Crossing swords over science

Kendo practice / gratapictures / Flickr (cc-by-nc)

By Nathan Oxley, STEPS Centre

Why do words matter in the politics of science? The topic of language kept coming back again and again at the STEPS Symposium on evidence, uncertainty and science advice. It isn’t about arguing over semantics: words are bound up in how we think, negotiate and debate possible ways to address problems like climate change, biodiversity loss and food insecurity.

They know about this in Germany. As Jan Marco Müller (European Commission) told us, the word “Alternativlos” (an adjective indicating that no alternative exists to a given course of action) was named “Unwort des Jahres” – least favourite word of the year – in 2011. That’s understandable. It’s a word designed to stifle argument, to be slipped in to policy discussions (including those involving science) to close down alternative views.

It’s tempting to view words as a neutral tool to describe reality: but there are signs that the language we use can have real and lasting impacts on how people behave and make decisions. Even words like ‘evidence’ and ‘risk’ can mean different things to different people.

One way to combat the tendency to close down debate might be to create spaces where more voices can be included. Even in these spaces, though, debate can be narrowed. In a recent blog post for UEA’s 3S programme, Maud Borie analyses the mechanism of “opening the floor” at sessions of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It’s a fascinating insight into the physical, visual aspect of consensus-making. As participants take turns to speak, the microphone becomes a highly symbolic part of a “ritualised process” (Borie’s words). In another blog post, she shows how a Microsoft Word document is displayed on a big screen and edited to create a consensus. In the quest for a common goal, differences of opinion are gradually and effectively deleted.

What do we want? Respectful
Discourse. When do we want it?
/ cactusbones /
Flickr (cc-by-nc-sa)

This doesn’t mean we should trash the IPBES, and other big scientific assessments like it. Without doubt, there is a genuine desire to include a diversity of voices. Prof Sir Robert Watson, talking at the Symposium about Future Earth, outlined an admirably broad vision of working at multiple scales with many voices represented. The challenge is how to reflect many views in the outcomes of the process, though the intention to include, listen and learn from many sources is clear.

But it’s almost inevitable that codified, ritualised forms of engagement emerge in such super-large, organised, multi-stakeholder processes. After all, they also emerge at much smaller scales: for example, hand signal systems for debates used by protest movements can risk leading to dominant voices and “groupthink” taking over, despite their non-hierarchical aims (“silence–and/or the absence of any form of jazz hands–is generally viewed as a sign of agreement”). Nevertheless, these codified and formalised methods are often the best thing to hand when a decision has to be made.

What does this mean for science and decision-making? If anything, it should make us approach inclusive and deliberative processes with a questioning mind. Are they really what they first seem?

In his closing lecture to the Symposium, Prof Alan Irwin likened the ritualised nature of public engagement to the Japanese martial art Kendo. Yes, it is a ritual, he said, but it has value – it’s a way for people to interact within a framework, whatever the limitations.

An understanding of these limitations – and of the hidden power of words – could help scientists, politicians and others to negotiate more openly and with more humility.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.