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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why experts should resist the pressure to make simplistic their advise

“Expert advice is often thought most useful to policy when it is presented as a single 'definitive' interpretation. Even when experts acknowledge uncertainty, they tend to do so in ways that reduce unknowns to measurable 'risk'. In this way, policy-makers are encouraged to pursue (and claim) 'science-based' decisions”. Writes Andy Stirling in an article published in Nature 468, 1029-1031 (December 2010)

Stirling believes that this practice is misguided and that an overly narrow focus on risk is an inadequate response to incomplete knowledge. According to Stirling, a single definitive interpretation leaves science advice vulnerable to the social dynamics of groups and to manipulation by political pressures seeking legitimacy, justification and blame management.

In Stirling’s view, the challenge or question is how to move away from this narrow focus on risk to broader and deeper understandings of incomplete knowledge. Although practical quantitative and qualitative methods already exist, political pressure and expert practice often prevent them being used to their full potential.

Andy Stirling concludes that a move towards plural and conditional expert advice is not a panacea. However, Stirling recognizes the limitations of plural and conditional expert advise and notes that it cannot promise escape from the deep intractabilities of uncertainty, the perils of group dynamics or the perturbing effects of power. But he is convinced that plural and conditional advise differs from prevailing approaches in that it makes these influences more rigorously explicit and democratically accountable.

See full Nature 468, 1029-1031 (December 2010).

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