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The relationship between science and politics is often debated. How do they influence each other, and how does this interaction affect trust in science?

Let's start by concentrating on the sciences and history. We will not enter the realms of art, literature and music. We are concerned with the real world and what actually exists - whether our ideas, hypotheses and theories correspond to reality. Examples are physical laws, historical events, or the link between childhood trauma and violence. These propositions are empirically verifiable and may fail in the face of reality. "Gerhard Vollmer, a long-standing member of the GWUP's scientific council, aptly put it.

Whether something is considered true or not depends on the evidence. The theory of evolution, for example, has an immense amount of well-established evidence, and it would take a similar amount of contrary evidence to shake it. By contrast, predictions about the Earth's future temperature are not quite as certain and can be changed more easily as new evidence emerges.

Now, science cannot tell us directly what to do. But there is one exception: when it comes to the presentation of scientific results themselves, we can, for example, politically demand that unproven creationism not be taught as science in schools.

But "science" should not give concrete recommendations for action, such as "go organic", "use only renewable energy" or "introduce genetic engineering". The motto "follow the science" is out of place here. Instead, we should demand that politicians take scientific evidence into account, not ignore or negate it - a subtle but essential distinction. The Scientists for the Future initiative goes far beyond this, advocating certain specific policies while rejecting others.

Science and politics: disentanglement for trust

Science can undoubtedly contribute to policy issues, especially regarding whether specific measures can achieve the policy goals set. Unfortunately, policy decisions often do not sufficiently account for such scientific evidence.

The relationship between science and policy can affect trust in science. Many intuitively feel that other interests and beliefs play a role alongside scientific facts in some debates. This perception can undermine trust in science.

A new publication by Senja Post and Nils Bienzeisler from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) entitled "The Honest Broker versus the Epistocrat: Attenuating Distrust in Science by Disentangling Science from Politics" examines this aspect from a different perspective. The results suggest that a clear separation between scientific and political statements could help to strengthen trust in scientific information.

Political controversies on scientific issues often show a polarisation of trust in science. This trust often correlates with individual political preferences. Interestingly, intelligence reinforces this polarisation, regardless of the truth of the statements.

Testing the hypothesis

Post and Bienzeisler tested their thesis experimentally on three German political conflicts:

  • School closures vs. school openings during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Ban vs. continuation of domestic air traffic in Germany in the face of climate change
  • Shooting wolves in populated areas vs. protecting these areas

In each case study, participants saw one of four versions of a news article in which a scientist reported on their research and gave policy advice. The scientist's quotes differed in the direction and style of his policy advice.

As an epistocrat, the scientist blurs the distinction between scientific and political statements by purporting to "prove" a policy, precluding social debate about values and policy priorities.

On the other hand, an honest broker distinguishes between scientific and political statements and presents a policy option, acknowledging the limitations of their disciplinary scientific perspective on a broader societal problem.

The authors conclude that public policy advice in the style of an honest broker, as opposed to an epistocrat, can reduce political polarisation and increase trust in scientists and scientific knowledge, especially among the most politically challenged groups.

They conclude that practitioners of public science communication who deal with scientific or technological issues in public controversies should take note of these findings and consider them in their professional contributions to science and policy communication. They believe that an honest broker style, as opposed to an epistocratic style, could contribute to depolarisation and greater trust in scientists.

Two reasons in favour of disentanglement

There are two reasons for decoupling science and policy. First, science cannot, of its own accord, make recommendations for action outside its sphere of interest. Second, it does not even help science's reputation. On the contrary, too close a relationship with policymakers undermines public trust in science.