Communicating Science (RJS)

There are a couple of interesting articles in the latest issue of Physics Today – a monthly magazine published by the American Institute of Physics and delivered as part of the membership dues to those belonging to member societies including the American Physical Society, The American Association of Physics Teachers, and a number of other related societies. These articles look at the issue of global warming and public perception. One impetus for these articles is the growing consensus among scientists active in the various relevant areas of investigation that global warming is real and has an anthropogenic source, and the contrast with the stagnant or increasing doubt in the general public. A recent survey published by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication – Global Warming’s Six Americas shows that while most remain concerned or cautious, 52%-55%, there is a distinct growth in skepticism (those who are dismissive) and a decrease in “true believers” (those who are alarmed).

The first article, Science controversies past and present by Steve Sherwood, compares current reactions to claims about anthropogenic climate change to past controversies including the acceptance of a heliocentric solar system and of Einstein’s theory of relativity. This article is available free from Physics Today online. Steve Sherwood runs through a number of factors and timelines and concludes:

Despite the clear historical precedents … scientists and environmentalists alike appear to have been unprepared for the antiscience backlash now under way. A first step toward better public communication of science, and the reason we need it, may lie in recognizing why the backlash happens: the frailty of human reason and supremacy of emotional concerns that we humans all share but do not always acknowledge.

These articles struck me as particularly interesting in light of a number of issues of importance today, from global warming and climate change to evolution and cancer research. In all of these areas there is evidence of something of an anti-science backlash. The science is misunderstood and distrusted. Now everyone who reads this blog knows that I am a scientist, and a professor – so perhaps you do not want to take my word for it that the science is misunderstood. That is completely understandable, even laudable. It is incumbent on the experts to communicate in a way to be understood. It is not incumbent on the  general public to simply believe what ever they are told by the high priests of science. And Sherwood notes at the end of the paragraph quoted above, speaking specifically to scientists, “tempering confidence with a dose of humility never hurts either.”

What do you think needs to be done to convince you of the accuracy of a scientific result?

How do you interpret the arguments and reach a conclusion?

The second article in the October issue of Physics Today, by Richard Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, addresses the issue of Communicating the science of climate change. This article is, unfortunately, only available with subscription (added – I think it is now available without subscription). Somerville and Hassol put a fair bit of the blame for misunderstanding on the inability of scientists, lost in their own world and pursuits, to communicate to the general public. This builds on the history described by Sherwood – but concentrates specifically on the way scientists communicate or miscommunicate. There is much I could pull out to discuss in this article. Somerville and Hassol note that scientists love to start from first principles and get lost in the detail. They often fail to emphasize the bottom line, it seems almost an afterthought. For the general public it would be better to start with the bottom line and the “So what?” and then move to the details that support the claim. There is also a tendency to throw out large concepts without providing concrete examples.

Somerville and Hassol also suggest that scientists tend to use a technical vocabulary that enhances the message for a trained audience but obscures the message for the general public. They provide a table with a series of common terms in climate research and compare the scientific and popular interpretations of these terms. I am not convinced that the terminology used is a large part of the problem, but perhaps it is.  I give a selection of the terms that Somerville and Hassol highlight in the table below.

Do the selection of examples given in the table below seem confusing? Are there others that you find confusing or misleading?

What do you think that scientists – or experts in any field – can or should do to communicate?

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  • Peter

    All good suggestions/explanations. Any consideration given to present financial difficulties that many people face? I do believe that more of our decisions are made with our bellies that we like to admit. Concern about the environment, etc. when you’re employed and paying your bills is something that you can “afford.” When you’re hungry and scared after being out of work for a long time, “Who cares?”

  • Prodigal Daughter

    From a strictly pragmatic perspective, here is my two cents. This post about scientist and communication squares with my experience as a public relations professional. I have many, many times had to get engineers and scientists to explain to me the best way they could, what their project was about so that I could write it in everyday language for the non technical/non scientific reader. The process is often painful because I have to wrap my mind around something I don’t understand in jargon I don’t understand and ask A LOT of questions so I can finally put something on paper that makes sense to the rest of us. And it’s painful for the subject matter expert because communication is very usually (there is always a rare exception) NOT their strong suit. There is often a lot of going back and forth until what I write satisfies my subject matter expert and myself. My best suggestion is that they either find someone in their field who possesses the uncommon ability to excel in their field and communicate it or hire someone to help. There needs to be an “interpreter” between scientists and the common man. Unless you can find that rare exception within the field who is an effective ambassador.

