I’ve been asked to facilitate a couple of sessions with some civil servant types from various countries in the developing world who advise their governments on science, and particularly on the science informing policy and purchasing decisions. The idea is to focus on how people might try and mislead you with science, and the range of scientific background and understanding in this group will be pretty wide, as it always is with civil servants. Since I’ve noticed a recurring theme for readers of this blog to be a bit cleverer than me (albeit less dogged and obsessive) I was hoping you might have some ideas about the kinds of areas to cover, the themes that are relevant, and the kind of structure to use.
I’ve been told that there are lots of people who go out to Africa, for example, with glossy brochures, claims of scientific evidence, and one bloke with a dodgy PhD who endorses the product, and then try to hustle and sell their systems and wares which are either ineffective, or at stupidly inflated prices. Most of these scammers fail, but it would be nice to increase the fail rate.
Subject areas that immediately spring to mind (and I’m hoping you can think of more) include:
- HIV and Aids denialism
- Climate change denialists
- Dodgy miracle cures, pharma and quack.
- Get rich quick scams
- Ropey industry claims
Now there is obviously no way you can teach the entire process of how to check evidence in every field, I wouldn’t be the person to do that, and I’m not suggesting that due diligence on govt contracts is non-existent. I think the idea is that there are some ideas and recurring themes from the kind of work we do on this blog, and others, that might be relevant to these problems.
I suppose at base we might be able to get together a rough set of nostrums around:
- checking evidence for quality and completeness (cf misrepresentation and cherry picking)
- checking background
- what constitutes evidence
- how to seek independent expert opinion
But there is also a wealth of material on stuff like:
- cognitive biases
- classic recurring themes in sciencey blags
- the themes of “denialists” generally, from the denialism blog
- and so on.
The other background issue here is that obviously I am very keen not to feel like some white dude telling people how to live and think. But I guess that’s a problem for me.
So, I could really do with some ideas here.