Credible Science in a Complex World

Photo by Department of Water Resources

The Science Enterprise Workshop, held in the fall of 2016, brought together scientists and science-policy experts from across the country to share information about how collaborative science is funded, managed, and communicated in several high-profile and complex ecosystems – the California Bay-Delta, Chesapeake Bay and Watershed, Coastal Louisiana, Great Lakes, Greater Everglades Ecosystem, and Puget Sound. At the 2-day workshop, participants heard from a wide-range of experts highlighting how different regions have developed science management mechanisms to support managers who are working on improving long-term health and viability of the nation’s high-profile ecosystems.

After listening to presentations on the six different systems, it was clear that the Delta was not the only place in the country facing complex challenges involving multiple stakeholders with conflicting objectives.  Many of the participants from other areas of the country spoke of the need to integrate social sciences (or the study of society and the relationships among individuals within a society) in with the work being done by the other scientists, and how they had found the inclusion of the social sciences beneficial.

So why do we need social scientists to be involved?  That was answered in the last panel of the second day which featured a presentation by Dr. Denise Lach, Director of School of Public Policy at Oregon State University.  In her presentation, she discussed three different models of ways to think about complex issues and the science involved.

One of the first things we try to think about is, where does credibility in science come from?” began Dr. Denise Lach. “We think about credibility, we think about salience, and we think about legitimacy. And those are three different ways of thinking about what we’re doing.”

Dr. Denise Lach

She then defined the terms: Credibility is this idea that the science that we do is accountable to other scientists, such as peer review. Salience is the idea that it’s relevant and timely. Legitimacy is the idea that we think the process that’s being used to develop the knowledge is reflective of people’s concerns.

The interesting thing in policy is those three variables: credibility, salience, and legitimacy are often contradictory to each other,” she said.  “We can do credible science, but it might not be very salient, because it’s not timely and it’s not relevant. We can do legitimate science, and it might not be credible. There’s this trade-off between these ideas when we’re working in these large systems where we have different interests. We have these ideas of credibility, salience, and legitimacy.”

Dr. Lach then addressed the idea of how people make decisions. “The psychologists have been doing research a long time on how people make decisions and what’s considered when people are making decisions,” she said. “Most of us who are scientists think that knowledge and information is really critical to decision makers. It’s really not. It is really not important for most people who are making decisions. One of the biggest variables in decision making are the constraints that people have on the actions they can take, and people are really aware of the constraints that they have to take.”

Dr. Lach does a lot of work with climate scientists, and one of the worst things that individuals can do is get on a plane and fly to a conference, but climate scientists fly all over the world over and over again. “When I ask them, ‘Why do you do that? You know it’s bad,’” she said. “They know the science. They understand it. They say, ‘I have to do it. It’s my job.’ Those are the barriers. Those are the constraints.”

When we think about the role of science and the role of knowledge in changing people’s behavior, what we have to understand is that what we’re really trying to do is help them find ways for them to change the constraints that they perceive on their behavior. “It’s not giving them information to go out and do the right thing; that doesn’t help most of us,” she said. “What we have to have is information about how do we remove the constraints on our behavior.

The other tool that anthropologists have been working on a long time is called Grid-group Cultural Theory; the idea is that all of us have these very deep belief structures in us that come from somewhere but we’re not quite sure where, because people and families have very different belief structures, Dr. Lach said. “The belief structures are based on how much you believe the group is important versus the individual. It’s also based on how much you believe that there are external controls on your life versus that you are personally responsible for your life.”

A two by two quadrant can then be created that shows that people are either connected to the group and rules or they’re connected to individuals and no rules.

Dr. Lach said that there are three active approaches to worldview. “The first is the hierarchist, and this is a person who believes that the group makes the decisions and those decisions, rules, and practices are all important. All of those things that agencies are really good at are in that hierarchical worldview,” she said. “Opposite in the quadrant are libertarians who believe that individuals are what’s important, and no one should be able to tell you what to do, and there aren’t any external constraints. The other active quadrant are egalitarians who think that decisions should be made by consensus, that we’re all good, that we’re all well-meaning, and that the group is important, and it’s really important to take everybody’s beliefs into consideration.”

The fourth quadrant are the fatalists, which is the inactive quadrant. “It’s basically, ‘I’m all by myself. Nobody cares about me. There’s no way to be connected to anything,’” she said. “Mostly fatalists don’t participate. When they do and they’re in your department, they can be really difficult to work with.”

