Policy: Twenty Tips For Interpreting Scientific Claims

scientist1Science has a profound effect on many areas of policy, including (but not limited to) energy, health, environment, and education. How do you get a closer integration of science in political decision making?

Get scientists more involved in politics? Doubtful, considering the workload that scientists are already under. It also doesn’t deal with the core problem of scientific ignorance among many who vote in parliaments.

Teach science to politicians? Like above, which politicians would have the time? It is also rare for a particular study to completely tackle the exact policy issue.

Nature has a possible solution. “In this context, we suggest that the immediate priority is to improve policy-makers’ understanding of the imperfect nature of science. The essential skills are to be able to intelligently interrogate experts and advisers, and to understand the quality, limitations and biases of evidence. We term these interpretive scientific skills. These skills are more accessible than those required to understand the fundamental science itself, and can form part of the broad skill set of most politicians.” (Nature)

They suggest 20 key concepts that politicians, and those dealing with scientists, should learn. These are:

  1. Differences and chance cause variation
  2. No measurement is exact
  3. Bias is rife
  4. Bigger is usually better for sample size
  5. Correlation does not imply causation
  6. Regression to the mean can mislead
  7. Extrapolating beyond the data is risky
  8. Beware the base-rate fallacy
  9. Controls are important
  10. Randomisation avoids bias
  11. Seek replication, not pseudoreplication
  12. Scientists are human
  13. Significance is significant
  14. Separate no effect from non-significance
  15. Effect size matters
  16. Study relevance limits generalisation
  17. Feelings influence risk perception
  18. Dependencies change the risk
  19. Data can be dredged or cherry picked
  20.  Extreme measurements may mislead

What do you think of the list? Is it fair to ask policy-makers to learn this? Anything else you would add to the list? Onwards!

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