Dr Craig Cormick
Why science is rarely taken into consideration in political decisions
Sorry scientists, but here’s a hard truth – when it comes to most policy decisions, science is rarely a major consideration.
Take the recent decision not to cull wild horses in New South Wales high country parks. The evidence is clear that wild horses are an invasive species causing great damage to fragile Alpine areas. And this damage further threatens endangered species, such as the corroboree frog.
Many scientific reports have been released demonstrating this, arguing there needs to be a cull of the horses to reduce their numbers and reduce their negative impacts.
But up against the scientific evidence we have the emotional appeal of brumbies. Wild horses that represent that slice of Australian heritage embodied in the Man from Snowy River or the Silver Brumby.
And it is also useful to know that the Bill to prevent wild horses being culled was introduced into Parliament by the Deputy Premier of New South Wales, John Barilaro, whose electorate of Monaro covers the highland national parks. Snowy River territory. Home of those who consider wild horses a part of our heritage. Home of many of the descendents of the settler families who established cattle runs in the high country. Done largely on horses.
Groups like the Australian Brumby Alliance have been outspoken about the importance of wild horses to our national heritage, with statements like:
“It’s magic. It’s just a wonderful feeling; you just feel amazed at this majestic horse that can keep itself going in the park without any human interference. It uplifts my spirit.”
By comparison, scientists’ rhetoric tends to be like:
“Horses have been present in the Snowy Mountains since the 1830s when Europeans first explored the region. Substantial transhumance grazing (i.e. the annual movement of stock and stockmen to summer pastures in the High Country) of cattle and sheep soon followed and continued for more than 150 years.”
Another thing that is useful to know is that in politics decisions are informed by a large number of different factors, including: economic factors, interest group lobbying, political ideology, media stories – and scientific evidence.
Of course most scientists would see the weight of scientific input as being stronger than all the others – or maybe even at least of equal weighting. But that’s not the world we live in, is it.
If we had a spectrum of the emotive and electoral sensitivity of different inputs to policy, almost everything listed above would lie on the side of having high sensitivity – except for science evidence, which would be all alone on the other side having low electoral and emotional impact.
That means for issues that are not emotional or electorally sensitive, then there’s a good chance that the science input will count for something.
But if the issue is being dominated by emotions and is electorally sensitive in any way – sorry science.
I mean, which narrative do you think is the most powerful?
- Evidence shows that wild horses are damaging sensitive environments and they need to be culled, preferably being shot from helicopters.
- Wild horses are an iconic part of Australian heritage that reflect the Australian spirit, and it is cruel and inhumane to slaughter them.
This science narrative above actually plays into an emotional response against it, as we know that there are strong preferences for non-lethal control methods of larger invasive animals – especially among the urban public, who live a long, long way from where such animals roam through sensitive bogs and creeks.
The same type of thing plays out in many contentious issues, where there is a conflict between scientific evidence versus emotional responses – whether the topic is climate change, coal seam gas mining, vaccination, embryonic stem cells – emotions far outweigh the scientific evidence.
So what is a scientist or a science communicator to do, given that they are often unable to play the emotional game to counter emotive arguments? Are you going to be perpetually out-played when trying to make some impact on policy?
Well not necessarily. It is possible to reframe your arguments that incorporate some element of the opposing emotive arguments. In this it might be possible to frame messages around putting the welfare of the wild horses first. Pushing for need to keep their numbers down so that wild horses number won’t grow to the point that it threatens their own well-being.
Frame messages that make you a wild horses lover, not a wild horses hater.
And above all, if you are embroiled in a policy debate – don’t rely just on the evidence. The emotion and electoral sensitivity will usually be more important, and you will need to find some way to address them too.
– – –
 Anderson, S (2017), Victorian brumbies: invasive pest, or majestic part of our heritage?, ABC News. 29 January.
 Office of Environment and Heritage (2016) This Draft Wild Horse Management Plan, Kosciuszko National Park, State of NSW and Office of Environment and Heritage.