The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics

The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics
Roger A. Pielke, Jr.
New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 188 pages.

A stranger approaches you and asks for a referral to a restaurant in your town. How would you respond?

With this engaging question, Roger Pielke, an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, opens his book concerning four idealized ways that science and environmental policy interact.

It would probably surprise the stranger if you handed him or her a copy of the latest food guide, but as Pielke describes, this is precisely what someone playing the first of the four roles, that of a “pure scientist,” would do. Alternatively, you may respond to specific questions asked by the stranger, adopting the second role of “science arbiter,” as played by advisory committees and scientific experts who provide input into environmental decision making.

Rather than play either of these roles, you could advocate for a particular restaurant, perhaps because it’s your favorite, much as some scientists invoke their authority as “issue advocates” for certain environmental policies. This is Pielke’s third type of interaction. On the other hand, you could provide information about numerous restaurants, along with your view of their strengths and weaknesses, thereby acting in the fourth and final role – “the honest broker of policy alternatives.” The stranger could then make an informed choice on his or her own, much as environmental policy makers might rely on honest brokers to present all the likely outcomes of various courses of action before choosing one to follow. Although Pielke acts as an honest broker himself, describing a time and place for each of these four types, he favours the last role. It allows scientists to expand policy options (rather than constrict them as an issue advocate would do), by showing the range of possibilities consistent with scientific knowledge and its uncertainties.

Why is this discussion important to readers of Alternatives? Scientific knowledge clearly has a role to play in environmental decision making, but there is extensive debate about the ways in which scientists can best fulfill this role and whether they compromise their objectivity if they venture too far into the realm of advocacy. The Honest Broker provides a clear introduction to such issues, and while it targets scientists themselves, it is also an essential text for anyone who wishes to understand how science can be best used to develop policy. It is an easy read, peppered with entertaining and illustrative vignettes that range from the decision-making process of a Russian pilot just before he crashed a plane in Germany and the pre-emptive decision to go to war in Iraq, to the debate over Bjørn Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Along the way, Pielke continually makes a distinction between policy, which he defines as a decision about what to do, and politics, which, he says, is the bargaining and negotiation needed to put that policy in place. For those who enjoy a good tongue-twister, tangles of politicizing science and scientizing politics should keep you occupied.

Pielke specifically argues that the appropriate role for science in policy development depends on context. When there is widespread public agreement and low scientific uncertainty concerning a potential decision, scientists can provide input as pure scientists or as arbiters. He dubs this “tornado politics,” the process by which a group of people relies upon information to resolve a common threat (such as an incoming tornado). Many scientists feel comfortable in this role, as it meshes with entrenched dichotomies between facts and values, science and society. Pielke, however, reviews extensive scholarly literature that demonstrates the limits of such an approach to decision making.

For most environmental issues, we need to weigh multiple alternatives, and there is tremendous uncertainty about potential outcomes and the means to reach them. In such instances, which Pielke refers to as “abortion politics,” echoing the value-laden debate about abortion policy, no amount of scientific information can lead to a decision or compel action. It is thus inadequate for scientists to simply produce information and harbour a faith that it will have downstream benefits in the policy realm. When they do, they tend to practice what Pielke terms “stealth issue advocacy,” the presentation of personal opinions in the guise of scientific neutrality, to the detriment of both science’s reputation and the production of effective policies. In many instances, such as that of climate change policy, one corollary of this invisible advocacy is that political battles are waged in terms of supportive – though cherry-picked – scientific results. Accordingly, we need honest brokerage, though The Honest Broker comes up short in explaining how this might occur.

Sound environmental decision making requires scientific expertise. But we also need to understand the potential roles and limitations of this knowledge. Like a well-written travel guide for a labyrinthine city, The Honest Broker is a good place to begin.

Brendon Larson, an assistant professor in the Department of Environment and Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo, is currently writing a book on the metaphoric interweaving of environmental science and society.

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