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April 12, 2005

Honest Broker, Part I

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Science Policy: General

I have written that an honest broker works to expand (or at least clarify) the scope of choice available to decision makers. I have contrasted this with the issue advocate who works to reduce the scope of choice available to decision makers. These ideas have been developed in several papers of mine (e.g., in PDFs here and here) are central to a book manuscript which I hope to deliver this summer. More fundamentally the notion of the expert as honest broker derives from the writings of E. E. Schattschneider on democracy, and the notion of issue advocate comes straight from the view of democracy advanced by James Madison. Both roles are important to democracy, and they suggest that scientists (and other experts) have choices in how they relate to decisions makers. With this post I'd like to try to explain what I mean by honest broker and issue advocate through a simple analogy.

Imagine that a visitor has come to town for the first time, and wants to fine someplace to eat dinner. How might you provide them with information relevant to the decision where to eat? (Note that this analogy makes things simple by presenting a clearly defined problem with a clearly defined solution. We'll make things more complicated later.) There are several ways that you, the local expert, might provide information.

First, you might try to convince the visitor to eat at a particular restaurant. Maybe you think that the restaurant is really good, or your cousin works there or whatever. Such "issue advocacy" could be very strong if you are focused on advocating a single restaurant, or more relaxed, say if you were directing the visitor to some family of restaurants, say those with Italian food. The defining characteristic of the issue advocate is an effort to reduce the scope of choice for decision making (irrespective of motivation for doing so). More generally, such issue advocacy might be thought of as a kiosk of brochures, each telling you where to eat dinner, making the best case possible for why the restaurant advertised is the one that the visitor should choose. Of course, it is easy to see that this analogy is quite similar to James Madison's conception of democracy in which politics is about the efforts of competing factions to sway decision making in preferred directions.

Second, you might instead provide your visitor with information on all restaurants in the city, basic information on each (cost, menu, etc.) and let the visitor face the challenge of reducing the scope of choice (i.e., making a decision). Such "honest brokering" could also be strong (e.g., a comprehensive guide to all restaurants in the city) or weak (e.g., a guide to all those within a 5 minutes walk). The defining characteristic of the honest broker is an effort to expand (or at least clarify) the scope of choice for decision making. A good example of an honest broker for restaurants might be the Lonely Planet travel guides (or, at least, I'd argue that the Lonely Planet guides serve more as honest brokers than do a kiosk brochure). This analogy draws on the work of the twentieth century political scientist E.E. Schattschneider who wrote of "a realist's conception of democracy" in his book, The Semisovereign people.

A characteristic fundamental to both honest brokers and issue advocates is explicit engagement of decision alternatives (i.e., choices, policy options, forks in the road). It should also be obvious that as an expert, one cannot simultaneously act as an issue advocate and honest broker, though these categories are not black and white, but more of a continuum from strictly reducing choice to expansively presenting options. I'll make this more concrete with some practical examples in a subsequent post.

But at this point scientists and other experts might protest that there is a third category, that of the "honest broker on science." In the analogy of searching for the restaurant, scientists, might claim, is there not room for some one to provide guidance on scientific knowledge of food and health? The answer is that it depends. In some cases there is such a role, but in many cases there is not. Let's follow the analogy a bit further.

In the United States the federal government has come up with something called the "food guide pyramid" which seeks to provide guidelines on a healthy diet. It doesn't purport to tell you what restaurant to eat at, only the scientific basis for what constitutes a healthy diet. At first consideration (at least at my first consideration) the food guide pyramid might seem to offer the prospects of providing objective science to inform decision making which is separate from the process of actually making a decision about where to eat. But, things are just not so simple for two reasons.

First, it turns out that the food guide pyramid is reflective of political debates that take the form of food science. Marion Nestle, who is Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, has written a book called "Food Politics" (University of California Press, 2003) that documents the battle of interests that take place through the guide of food science (e.g., interests of different food companies, the interests of the food industry as a whole). Professor Nestle served on the federal committee that developed the food guide pyramid and commented in the Los Angeles Times that, "Creating the [food pyramid] guidelines is still "political - from start to finish. It's science politics. It's politics politics. It's corporate politics."" The food guide pyramid doesn't tell you exactly where to eat, but for those who look to the pyramid to inform their decisions, the food guide pyramid suggests that some choices are more desirable and others less so. No one should be surprised by this, as scholars in STS have demonstrated in great depth the degree to which considerations of politics and values shape the work of experts seeking to provide guidance to decision makers.

Second, we should not be surprised to learn there are alternative food pyramids available, such as the vegetarian food pyramid, the vegan food pyramid , and the Atkins food pyramid among many others. The degree to which one of these is "better" than another depends upon the criteria one employs to evaluate them. If one values not eating meat, then the vegetarian pyramid may be favored over the U.S. government pyramid. Alternatively, if one values the advertised waist-slimming effects of the Atkins diet over concerns about its health effects that will influence the choice. The point here is that the expertise relevant to a particular decision - where to eat dinner - will in important respects be a function of what the decision maker actually values. Absent knowing such values, then any food pyramid will reflect either the values of those putting the pyramid together, or the experts' interpretation/expectation of what decision makers ought to value. Consequently, it is very easy for the food science expert to act as an issue advocate (e.g., should meat be part of the pyramid?) favoring one set of choices over others, and this is irrespective of their intention of doing so.