  • phil_style

    “Despite the clear historical precedents … scientists and environmentalists alike appear to have been unprepared for the antiscience backlash now under way. ”

    This is interesting, and needs further explanation. All of the climate skeptics I know (I am not one myself) sincerely think the science (the data) does not point in the direction of the accepted scientific “consensus”. The backlash is not “anti-science” (as this quote seems to think) but anti-scientific establishment. There is a difference. What is bad news for science, is that scientists cannot see the distinction, especially if all scientists think that scientists = science, which they do not.

    Scientists must also be aware that when their findings (the science) is accepted by policy makers, the science will be exposed to political debate and rhetoric – which does not follow the same rules as the academic process. Some people who are skeptical of climate science might be so because the “consensus” is associated with policy making – and often policy making that is more easily aligned with certain other positions on the political spectrum.

  • the whole subject has become too much of a political football, with dolts like Al Gore making his outlandish statements against vs. the Rush Limbaughs who refuses to see any connection between man and climate change. Pure science is what we need to hear and see. Not tainted by research dollars etc. we want the clear facts, not politically tainted or commercially tainted research. You are doing a good service in this realm. An interesting book I just read gave me a good intro to both the natural process and human generated pollution and its impact on climate. The Secret Life Of Dust, by Holmes.

    Good stuff, I have enjoyed reading your insights, logical, intelligent and seemingly untainted by political emotion. thanks

  • phil_style

    Prodigal Daughter:

    on ability to excel in their field and communicate it or hire someone to help. There needs to be an “interpreter” between scientists and the common man

    Unfortunately the mainstream media usually fills this role. People get the “information” from the newspaper. Journalists and editors often make for bad communicators simply because they don’t often understand the material. Some complex subjects simply cannot be reduced to 500 words and a catchy headline. Too many research institutes have fallen into the trap of publishing press releases too. These are already a summary, but journos then go on to summarise the summary for the newspapers…. each edit makes the message clearer, but more likely to be wrong.

    I’ve even noticed some online journal-aggregators publishing press releases (instead of journal extracts), full of “trademarks” (i.e. brandnames)and not so subtle adverts for the institutions doing the research embedded in the text.

  • TSG

    What should experts do to communicate?

    For me, losses are more important than gains(higher energy costs vs. thinking about alternatives). The quality of the evidence is not as important as common ways to think(professors and scientists have their heads in the clouds-youv’e got to bring it down to earth). Information processing involes emotion also. Images of melting glaciers doesn’t help in an area of finite worry potential. It amazes me that more scientists don’t present environmental issues as boundaries(otherwise the sceptics can slide the scales). And numbers play an important part in interpretation(350 parts per million has no meaning,but if one were 8 feet deep in CO2 you would understand).
    It’s interesting that scientists are coming to better understandings of communicating their research.

  • Rick

    They also need to distinquish it from weather forecasting. People know that their local weatherperson can often get the forecast wrong, so why would they believe in longterm “forecasts”.

    The blaming of everything on global warming also needs to stop and be handled in a more responsible fashion. People become skeptical when such claims are made at a drop of a hat.

  • TSG

    I brought up 5 points(so as to just a little more)
    (1)Loss/gain Think about the potential in the gay marriage issue. Isn’t loss more important?
    (2) Quality of evidence In the Casey Anthony trial the prosecution tried to rely on quality of evidence, but the case called for a down to earth reality that no mother parties after the loss of a child.
    (3) Information and emotion Did you see Vice President Biden try to support his case for Obama’s job bill by saying stonewalling it would lead to increase in rape and gun violoence.
    (4) Earth as having boundaries At it’s heart this shows the necessity of us stepping up and managing(being stewards) Here is where science and religion agree.
    (5) Numbers Is the U.S. debt crises a revenue or spending problem? What should experts do to communicate?

