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We May Not Need An Electorate Of Scientists

A poll worker at a Ridgeland, Miss., precinct hands out stickers those leaving the voting booths on Aug. 4, 2015.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
A poll worker at a Ridgeland, Miss., precinct hands out stickers those leaving the voting booths on Aug. 4, 2015.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Voters and legislators are constantly confronted with decisions that would benefit from some understanding of the relevant science:

Is cap and trade a good approach to controlling greenhouse gas emissions? Evaluating the pros and cons requires some understanding of economics and environmental science. Are standardized tests a good way to measure student learning? An informed answer requires some understanding of education and human psychology.

But there's a huge gap between most people's scientific literacy and the level of scientific understanding required to do these issues justice.

Here, then, is a recipe for a more effective democracy: Everyone needs to know science. We must all be economists, environmental scientists and educational psychologists. Also physicists, chemists, biologists, nutritionists, sociologists...

Oh, I see. That isn't terribly realistic, is it?

But maybe democracy isn't doomed. Maybe we only need to know enough science to know which scientists to consult; that way, we can defer to their expertise and make informed decisions despite our own ignorance. But how much scientific knowledge is required for that?

The answer, reassuringly, may be "not much." Even elementary school-aged children are pretty good at figuring out which kinds of experts know what. And a new paper, published in the current issue of Cognitive Science: An Interdisciplinary Journal, finds that adults are quite good at matching topics to experts — even when they don't have any special scientific expertise.

The study, conducted by Rainer Bromme and Eva Thomm at the University of Münster, involved 98 undergraduates studying a variety of fields. The students were asked to read scientific texts adapted from real publications in the journals Nature and Science, and to indicate which experts (from a provided set) "might have contributed to the presented texts, and thus might be ascribed pertinent expertise." The texts involved aspects of climate change or physics (such as air streaming or X-radiation), and the provided experts included a biologist, an earth scientist, an environmental scientist, an economist, a physicist, among others.

To provide a benchmark against which to assess participants' ability to match the texts with relevant experts, the researchers used data from a large database of scientific publications (Scopus), which includes information about which papers were cited in the original texts, which journals those papers were associated with, which topics those journals covered, and so on. Using this information, the researchers constructed a measure of expert "pertinence" that established the relevance of each kind of expert for each text.

When the students' ratings were compared against this benchmark, the results were pretty good: There were strong correlations for each text. Moreover, the correlations held even though most students reported that their own knowledge of the scientific topics in the texts was minimal.

These findings should be good news for those who dream of scientifically informed decision-making in a democracy. We don't all need to be scientists, after all: We know enough to know whom to ask.

But there are some important caveats to this rosy message.

First, the participants in Bromme and Thomm's study — while professing to low levels of relevant scientific knowledge — were still university students. They likely had a pretty good scientific foundation. Moreover, undergraduates don't reflect the diversity of a heterogeneous electorate.

Second, controversial issues rarely emerge from a perfect scientific consensus. More often, each side of a debate will marshal its own experts. So from the perspective of the public, the question isn't which kind of expert is relevant (they probably both are), it's which of the two (or more) relevant experts is most likely to be right. That can often require information that isn't so readily assessed from outside the scientific community.

Third, knowing whom to consult when explicitly asked is one thing; actively deferring to scientific experts when it comes to a vote or an everyday decision is another. For starters, we don't always have access to experts. And even when we do, most real-world decisions involve complex tradeoffs: The car with the highest fuel efficiency might not be the one you can afford (or like best).

And finally, there are some contemporary issues that are so politically charged that the relevance or legitimacy of science is itself in question. For instance, some people might not consider evolutionary biologists the relevant experts for questions about human origins; they might instead consult a religious authority. And when it comes to climate change, some vocal minorities consider the whole thing a scientific conspiracy.

So we don't need an electorate of scientists (and what a relief!). But we do need individuals who can recognize when real-world decisions rest on empirical presuppositions or scientific projections — and who are willing to defer to the right experts for these pieces of the decision-making puzzle.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo