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Sunday, June 2, 2024

The Honest Broker versus the Epistocrat: Attenuating Distrust in Science by Disentangling Science from Politics

Senja Post & Nils Bienzeisler (2024)
Political Communication
DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2024.2317274


People’s trust in science is generally high. Yet in public policy disputes invoking scientific issues, people’s trust in science is typically polarized, aligned with their political preferences. Theorists of science and democracy have reasoned that a polarization of trust in scientific information could be mitigated by clearly disentangling scientific claims from political ones. We tested this proposition experimentally in three German public policy disputes: a) school closures versus openings during the COVID-19 pandemic, b) a ban on versus a continuation of domestic air traffic in view of climate change, and c) the shooting of wolves in residential areas or their protection. In each case study, we exposed participants to one of four versions of a news item citing a scientist reporting their research and giving policy advice. The scientist’s quotes differed with regard to the direction and style of their policy advice. As an epistocrat, the scientist blurs the distinction between scientific and political claims, purporting to “prove” a policy and thereby precluding a societal debate over values and policy priorities. As an honest broker, the scientist distinguishes between scientific and political claims, presenting a policy option while acknowledging the limitations of their disciplinary scientific perspective of a broader societal problem. We find that public policy advice in the style of an honest broker versus that of an epistocrat can attenuate political polarization of trust in scientists and scientific findings by enhancing trust primarily among the most politically challenged.

Here is a summary:

This article dives into the issue of distrust in science and proposes a solution: scientists acting as "honest brokers".

The article contrasts two approaches scientists can take when communicating scientific findings for policy purposes.  An "epistocrat" scientist blurs the lines between science and politics. They present a specific policy recommendation based on their research, implying that this is the only logical course of action. This doesn't acknowledge the role of values and priorities in policy decisions, and can shut down public debate.

On the other hand, an "honest broker" scientist makes a clear distinction between science and politics. They present their research findings and the policy options that stem from them, but acknowledge the limitations of science in addressing broader societal issues. This approach allows for a public discussion about values and priorities, which can help build trust in science especially among those who might not agree with the scientist's political views.

The article suggests that by following the "honest broker" approach, scientists can help reduce the political polarization of trust in science. This means presenting the science clearly and openly, and allowing for a public conversation about how those findings should be applied.