is not fixed in advance but continually shifts in the process of knowledge making. Many choices that were once regarded as matters of lifestyle or values alone ("abortion politics") have been converted into choices that are now constrained by things we know ("tornado politics"). Thus it is no longer appropriate to discriminate against people simply because their skin color is different; today, mainstream biology tells us that such surface appearances do not correlate with significant differences in ability or behavior and hence do not justify racial discrimination in matters of public policy. Similarly, because of new knowledge concerning climate change, carbon-consuming behaviors that were once tolerated are increasingly perceived as undesirable, or even punishable, conduct. Technology, too, may shift political categories. Recent developments in cell reprogramming may defuse the controversy around stem cells by substituting a morally neutral technique for one that was previously contested.

A second, and related, point is that science does not always serve the public interest best by widening the scope of policy choice. Particularly in cases of sharp and intransigent value conflicts—such as those over abortion, stemcell research and the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools—scientific advances may better serve society by narrowing the range of options. In Britain, for example, the 1984 Warnock Commission report on embryo research is thought to have served both science and the public by creating a politically acceptable bioethical boundary around the 14-day-old embryo: Before the embryo reaches that cut-off age, researchers may conduct state-regulated experiments; afterward, research is impermissible. Put differently, efforts by experts to produce a negotiated, knowledge-based consensus that compels particular policy choices can depoliticize paralyzing value conflicts—and this can be altogether a good thing for science and society.

Against this, Pielke cites the example of climate scientists, who in his view unjustifiably narrowed the debate on policy alternatives by too enthusiastically embracing the Kyoto Protocol. Knowledge about climate change could have supported a far wider set of policies, he argues. There were, however, good political reasons for supporting the Kyoto Protocol at the moment when it was negotiated.Students of international regimes know that treaties are only a formal starting point for international cooperation. Like any good legal framework, a treaty acquires a life of its own. It helps keep parties at the bargaining table to carry on a discussion that may, over time, bring about significant changes in the treaty's original framing assumptions and prescriptions. Support for Kyoto, accordingly, could legitimately have been seen as support for ongoing multilateral conversation—which many people would have regarded as preferable to a situation in which the world's leading climate player, the United States, simply opted out of international deliberations.

A deeper confusion in the book stems from Pielke's imperfect understanding of what is wrong with the linear model of science policy. Scholars in science and technology studies have not claimed that science should never constrain or compel policy; nor have they said that there is something intrinsically wrong with doing science independently of concerns for its use in policy. Rather, they see as problematic scientists' tendency to naturalize or take for granted values and social preferences that are often embedded in the internal workings of science. As a result, many scientific priorities and methodological choices that should be open to wider debate remain insulated from critical scrutiny. A 1996 report of the National Research Council, Understanding Risk, explicitly recognized this problem when it called for an analytic-deliberative approach to decision making on risk.

Pielke takes the influential environmental scientist and policy expert John Holdren to task for his adherence to the linear model. Pielke notes that Holdren, in rebutting the views expressed by well-known climate skeptic Bjørn Lomborg in The Skeptical Environmentalist, said that "To expose this pastiche of errors and misrepresentations was not a political act but a scientific duty." For Pielke, Holdren's implication that science must be "got right" before policy comes into play is a red flag. Pielke is against such linear thinking. Yet there may be enormous virtue to the kind of dispassionate, informed inquiry into scientific facts that takes place in expert committees, even if the reasoning process necessarily involves knowledge, judgment and values—provided that the boundaries around such forums pass democratic tests of balance and fair representation. Holdren, a veteran of countless such deliberations, may well have been standing up for such balanced consensus-building, in opposition to Lomborg's more individual and idiosyncratic position-taking.

In an enlightened society, few would question that acquiring information and knowledge prior to taking action is better than acting without relevant information. To that extent, we are all subscribers to the linear model, regardless of the nature of the politics we engage in. What STS scholars have insisted on is that the very process of collecting and codifying information is value-laden and should not be insulated from democratic accountability. Nor should ambiguities in the available knowledge be concealed behind monolithic claims of scientific certainty.

Pielke is right to want more honest brokers in the policy process. But expert policy advisers would do best to function as honest brokers of scientific alternatives—disclosing the limits of their information and the extent of their uncertainty in a spirit of professional humility.


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