So are their any circumstances in which experts can provide "objective" guidance that is independent of the choices to be made? Again the answer is yes and no. Perhaps ironically, objectivity is more possible is cases where the decision context is highly specified or constrained. If you have narrowed down your restaurant choices to, say, three restaurants then you could ask your expert to comment on the healthiness (or vegan-ness, etc.) of each, according to criteria that you would like to see applied. In circumstances where the scope of choice is fixed and the decision maker has a clearly defined technical question, then the expert has a very important role to play in providing "honest broker science." But in situations where the scope of choice is open, decision makers do not have a sense of the values to be served by the decision, much less a fix on the technical questions derived from value commitments, there is very little room for "honest broker science" in the process of decision making and even good faith efforts to provide such a perspective can easily turn into a political battleground (which the technical expert may not even be aware of). (Of course, honest broker science can and frequently does point to the existence of a problem that compels action, but introducing reasons for possible action is quite different than providing guidance on what actions to actually take.)

Dan Sarewitz characterizes the resulting circumstances,

"In areas as diverse as climate change, nuclear waste disposal, endangered species and biodiversity, forest management, air and water pollution, and agricultural biotechnology, the growth of considerable bodies of scientific knowledge, created especially to resolve political dispute and enable effective decision making, has often been accompanied instead by growing political controversy and gridlock. Science typically lies at the center of the debate, where those who advocate some line of action are likely to claim a scientific justification for their position, while those opposing the action will either invoke scientific uncertainty or competing scientific results to support their opposition ... nature itself - the reality out there - is sufficiently rich and complex to support a science enterprise of enormous methodological, disciplinary, and institutional diversity. I will argue that science, in doing its job well, presents this richness, through a proliferation of facts assembled via a variety of disciplinary lenses, in ways that can legitimately support, and are causally indistinguishable from, a range of competing, value-based political positions."

In the absence of political action that restricts the scope of choice and clarifies the role of technical questions in policy, the way out of this circumstance is, as Sarewitz argues, not to appeal to the objectivity of knowledge or to wage a proxy political war through science (either implicitly or under a simple lack of awareness). It is, as I have argued here and elsewhere, for scientists and other experts to openly associate their science with possible courses of action. And the good news is that scientists have choices in how they make such an association. They can work to expand choice or reduce choice. Honest broker or issue advocate? Both roles are important and noble in a functioning democracy. But scientists do have to choose. On highly complex, politically ill-defined issues like climate change there is simply no possibility of successfully hiding behind science, because the choices made about science are unavoidably part of a broader social and political debate. Whether scientists admit, accept or are aware of it, climate policy (as compared to say ozone policy in 1984) is not yet sufficiently developed from a political standpoint to allow much room for the "honest broker on science," claims to the contrary notwithstanding (see this paper for discussion of the ozone case). Consider that even the definition of the phrase "climate change" leads to a bias of some policy options over others, as I have argued here.

In a post soon to follow I will illustrate the concepts of honest broker and issue advocate with examples. Comments on all of this welcomed.

Posted on April 12, 2005 09:18 AM


Good examples of issue advocate versus honest broker can be found in the President's Council on Bioethics. Not only does this distinction help us make judgments about Kass's conservative bioethics agenda, but it also helps illuminate Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Rowley's way of arguing political points (e.g., more stem cell research)as if they naturally followed from the state of the science (e.g., we don't know all that much about embryonic stem cells...therefore more research would be a good thing).

Another important set of issues this distinction relates to is the legitimacy or credibility of advisory bodies (and other government entities, scientific publications, etc.). Often legitimacy hinges on appearances of honest brokering and solid, democratic (e.g., accountable, transparent, inclusive) decision making procedures often rely on legitimacy among conflicting groups.

Posted by: Adam at April 19, 2005 04:37 PM

This is a really interesting discussion. My own point of view is that it is easiest for a scientist to be an honest broker if he does two things: 1) answer only positive questions, refuse to answer any normative ones, and 2) give answers based not on their opinion but on the peer-reviewed literature.

If someone asks "where should I eat?" or "what should I do about climate change?", a truly honest broker must say, "I cannot answer a normative question like that." Rather, the honest broker must answer only positive questions. He should force the person asking for advice to reconfigure the request into a series of specific positive questions: "Where is the nearest vegetarian restaurant?” "Where can I get dinner for under $20?" "Where can I get a dinner that follows the Atkin's diet?" etc. Such questions can be answered without any assumption of normative values.

On climate change, an honest broker would focus on the following question: 1) is the climate warming? 2) are humans to blame? 3) what is the warming predicted over the next century? 4) what are the impacts of this warming? Again, these questions are purely scientific and can be answered without any normative or policy assumptions. In fact, two people might agree completely on the answers to these questions but disagree on policy. That's OK --- the political debate should start with the scientific community’s best guess of the answers to 1-4 (found in the IPCC reports) and then debate what our response should be.

The upshot is that I disagree that science is inseparable from policy. By sticking to positive questions, a scientist can provide input that contains no hidden agenda or assumptions about policy. The key is to manage the interface between the scientific and policy arenas --- which is what scientific assessments do.

ps: you might respond that my choice of questions 1-4 on climate change reflects a hidden policy agenda. I would disagree with that. If one accepts that climate change is a political issue worth considering, then these are the obvious questions to ask.

Posted by: Andrew Dessler at May 27, 2005 11:18 AM

Andrew- Thanks much for your comments. Let me ask you a few questions -- you write, "these are the obvious questions to ask". Why focus on warming at the global scale versus reginional manifestations of change? Why does attribution to human causes matter? Why focus on predicting the future climate and impacts? You are right that I would argue that the framing of these questions creates an obvious policy agenda! For a more in depth treatment of this see these two papers:


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at May 30, 2005 06:34 AM

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