  • phil_style

    @Rick “The blaming of everything on global warming also needs to stop and be handled in a more responsible fashion”

    For this I largely hold the media responsible, who will print almost any quote from anybody who relates any old thing to “climate change”. In spite of the fact that these stories often, ( and quite rightly_ say things like “xxx may be linked to climate change” most people who read them don’t see the “may” and simply assume it means “probably is”, and after being bombarded with fifty “may be related to” stories, they just switch off.

    Pet journalism hate:
    The word “may” should be used less, and replaced with the word “might”. May is permissive, might is probabilistic.

  • Peter

    I am not a scientist and have only a layman’s grasp of the issues involved. In other words, I have to trust the scientific consensus because I have very little way of evaluating the claims and counter-claims about the evidence on my own. I know that science provides a robust and trustworthy way of understanding natural phenomena, but also I know that scientific consensus has not, historically, been infallible.

    So I sometimes wonder how I am to know that the scientific consensus on climate change theory falls into the category that Sherwood describes (like heliocentrism, a disruptive new theory that eventually will become accepted) or into another category (as, say, phrenology, in which the “scientific consensus” was eventually exposed to be a hopeless mess of cultural prejudices).

    When is a non-scientist like me supposed to know when to trust the scientific consensus and when to be suspicious of it?

  • Diane

    The list of words that mean different things to the public at large and scientists is very helpful.

    I understand, I think, the frustration scientists must feel at having to constantly defend what seem like settled matters. That being said, dismissiveness in responding only worsens the situation.

    I do look at scientific data seriously and read it through reputable sources that can explain it to me in ways sympathetic to the scientific community. My greatest concern does get back to hubris–I think many of us look at the problems well-meaning science has wrought, and it gives us pause. We learn that scientists too have blind spots and be wrong. For instance, Environmental “fixes” can worsen problems. So we hope that all groups move with caution and humility

  • T

    I think communication “enhancement” 😀 can be helpful, but I don’t think the main issue is communication per se. Lay people don’t read the journals, obviously. They get whatever bits and pieces get picked up by 3rd party media or politicians, and get those pieces retold by those sources with those slants. What’s more, the few scientists that do speak directly to the public on a larger scale tend to not have a venue or intention to speak on the hard sciences, but on social sciences, and, it seems, the loudest voices want to espouse the evils or irrationality of belief in God. This combo of media and political mediators (who spin the findings to their agendas) and direct attacks on faith by a small but vocal minority of scientists does not engender trust in the scientific community by the general public.

  • Adam

    I think it’s simpler than that.

    People hate change. Environmental science is saying we need to change how we are doing things. Well, we don’t want to. So, obviously you’re lying about the science and you really have an ulterior motive.

    I think it’s a psychological problem with humans.

  • Fish

    I’m with Adam #13. It’s the same with the gospel. As humans, we are all probably at least a little bit guilty of adapting scripture to back our existing beliefs rather than changing those beliefs, even though it is God talking and not scientists.

    Change is inconvenient and disruptive. And expensive, in the case of global warming.

  • AHH

    On this particular issue, part of the problem is that too often the scientific consensus is too closely tied to specific public policy positions. It becomes a package, where accepting the science is seen as automatically endorsing the policy prescriptions of Al Gore or whoever.

    I think it would help if more often the questions were separated. Just talk about anthropogenic global warming (which is now established beyond a resonable doubt), without also talking about a carbon tax or whatever. Get people to accept the fact without the clutter of policy questions to the extent possible.
    The presence of an important “what should we do” question that naturally follows the scientific question makes the situation different from, say, the acceptance of relativity or heliocentrism or even evolution. So I think parallels to those issues don’t necessarily work.

    Now, I personally believe that significant societal changes are needed in order to reduce the suffering that will be caused by climate change. But let’s let people get there in a 2-step process (recognize the problem, then consider appropriate response) rather than in one big leap.

  • AJ

    I can only speak from my personal experience with two skeptics I know well and others from a distance. The biggest issue I’ve seen is that some people begin with the creation/evolution issue. They feel they cannot be a responsible Christian and believe in evolution, so scientists categorized by whether they are liberal (old earth) or traditionally Christian (young earth). Young earth scientits can be trusted, old earth scientists are thrown into the “world” category and are not to be trusted.

