Twenty top tips for interpreting scientific claims

Aiming to improve policy-makers’ understanding of the imperfect nature of science, academics from the Universities of Cambridge and Melbourne have created a list of concepts that they believe should be part of the education of civil servants, politicians, policy advisers and journalists

Science is not just a body of facts - it’s important to have a grasp of the process by which conclusions are drawn, and the possible pitfalls on that path
Professor David Spiegelhalter

Scientists from the UK and Australia, concerned with the lack of scientific knowledge amongst key decision makers, have created 20 concepts to help those who interact regularly with science and scientists.

Recent issues such as nuclear power, bee declines, and the role of badgers in bovine tuberculosis have seen fierce debates and policy decisions being made without the support of the scientific community, something Professors William Sutherland, David Spiegelhalter and Mark Burgman have set out to change.

These scientists want to help people grasp the "imperfect nature of science" and enable policy-makers to interrogate their advisers and experts instead of simply accepting information as it is given. Though change will take time, it is their belief that "a wider understanding of these 20 concepts by society would be a marked step forward", and could only lead to a better-informed future.

Professor Spiegelhalter said "These tips could be used as a checklist when confronted with scientific claims.  Science is not just a body of facts - it’s important to have a grasp of the process by which conclusions are drawn, and the possible pitfalls on that path"

There is an obvious need to make sure that scientific policy is based on a sound understanding of science; this means making sure that policy-makers know the right things to ask, and how to interpret the answers they get. There have been many suggestions of how to increase the level of scientific knowledge in the political community, from encouraging more scientists to become politicians, to expanding the role of chief scientific advisors. However, none of these solutions fully address the fundamental issue of widespread "scientific ignorance" amongst those who have the ability to vote in parliament.

The homogeneity of policy makers’ backgrounds shows just how far-reaching this problem is. No member of the current British cabinet has a scientific degree - the closest is Vince Cable, who initially read Natural Sciences at Cambridge before switching to Economics. Six cabinet members read Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford, including Ed Davey MP, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change. Of Britain’s 650 members of parliament, only Cambridgeshire MP Julian Huppert is a scientist; David Willets MP, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, read PPE.

This list of concepts will teach skills closely related to those that politicians already have, and will help people "understand the quality, limitations and biases of evidence". This will, in turn, allow better interrogation of those communicating scientific information. By explaining the scientific process, these academics have helped to demystify science and make it accessible to those creating the country’s scientific policy. It is not a question of turning every policy-maker into a scientist, but of arming them with the tools to understand and question the scientific information they receive.

Some of the concepts seem common sense ("Scientists are human"), others less so ("Regression to the mean can mislead", "Beware the base rate fallacy").  All contain practical advice and recommendations that, if followed, should help policy-makers better interact with science and scientists and understand the limitations of evidence. Though the authors acknowledge that improvements in policy will not happen instantaneously, and that uncertainty is inherent in the scientific method, they nonetheless feel that these concepts are the first step to take if we are to more closely integrate science into political decision-making.

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