Brooks, "Expertise and Politics -- Problems and Tensions"

Address given in 1975

Role of scientists in policy-making is changing.

  • Scientists are listed to more but believed less (there’s a lot of skepticism).
  • Previously, scientists were involved in arenas like defense and technology, where there were generally agreed upon ends (e.g., national defense). Now scientists are engaged in debates of more contentious issues with redistributive impacts and value differences (e.g., cheap energy vs. clean air).

Uncertainty and Political Influence

  • “On political questions of high technical content the evidence is never all in; otherwise the subject would not be so controversial”
  • “the potential for political controversy in technical areas increases rapidly with technical uncertainty and incomplete evidence”
  • In the scientific realm, provisional evidence/conclusions can be put forward and it helps move the conversation forward (fellow scientists understand the issue isn’t resolved). In contrast, provisional claims from scientists can be used selectively by policy advocates and makers to advance agendas.
  • “The particular facts which are selected and the way they are presented to the public may have much greater political impact that the mere facts by themselves”
  • Politician wants clear-cut answers; scientists can’t always provide them.
  • Politicians (especially legislators) want an issue on which to make a name for themselves. Scientific findings provide a good pool of such issues.
  • There’s not always a scientific consensus. Ex: scientists hold different views on the relative merits of nuclear power.
  • Some scientists believe you’re more effective at getting things done by exaggerating. Brooks disagrees, writes, “I fear that the long range effect of this strategy may be to undermine the credibility of science not only in the political process, but in its own right as an institution which has earned the right to self-governance and autonomy within society.”