    Then when it comes to climate change, there is an assumption that the “liberal media” is propogating a liberal environmental agenda. Of course, this is about politics but I’ve definitely seen these folks directly connect conservative politics with evangelical Christianity so they feel as emotionally responsive to political liberalism as they do anything that disagrees with their take on evangelicalism. So generally all ‘liberals’ are categorized as anti-Christian, anti-family values and such. Then when Al Gore makes a big deal about climate change, the entire issue is regarded as a hoax in order to further the liberal political agenda. Thus, the dismissive response.

    For these folks, the defensive walls have to come down before they even consider evolution or climate change. We have to start with gateway issues that directly effect them and begin with the bible. So teaching about stewardship and connecting that with something like the community landfill problem or immediate (not future) water quality/availability is the only way to get them to do even consider anything bigger.

    I also think it helps that there are more and more ‘evangelicals’ who are willing to stand both for Christ and science. Previously the lines in the sand made some of us feel that we had to choose between the two. As more of us reject that notion, we’ll have a growing witness to the “world” as well as to Christians.

  • JHM

    I think AHH (#15) makes a very important point. I am both a scientist and fairly conservative politically. I think my fellow conservatives would have much less issue with global warming, conservation, etc. if they weren’t so tied to policy, and in particular to the Democratic party.

    I don’t know exactly how you can pull the two (the problem and the particular solution/policy) apart but it really needs to be done. One of the things that I think might help would be to encourage politically and theologically conservative folks to become scientists.

    I’ve read that only 6% of scientists identify themselves as Republicans, as opposed to 55% who identify as Democrats. You can see why people would be skeptical that scientists are biased. It makes it worse when you don’t have a good way to judge the actual science. You have to trust the person rather than the science. In a politically polarized society, if there are 10 times more Democrat scientists as Republican scientists, people are going to be skeptical.

  • JHM

    Adding to the political discrepancy, there is also the popular idea that scientists are all rabidly anti-religion atheists and so not to be trusted.

    I think if people were able to see that there are scientists who are not so politically, religiously, or sociologically different from themselves, the level of trust in the output of scientific study would be more accepted.

  • Adam

    JHM, your statistics about scientists as Republicans or Democrats strikes me as funny and telling of our society.

    One implication is that Republicans can’t trust the scientists because they’re “all” Democrats.

    The second implication is that scientists can’t trust Republicans because “none of them” are scientists.

    Truly a dilemma.

  • AHH

    JHM makes a couple of good points above, including:
    I’ve read that only 6% of scientists identify themselves as Republicans, as opposed to 55% who identify as Democrats. You can see why people would be skeptical that scientists are biased.
    It might be interesting to see a study of cause and effect there. I am a scientist. In grad school, I was registered as a Republican. Now, 25 years later, I am registered as a Democrat. While I will not pretend it is the most important factor (growing concern for economic justice was more important), the strong anti-science bent (and anti-stewardship of creation bent) of the Republican party in recent years played a role in that.

    So if the culture of one party tends to drive scientists away (much like conservative Christian culture tends to drive scientists away), you end up with a self-perpetuating problem in terms of scientists being identified with the “other” side.

    #18 hits a big point, the idea that it would help people to see that scientists are not a bunch of atheists, and in fact many of us are orthodox Evangelical Christians. We need churches to be places where the scientists in our congregations are not alienated from the life of the church. There’s a new program trying to help on that front:

  • JHM


    You’re right on. So I think it will take people from both sides, willing to hear each other out and people like RJS who can act as ambassadors or bridge-builders.

  • I like the part that says “tempering confidence with a dose of humility never hurts either.” In some ways, at least to me, this is key. Even if you’re a genius, that doesn’t make you infallible. When a scientest provides findings and acts like the interpretation of those findings is the exact truth and anyone who disagrees with them must be dimwitted, that’s going to alienate the general public, regardless of how many scientists may agree with you (a number the general public is most likely unaware of.

  • DRT

    I love the table of language differences. The most important point of the whole table, however, is the column names which embody the problem. The one is what the public believes, but rather than label the other one what scientists believe it is labeled “Better Choice”, what arrogance!

    Adequate – Public hears not very good – Scientist means that it will do the job and is good.

    A high probability – Public hears can not count on it – Scientist means we should plan like it is certain to happen.

