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Trans-Science & Our Missing Values

I talked to a client based in the Midwest this week, in a state where social distancing is recommended but not compelled. He said he had just gone to one of those giant home improvement stores to buy his spring plants. I braced for a story about rampantly violated personal space and an atmosphere humid with coughing and infections. Instead, he said: “Everyone had a mask and gloves. They had markings down so everyone stayed six feet from each other in line. Everyone practiced social distancing. It was very well done.”

Where I live (metro DC), many of us are obsessed with both a) why more people aren’t socially distancing (i.e., who’s not being compliant with expert advice) and b) when social distancing should end (i.e., on when we all can, in essence, become noncompliant with expert advice).

An equally interesting question: Why have so many people complied with expert advice and continue to do so, many at great cost to themselves?

The answer, I think, might be found in trans-science: the mode in which scientists have to communicate about values as much as findings and information.

Let’s back up for a second. We trust science generally — and have at least since polling on levels of trust in public institutions started in the early ‘70s, writes the sociologist Musa al-Gharbi in a review of Gil Eyal’s new book “The Crisis of Expertise.” Science beats every other institution except the military. That’s a powerful basis for authority.

One of the results of that generalized trust: science and data have become indispensable, at least for government and corporate life. This happened, al-Gharbi points out, despite scientific experts often a) being wrong (and not paying a price for being so); b) ignoring local knowledge; and c) having viewpoints very different and living lives at great separation from those they study and talk about.

At the same time, many of us don’t trust science on a growing number of issues to which we can probably add the epidemiology of the current pandemic. And that distrust seems to blossom reflexively — against both science and individual scientists. Anthony Fauci is a target for the hard right; Woody Harrelson says it’s 5G towers; Novak Djokovic says he won’t take a vaccine for the virus.

General trust, therefore, isn’t transferrable to specific issues.

So why have so many of us complied for this issue?

Eyal’s answer might be: the ability of experts so far to do trans-science.

Trans-science is the space where scientific experts direct us on the answers to value questions — hard, nonscientific questions such as “what shall we do?” or “how shall we live?” or “what’s the acceptable risk of this?” for which science doesn’t have the answer. Science isn’t supposed to go to these places, conventionally: science should stay in its lane, proposing options and letting decision-makers make the call. But al-Gharbi writes that the social role of experts is to breach that gap and help us make the call:

The function of experts, according to Eyal, is to impose some kind of discipline and order into public debates on these questions – allowing discussions to reach provisional and partial conclusions such that decisions can be made and actions can be taken. They help instill confidence and build consensus; they foster a sense of legitimacy around evaluations (and any subsequent interventions) and the processes through which they were reached.

As uncertainty grows, so does the importance of trans-science. We all crave expert, argues Eyal, to fill that essential social role of saying, “We don’t have perfect knowledge, but we know enough to decide and act.“ And if there is a crisis of expertise, it’s in “the (in)ability of experts to effectively fulfill their social role”

that is, to perform the trans-scientific work of bringing debates to actionable stopping-points, or generating confidence, consensus or a sense of legitimacy around subsequent decisions.

One of Eyal’s brilliant insights, as related by al-Gharbi: We fight and are polarized over experts not because we disdain expertise, but because experts are so very important socially. We want experts we can trust. But trust isn’t just about information and logic; we trust people who share our values, whom we can be reassured care about us.

I’ve been building a list of all the science communications failures around COVID-19: the failure to explain modeling, the relative risks of various behaviors, and the failure to have an integrated epidemiological/economics tradeoff model.

But for people who don’t share the value of “automatically valuing expertise,” the first failure of experts during COVID-19 is to forget to signal shared values. That signaling could start with an open and full acknowledgement of the tradeoffs the interpretation of the models is forcing everyone to make.

That’s hard work — and much more than conventional science communication. It’s much easier to say people who don’t socially distance are stupid. Which makes turning down the flame of debate and creating the confidence, consensus and ground for action that much more difficult.

I recommend this rich, fascinating essay from al-Gharbi, and I look forward to reading Eyal’s book. H/T to list member Tom Yorton for turning me on to both.