Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

Scientists as informers of public policy

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I have just come out of the EGU session on geoethics and jotted down a couple of thoughts in my notepad. One of the speakers told us about placements their organisation (Geology for Global Development) coordinates help scientists learn about social and ethical issues and how they relate to their research.

He specifically mentioned teaching of participatory decision-making.

I feel that the concept of participatory decision-making is tricky for scientists. Science, as a method of inquiry, is based on the idea that there is a single result, a clear truth to be uncovered.

So then, scientists might have a natural tendency to think that experts would always make the best decisions, and that these decisions can be improved by increasing knowledge.

In the reality of public policy, on scales from family units to nations to the global community, there is no objective best policy. The consequences of each policy are dependent on the set of values and.opinions through which it is viewed. Essentially, people make things complicated. The natural world can be shown to behave according to certain laws. Approaches using game theory attempt to do the same with humans, but it is clear that social and cultural differences among humans affect their decision-making preferences. Essentially, as a wealthy white male living in the UK I am not in a position to define how the life of a woman in a drought-afflicted African country would be best improved.

In reality there is no ‘best’ policy, only consequences affecting different people in different ways. We need to map out these consequences (making use of scientific information, of course) to make an informed decision in a democratic fashion. This is why we need participatory decision-making.

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Author: Angus Ferraro

I work at the University of Exeter, studying the physical processes behind climate change feedbacks.

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