Canadian Science Policy Fellows’ Corner: Overcoming our scientific hubris
In Sir Peter Gluckman’s recent address to the Canadian Science Policy Centre, he noted that that “scientific hubris can get in the way of an effective interaction.” To someone trained as a physical scientist, who made the existential leap to social science, this feels like a wild understatement.
I vividly remember a cold winter night in 2003 on a lonely street near York University. I was walking home from a day of classes in pursuit of an undergraduate degree in Earth and Atmospheric Science. My roommate, an English major, walked beside me. We were deep in heated debate. At issue? Whether or not a (hypothetical) chair in the middle of the sidewalk existed.
My argument went like this: “It’s a chair. It’s either there or it’s not. This is a stupid conversation. Why are we talking about this?”
Her argument: “But what if I don’t view what’s there as a chair? Is it still a chair? And, why is it making you so uncomfortable to even think about this?”
I got very frustrated. I said something mean about social sciences and the humanities. We stopped talking about chairs.
That sounds a lot like scientific hubris getting in the way of an effective interaction.
Nearly 15 years and a big discipline change later, I can recognize that we were having a fundamental ontological debate rooted in our respective training in natural science and the humanities. As a physical scientist trained to trust that the truth is objective, universal, and knowable, I was uncomfortable with the idea that the world might be less ordered, predictable, and controllable than I’d been taught. My very patient roommate was doing her best to explain to me that different people see the world in different ways that shape what they view as reality. This is something that any politician could tell you but that I, with my training in numbers and absolutes, simply could not handle.
This brings me to another gem from Sir Gluckman’s talk: “Most of us [scientists] are ill-equipped to deal with 21st century expectations on our work.” These expectations — that we will learn to effectively engage with society in order to contribute to the betterment of the world — require a raft of skills for which traditionally trained scientists are woefully unprepared.
For me, it took a year in a developing country to painfully learn that my Masters-level knowledge of water treatment systems and winning smile couldn’t solve centuries of water problems rooted in colonialism, globalization, and poverty. For professionals who don’t have the luxury of spending a year ‘discovering themselves,’ skills development needs to be more direct. The field of Science and Technological Studies (STS) specifically examines these issues and can provide resources, formatted in familiar journal article formats. Even better, facilitated engagement with diverse perspectives on complex issues can help shift perspectives — there are lots of great exercises on how to bring perspectives together on contemporary complex problems. Websites like i2insights.org, resourced by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, provide some great examples on how to expand our ability to work with diverse groups.
At the heart of this is something that Sir Gluckman hinted at over and over again, but never quite named; effective policy interaction by scientists requires humility. It requires us to understand and accept that, despite our scientific methods and certainties, we won’t always be considered first. Other ideas and ways to frame problems may dominate. However, if we can open our perspectives to other viewpoints, we’re more likely to be able to understand others, work cooperatively and effectively address issues together.
This blog post was contributed to Mitacs. The views or opinions expressed within belong solely to the author and do not represent those of Mitacs or the institutions or organizations that the author may be associated with.
The Canadian Science Policy Fellowship is made possible thanks to Professor Sarah Otto, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia; participating federal agencies and departments; the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy; and Mitacs’ Science Policy Fellowship Advisory Council.