Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Positive and Normative Statements - Finally, we focus on the challenge in scientific communication.

Mike the Mad Biologist makes a very salient point about the use of language. In his further musings on Unscientific America, he notes that (if I get this right) he's willing to make positive statements about things like diabetic conditions, or climate change, or any other host of topics which are within his professional purview as a scientist. In short, he is perfectly willing to talk about and defend what is.

Where he feels shaky, semantically speaking, is in making normative statements - those statements as to what should be. And his conclusion is, to the extent that he makes normative statements, he should make them from his perspective as a human, and not place the mantle of scientist on his shoulders when he does.

Here's my problem with this - policy makers can more easily dismiss a scientist making positive statements then they can a scientist making normative statements. We've had this problem in ocean commercial fisheries management for decades, and its one reason that Atlantic tunas may well be fished to extinction in my life time. See, fisheries scientists, like most scientists, are trained in the precise reporting of their findings as positive statements. And, given a range of policy options, they can make positive statements (based on statistical analyses) about the probability of an outcome.

All of which is fine - but policy makers, natural resource managers, and politicians don't want probability. They want certainty, and so when faced with a scientists making probability-based positive statements (which are generally anything but certain) and an industry lobbyist making normative statements (which sound really certain even if they have no facts behind them), the normative statement is chosen. We're seeing this play out now in the health care debate.

What Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshecnbaum are trying to do then, is shake the scientific community out of its positive narrative, and start getting us to launch into some normative narrative. They posit, as I have read UA that if scientists don't make this move, we'll get left in the proverbial dust at precisely the moment our expertise is most needed by our society and economy. Seems to me its a fair request, and one scientists should jump to fulfill.

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