The Credibility of Scientific Policy Advice

Hanna Metzen (doctoral project, ongoing)

What makes scientific policy advice credible? This question can be framed as a demarcation problem: The “science label” signals trustworthiness and demarcates scientific policy advice from less trustworthy advice, mainly politicized advice. Politicization of scientific policy advice appears, for example, if politics unduly influences the process of weighing the available evidence or accepting scientific claims. But it also appears in other cases, for instance if politicians mostly rely on partisan advisors, or if politics instrumentalizes scientific advice in order to legitimize political action.

However, the special credibility of scientific policy advice cannot be explained or maintained by referring to the value free ideal: Today, philosophers of science mostly agree that science is value-laden – even the core of scientific practices, that is collecting evidence and accepting theories or hypotheses, is affected not just by epistemic but also by non-epistemic values. Instead, philosophers focus on different strategies that possibly enhance trust while at the same time acknowledge the value-ladenness of science. Such strategies are for instance diversity, representativeness, transparency, accountability, or lay participation.

But those strategies are not as simple, especially when it comes to the credibility of scientific policy advice. It is often not clear how they will enhance trust or credibility. And even if a combination might enhance credibility for some forms of advice, it might not do for others. Scientific policy advice can take many forms: The advice can be formal or informal, it can be directed at legislative or executive bodies, advisors can be employed by a government agency or merely appointed by a scientific academy, and so on. To examine the credibility of scientific policy advice requires taking the different forms of advice into account.

Moreover, the feasibility of credibility enhancing strategies depends on the role of scientific policy advice in a democracy. Scientific policy advice is located in between science and politics. Whether a particular strategy works has to do with, for example, the importance of deliberation or the role and responsibilities of scientific experts in democracy. Thus, the credibility of scientific policy advice cannot be analyzed without combining perspectives from philosophy of science and political philosophy.