The Ashes and Lessons for Science Advocacy

About the time I was watching Draco Malfoy stand his ground on a cricket pitch I was also looking at very different coverage. That reading was all about the failure of moves to introduce plain packaging in the UK, and the associated interest in Conservative advisers (yay, he’s an Aussie! Oops, sorry, misplaced patriotism).

Cricket often pretends to be played in some noble spirit not evident in other such pursuits. The place where the level playing field was first created. I call balderdash. From the moment WG Grace stood his ground, cricket has been the perfect example of rationalising anything you can as being “playing to the rules”.

If elite cricket teaches anything, it is that you do what you can get away with to get the result. It is only the naïve who seem to think that it is played in the spirit of “gentlemen”.

Villains everywhere can buy a "WWSBD?" bracelet for inspiration. That stands for "What Would Stuart Broad Do?" [Image from the Both Are Same blog]

Villains everywhere can buy a “WWSBD?” bracelet for inspiration. That stands for “What Would Stuart Broad Do?”
[Image from the Both Are Same blog]

The Naïve Science Advocate

There are times when it is painfully apparent that science advocacy operates under such illusions, or is forced to do so. Key to this is a couple of key features of the way scientists go about discussing ideas:

• Scientists tend to feel beholden by the need to express uncertainty.
• Scientists have open disclosure built into the way they go about things.

The result of these features is that those relying on communicating the scientific method are playing the game on a field not at all levelled by other interested public policy advocates.

The scientific exploration of an idea involves discussion of both the evidence for and against a position. So scientists discussing any topic are likely to at least mention alternate viewpoints. They also give credit to any points those of an alternate opinion make that are based in fact. Partisan commentators feel no such compulsion.

The second of these also demonstrates a stark contrast. When stumping up and publishing or quietly announcing things from the cloistered conference mountain top, scientists disclose all possible associations that could be seen to influence what they write or say. The requirements are well described by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.

It’s not quite to the point where you have to disclose that your thoughts on sugary food might have been influenced by the overly sweet cream buns forced down your throat by a particularly reviled grandmother, but it’s a fairly high bar.


Playing by Different Rules

If you work for any of the public think tanks out there throwing their opinions into the mix, there is no such requirement. Let’s take the example of the Institute of Public Affairs (and I’m not suggesting they are the only such group worldwide who you could examine in this fashion).

Within Australia, this group is certainly vocal. That’s on a range of issues, including the idea of abolishing plain packaging legislation for cigarettes (as outlined in their 75 suggestions for Tony Abbott). This piece is not about arguing the case for plain packaging (I see patients in hospitals, pretty fair guess you know what I’ll say). The advocacy around this policy is interesting though.

The IPA makes it a rule not to disclose the identities of supporters, which they argue is a response to threats made to those supporters in the past. So they feel no need to disclose the backing of British America Tobacco (amongst other cigarette manufacturers). They will happily argue loudly and vociferously with no qualification of those comments on the basis of their associations.

Such groups will argue the point without any shame whatsoever that their words might be tainted because they don’t tell us about any conflicts. They’ll stand their ground and won’t care what the video replay shows.


Getting Things On The Level

So what’s to be done? It’s untenable to abandon basic tenets of scientific integrity. Nor can you expect public advocacy groups to change how they’re doing things. They are the drinker at the pub who tips up the table while playing pool. Tried arguing with a drunk recently?

All it really means is that anyone wishing to apply their interest in science to advocate for evidence-based policy needs to speak up and speak well. Other advocates are going to keep popping up to make their case. Anyone else needs to be prepared to talk as often, as loudly and as effectively.

So do some training and get on the field. Everyone’s an expert watching from the couch. But how will you actually change the game?


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