Scientists, lawyers discuss decision-making amid uncertainty

02/05/04

Throw into the pot a thorny scientific issue, some edgy policymakers and a few journalists seeking "balanced coverage," and what do you have? A recipe for confusion and policy gridlock.

"In science, there are never two sides. There are multiple outcomes," says Stephen H. Schneider, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies.

Schneider will discuss the challenges of assessing and communicating scientific risk during a Feb. 15 symposium – "Tough Decisions: Dealing with Uncertainty in Managing Marine Fisheries" – at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle. The symposium, featuring scientists and lawyers who have participated in some of the most controversial marine and environmental policy debates, is co-organized by Josh Eagle, a lecturer at the Stanford School of Law and director of the Stanford Fisheries Policy Project, and Alison Rieser, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law.

"Our panel will focus on how to make decisions about ocean resource use in the face of significant uncertainty – for example, how many rockfish fishermen should be allowed to catch this year even though we don't know exactly how many rockfish there are," Eagle says. "We hope to show that it is possible to make good decisions in the face of uncertainty, and we will talk about how this can be done."

Policy and media

At the symposium, Eagle will discuss the ways laws can be designed to ensure that science and policy components of specific decisions are transparent.

Schneider will cull his examples from a different environmental issue, climate change, which he has researched for three decades. A major obstacle, he says, is the "completely inappropriate" model in the press for science communication. Journalists who strive for balanced coverage of science and environmental issues often present false dichotomies – "end of the world" and "good for you" viewpoints that represent the lowest probability cases. In these situations, "the media and political debates are a shrill sideshow" that steal attention from the scientific consensus, he says.

But Schneider doesn't just point his finger at the media. "Scientists invite such trouble unwittingly," he writes in a 2002 American Scientist article. "We often project the appearance of being locked in unending debate." To counteract this tendency, Schneider encourages scientists to present seminars that "stress what is indeed well established before we lapse into our sparring about fine points on the cutting edge."

Good science reporters are able to distinguish established results from dubious fringe theories, Schneider says, by examining consensus statements put out by groups such as the National Research Council and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for which he is a coordinating lead author. Part of Schneider's presentation will focus on the IPCC as a model for effective interdisciplinary scientific assessment.

Scientist-advocate

While many scientists shun opportunities to popularize their research, insisting they will remain neutral, Schneider offers living proof that the "scientist-advocate" is not an oxymoron. "Among the positions one can take is being an advocate of science itself," he says, "in which one argues for a rational world view and has faith that science has something constructive to contribute to decision making for the future."

Schneider first became interested in climate issues after attending a seminar on global warming while he was completing his doctorate in mechanical engineering and plasma physics at Columbia University in 1971. Two years later, as a postdoctoral fellow studying the climatic role of greenhouse gases and suspended particulate material at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Schneider was invited to give his first AAAS presentation. He opened that talk by spoofing a Mark Twain quote: "Nowadays everybody's doing something about the weather but not talking about it."

"Two days later, it was a headline in the New York Times," Schneider recalls. "My cover was blown." Since then, he has founded the interdisciplinary journal, Climatic Change; authored more than 450 scientific papers, proceedings, legislative testimonies and book chapters; and appeared in a variety of print and broadcast media worldwide.

Also speaking at the Feb. 15 fisheries management symposium will be Ellen Pikitch of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Tim Gerrodette of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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