Who is "The Science"? What does "The Science" do in its spare time? Why do we ask "The Science" so many questions? I don’t know. I have never actually met “The Science” and as far as I know there actually is no entity known as “The Science” to whom I might address a question (or a thank you note, or even send a chain letter, etc.).
Yet I have often found myself in situations where members of the public or land management agencies refer to what “The Science” says as we ask questions about how natural resources should be managed. But how natural resources should be managed is a complex question and not one I’ve ever actually seen addressed in a scientific paper. And if we (scientists) can’t answer this question, does that mean that we have no role to play in the development of public policy? I think the answer to that is no, but we need to begin thinking differently about the role we want scientist to play in societal decision-making.
Scientists don’t deal in answers…
Because that’s not actually how science works. Science is a social endeavor conducted by humans capable of making mistakes. At some point, we develop a deep enough understanding of a system and some consensus on how it works to make predictions about how some future action might affect that system. Those predictions are still subject to uncertainty (usually quite a bit of uncertainty). Yet, many of us are trained as graduate students to scrub this uncertainty from our efforts to communicate science to the public. Science communication becomes self-promotion and we become “answer champions” in debates about the “best available science”. “Best available science” then becomes either a) the party with the most papers supporting their position (i.e., the biggest fact pile) “wins”, or b) the party with the loudest voice (or most political leverage) with at least one paper (i.e., the loudest fact pile) supporting their position “wins”.
Scientists deal in questions…
And that’s good, because there are lots of them and they are getting more complex by the day. Asking questions about how natural resources should be managed, means recognizing that there are going to be lots of opinions about what our objectives should be and even more opinions about how we might achieve those objectives. This is a perfect place for a scientist to engage. Even if we aren’t trained in effective science communication, we are trained to evaluate the literature, identify potentially competing hypotheses, and develop rigorous experiments to test those hypotheses. We can engage in public decision-making in much the same way by working with stakeholders to refine various positions into hypotheses and develop an implementation approach that allows evaluation of those hypotheses.
Towards a “Best Available Science”
I began writing this blog post because I have found the various interpretations of “best available science” to be unsatisfying. We must move beyond comparison of fact piles and move towards a definition that actually reflects the fact that science is one method (among many) for knowing about the world not simply a series of outputs. We need a societal definition of “best available science” that applies to “most relevant or thought-provoking question asked with appropriate methods” or “innovative methods that test previously held ideas in new ways”. Such a definition would recognize that the value of science is in the quality of question and elegance used to test our understanding, not the number of facts in the pile.
 And maybe that’s okay. Ron Pulliam’s “The Political Education of a Biologist” has a great example of how the fear of the “answers” the National Biological Survey might provide led to its ultimate demise because people didn’t actually want certain questions answered. Not to say we shouldn't ask these questions, but rather to recognize that "answers" are a tenuous currency to deal in if we hope to retain a place at the table.
 See Robert Henry Peters A Critique for Ecology for a fairly strong indictment of how little we know about the mechanisms driving ecosystem functioning.
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