    Trivial solution – Public hears something meaningless – Scientist means it is easy to do

    Risk – Public hears can harm people – Scientist means variability

    Scientist – Public hears geek that has head in clouds – Scientist means someone in the know

    Public – Public hears me – Scientist means stupid people.

  • DRT

    My son studying in college says that they are making the engineers take classes in people skills, including how to dress well. Perhaps in another 20 or 30 years we will see progress.

    But Rick Perry does not believe in AGW. As long as leaders refuse to take a responsible leadership position we will not make a great deal of progress.

  • rjs


    I think the column headings make more sense in the context of the article. “better choice” means that scientists should use this expression instead of the technical term that is misunderstood.

  • Dan

    LOL, we need more folks responding who only use their initials (if these are their REAL initials).

  • I would like to see the thesis and the work of the scientist become more of an open to the public real time wiki discussion. It would bring immediate real time accountability.

  • rjs

    Dan #26,

    The initials for everyone above (including me) are genuine initials (AHH, JHM, T, DRT, for sure, the others also I think). But initials only seems more anonymous than a common first name (which is of course, also rather ambiguous).

  • Darren King

    Personally, I’m not one to jump to the skeptical side when it comes to claims broadly made by the scientific community. However, I never cease to be amazed that no sooner has one theory been trumped by another that the rhetoric one hears is that now we “really” get it. In other words, the new theory trumps the old one with a degree of certainty that seems preposterous. When a scientist tells me with something resembling certainty that the universe will end in a whimper, so many billions of years into the future, I respond by saying, how can you possibly assert that with any degree of certainty when we don’t even have a strong understanding of what dark matter and dark energy is and how it works? It just comes across as arrogant and shortsighted. Actually, it reminds me a lot of Christian fundamentalism – in those moments anyway. And of course part of the problem is how the media conveys these theories. Sometimes they may portray the scientists as being more certain than they actually are.

  • rjs


    The politicization is a real problem. I intentionally stay out of political discussions on the blog for the most part because no matter what position I took it would color my believability for someone who reads the blog.

  • Dan

    Rjs @28, I know, I was just having a little fun (though it does look like you go by rjs5 over at Musings on Science).

    We will figure out your full name someday soon and use it indiscriminately.

  • DRT

    Oh, I get it! It would be a better choice for the scientist! Not a better choice of meaning.

  • DRT

    Her name is Real Jesusy Scientist.

  • DRT

    Dan#26, and what does DAN stand for?

  • rjs


    When I set that site up rjs, rjs1, rjs2, rjs3, and rjs4 were taken… and the rest is history.

  • Prodigal Daughter

    @phil_style #5: I get your drift, but there is far more to educating the public than mainstream media. A proper campaign should have MUCH, MUCH more than that. When I mean a communicator, I mean one in every sense of the word–not just through mainstream media. Just because the scientific community hasn’t gotten beyond press releases and journos definitely shores up my point that they need a communicator to act as interpreter. A true communicator knows how to use all venues to create the intended effect as well how to speak to various public demographics (which have been named throughout the comment thread).

  • DRT

    Prodigal Daughter#36, good point that scientists don’t influence the public, but that is how it is supposed to be. They are not supposed to have public relations arms because the scientists are supposed to be dedicated to the science.

    The leaders of society are the consumers of science, so government should be one of the big arbiters of truth. But people like Perry have let their prejudices influence the result and are no longer good custodians of the message. It is a total breakdown of society, and that may not be too strong of a statement.

    So, you are right, perhaps. Maybe we should have a new body who is formed that will tell people the truth about the world, and let the scientists drive it! See, that is just silly. It really is a clergy and government function (officials, teachers, etc) and it has totally broke down in our society and become partisan bickering. It is a shame.

  • Dan

    rjs @35, sorta like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The 6th Day.

    This is off topic isn’t it? Sorry.

  • I think this is a huge issue because it means our public policy is detached from reality to the degree that people do not trust science. There must be a lot of research on how people and groups decide what to believe–any good book suggestions, someone?–but I guess we’re just speculating here so I’ll contribute my off-the-cuff thoughts.