Anthropologists have looked at this all over the world, she said. “These four worldviews out there are everywhere in the world, and every one of us has an affinity to one of these perspectives,” she said. “It’s interesting because the hierarchists and the libertarians work pretty well together; they can usually co-exist. Neither of them can co-exist with those egalitarians, because it’s all kumbayah all the time; we’re going to try to find a win-win solution every single time; libertarians and hierarchists say, ‘Man, that’s not going to happen.’”

Holling, an ecologist, took a look at this and he thought, ‘This is really interesting,’” Dr. Lach continued. “Along with the anthropologists, the ecologists said, ‘Maybe this has something to do with the way we think about nature’ and sure enough, it does.

The egalitarians, who are all about group process, also believe that the environment is very fragile and it needs to be protected from human behavior at all costs, and everything that we do is a danger to the environment, she said. “I would say there are a lot of academic scientists who have this worldview who are egalitarians and feel that nature is very fragile,” she said.  “Libertarians feel that the environment is very robust. There really isn’t anything that humans can do to upset the environment, and if it does, we’re all out of here anyway, so it doesn’t matter. Hierarchists believe that their environment can be managed and that it’s somewhat fragile, but we can put sideboards up, and we can manage it with rules and processes and procedures.”

Everyone has these different worldviews, and we all work in organizations that are pretty amenable to the worldviews that we have. “What’s interesting is that when you come together in these large basins, it’s important to realize that people are coming in with these worldviews and the way they think about organizations, the way they think about decisions, and the way they think about the environment,” Dr. Lach said. “These are very implicit biases that we all bring to the decisions and to the places that we work.  This is very robust research from the social scientists.”

We used to be able to think about really elegant solutions, engineering solutions, or solutions where we would fix something forever and it would stay that way. “We know that with complex systems, that’s not possible and it if you think about these different worldviews, you also know that’s not possible, because everybody comes with a different expectation about what a good decision looks like.”

Those that are studying these things have found that there are what they call ‘Clumsy Solutions.’  People don’t like that idea, but the idea is that you find solutions that really appeal to all three of those active worldviews,” Dr. Lach said.  “What can you give those egalitarians who think that nature is very fragile? What can you give to the hierarchists who believe that if there are rules, processes, procedures, and chains of command, that we can manage it? What do you give to the libertarians who are convinced that if I can make money off of this if you just let me alone? How do you balance those three different worldviews? I know you’ve probably had these conversations in these stakeholders’ meetings where you’re thinking, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ These things are ingrained in our heads, and we don’t even realize that we have them; it’s really easy to talk to other people who share in that worldview, and it’s almost impossible to talk with people who don’t share that same view.”

I think that that credibility, legitimacy, and salience are all important for making decisions, but knowing that they’re also in conflict as you move forward with them, as well as the idea that we have these different worldviews.”

Social science has a lot of theories and approaches out there that are pretty well researched, and they’re researched across multiple cultures and across multiple countries. “There are some ways to think about the ways that we can use this when we’re approaching some of these scientific problem solving situations that we’re finding ourselves in these giant basins,” she said.

Dr. Lach then turned to the concept of “Post-normal science.” “The idea with post-normal science is that as the stakes get high and the uncertainty gets high, normal science in the Thomas Kuhn sense of the word is really not very useful,” she said. “One of the first things that we do is we move into this idea of professional consultancy. The IPCC, for example, is a perfect example of professional consultancy where we’re bringing all these experts together. As someone said earlier, ‘this consensus by all these egalitarian scientists is a real sign that we have some agreement on the science.’ We don’t really have agreement on social science. We really don’t understand climate science yet, but we have this consensus in this professional consultancy role.

If you go even further out on scale with the uncertainty and stake issues, you get to a place where you’re looking at post-normal science,” Dr. Lach said. “In post-normal science, the real difference there is that we extend the peer group – the people who make decisions about whether or not the science is credible, legitimate, and salient – to other people, to other stakeholders.  There are a lot of different techniques for doing that. One of this is this idea of coproduction, but there are other strategies like consensus conferences and watershed councils.”

Each of them is built on one of these different worldviews on how the world works,” she continued. “They’re more or less amenable to different groups, but there are different strategies that social scientists are looking at that they’re comparing across different environmental problems. That would be another possible technique to be thinking about what that post-normal science looks like in a world that’s filled with uncertainty.”

We’ve talked a lot about uncertainty here,” Dr. Lach concluded. “Like uncertainty, there are just a lot of things that we don’t know and to be able to say that as scientists puts us in a different realm of uncertainty.”

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