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Subjective science

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Contentious scientific issues such as climate change and food safety have been dominating news headlines recently, with contradictory data frequently emerging to cast doubt over conclusions and stall the decision-making process.

It has left some experts wondering what role science should play in informing government policy.

Communication and culture professor Dr. Patrick Feng studies the uses and abuses of science in policy debate and shared some of his insights at a colloquium last Friday.

"Towards the beginning of the 20th century, there was generally more public trust in the ability of science to provide answers, but more recently we're seeing different groups such as industry and lobby groups trying to position themselves as legitimate users of science," said Feng.

These groups aim at injecting ambiguity into a debate, which according to Feng, is seriously eroding public trust in science.

Feng advocates for "sound science," first coined in 1996 as a plea for the "triumph of sound science over politics." The statement originated from tobacco lobbyists accusing research that linked smoking to lung cancer of bias. Despite this abuse, Feng believes a clear definition of "sound science" is needed.

"The term has been used to cast doubt over findings and hold off policy decisions until more research is done, which is really problematic because science will never deliver a finding with 100 per cent confidence," he said.

Feng said a distinction was necessary as to whether society wants science to provide all the answers for policy or if it should be a tool to help guide policy in the right direction.

"I think science, in and of itself, can never settle a policy question because the underlying factor is, 'How safe is safe enough?' " he said. "What level of risk are we willing to accept in order to take some sort of meaningful action?"

Feng believes there will always need to be judgement calls about there being enough evidence, but warns of the costs of inaction. He used the analogy of visiting the doctor when sick. A student wouldn't visit every doctor in town before taking action to getting better, as this would be too inefficient. They would likely end up in a worse condition than before. However, if they received suspect medical advice, they would probably go for a second opinion.

"I don't think there are any simple answers, which is why we need to agree on how we collectively deal with uncertainty," admitted Feng.

He was optimistic that "sound science" will triumph over its opposition.

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