    1) Most people don’t have a clue about science, whether the facts, the principles of discovery, or the way the scientific enterprise runs. I don’t know whether this is because of our educational system, the growing complexity of science, limitations of our brains, or what.

    2) Most people don’t have a clue about the basic quantitative concepts that underlie scientific theories and inference.

    These two factors mean that the average person, unless really motivated to investigate an issue in depth (and who has the time?), is pretty much incompetent to judge between competing claims.

    3) In evangelical and fundamentalist Christian circles, the creationist movement has cast scientists into the dark hat role of atheist conspirators. What I don’t know is the extent to which postmodern trends such as distrust of authority and suspicion of meta-narratives have done the same thing, but there does seem to be a tendency to take science with a grain of salt. Perhaps this partly explains why people seem to accept almost a nihilism about scientific conclusions: “You know, theories are always changing anyway, so we can’t believe anything strongly enough to act.”

    4) Don’t most of us get most of our beliefs from our peers or those we admire? Realistically, we don’t spend much time trying on ideas or positions that they would ridicule or consider evil. Conformity is huge, and so is our resistance to changing our opinions. So maybe we need to look more at how groups (or leaders?) rather than individuals decide what to believe.

  • I don’t think people are skeptical of science, but of scientist. There’s a relationship divide between scientist and the public. I would have to argue that people don’t trust scientist, so they don’t trust what they publish. Personally, I like science, but some scientists have an ax to grind against people of faith.

  • Prodigal Daughter

    @DRT #37 — I get what you’re saying, I’m not arguing that scientists “influence the public” so much as educate them. I’m arguing that they communicate better what they are doing and learning (like the blog post mentions) so that people can intelligently decide what they believe about these issues. I don’t think the onus is on government to tell us what scientists are doing. Who better to tell us than the scientists themselves? I’d rather hear it from the horse’s mouth (even if that horse needs some help communicating it!) Otherwise, we’re at the mercy of the government’s interpretation (as you are suggesting is the case).

    The job of the government and clergy (IMO) is to put a framework around the facts that scientists are helping us to understand. There is definitely a moral component to all that we learn in science; and government and clergy exist for moral reasons. I suggest it’s government and clergy’s job to help us think through the ethical and moral ramifications of what we learning are the facts (which should come from scientists). That’s not to say that scientists don’t have moral or ethical concerns; they should express those based on what they know. But really, it is scientists that should educate us or all is “lost in translation”. If we cannot understand the facts correctly, we can be taken too easily into any framework that is presented with enough fear and/or manipulation.

    I do agree that politics and religion have made a mess of this. I completely agree with you on that! But I think that it’s partly because we haven’t been able to understand the issues from a scientist’s perspective. We are less informed and so we are easily swayed.

  • Brandon K.

    Dare I suggest that many (most?) global warming scientists are like the soterians. I.e. You (sinner/wasteful gas guzzling, lawn mowing, polluter) must decide/change now in order to avoid hell/destroying the planet in the future. Perhaps if scientists told a more complete story encapsulating our personal and corporate responsibility to the planet and each other, while emphasizing the benefits we gain in the present from more eco-friendly living, yet not denying the very real planet saving consequences for the future…

    or maybe I’ve stretched too far. 🙂

  • Brandon, I think this illustrates part of the problem, i.e. not distinguishing between science and values or policy. You might be right about the message that people hear, and likely some scientists have preached it, but that is not the science. The scientist _as_ scientist can predict what is likely to happen in this or that case, but science does not say what people should do about it. Likewise, people can argue all they want about what to do, but perspectives and policies will not change the facts one iota.

    Given your observation, then, of people pushing back against what they perceive as moralizing (?) by scientists, would it help if science spokespeople tried to give a message like, “All the evidence from the past and the present indicates that we can expect these consequences: …. What you choose to do about it is up to you, not science,” rather than moralizing?

  • Brandon K.


    I think that you are correct in suggesting that the blending of scientific investigation and public policy is a significant factor in popular pushback against science. While a clearer delivery of the message by scientific spokespeople would be beneficial, I’m not sure the impact would be that great. A larger issue, I suspect, is the tendency to use “science” in public policy in much the same way people provide the “biblical” answer in theology, i.e. as a way to shut down the discussion and declare one’s own preferences as undeniably correct.