What Science Policy Beliefs Have Been Held for a Long Time That Are Wrong?

I’m modifying this Richard Thaler question from Edge.org (H/T Dot Earth) and would like to see if it can work for science and technology policy:

“The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?

“Please note that I am interested in things we once thought were true and took forever to unlearn. I am looking for wrong scientific beliefs that we’ve already learned were wrong, rather than those the respondent is predicting will be wrong which makes it different from the usual Edge prediction sort of question.”

So, what things were once thought true about science and technology policy and took forever to unlearn (assuming they have been unlearned)?  I know the comments stream at this blog has never flowed (usually just trickled), but I’m really interested in what others think about this question.

A short bit of clarification: I’m interested in what anyone thought was true about science and technology policy and later needed to be unlearned.  This includes the public, policymakers, and scientists and engineers.

My suggestions, to start it off, shouldn’t surprise regular readers: the linear models.

Yes, I used the plural.  Typically when I write about the linear model I’m dealing with the model of scientific and technological development that has basic research leading to applied research and culminating in development and diffusion of the innovation.  However, if you peruse the musings of Roger Pielke Jr., you’ll find a different linear model – one concerned with science and decision making.  In that model changes in science lead to changes in public opinion, which then change policy.

Arguably the first linear model mentioned is not so much wrong as it is woefully inadequate.  But it makes for good soundbites for those focused on science budgets and notions of economic competitiveness.  The second linear model doesn’t map to reality well at all; and as Roger has noted, can be very counterproductive.  This model does reflect an idealized notion of how some may see the role of scientific knowledge in policy – the guide to what should be done.

So what other persistent science and technology policy truisms are out there that are no longer true?


7 thoughts on “What Science Policy Beliefs Have Been Held for a Long Time That Are Wrong?

  1. I agree with you about the problems with both linear models. I think both terms encompass a lot more than the examples you cited for natural science. e..g, I would say the linear model for science and decision making involves decision science, policy science, political theory, etc. So you can probably define the terms more narrowly to tease out a few more ideas that aren’t true.

    How about these:
    1. Americans are anti-science
    2. There was a golden age when the public trusted scientists more than they do now
    3. Scientific literacy has been declining over the years
    4. We don’t have enough scientists or engineers
    5. Public funding has declined over the years

  2. A wrong science policy belief: That science policy is best understood by looking at government organization charts – OSTP, OMB, CEQ, NSC, NOAA, NIST, the USHR Science Committee, DOE, the other DOE, NIH, NSF, NSB, ETC – and toss in a reference to the Academies. This may be only a modest falicy for a first-order understanding of how science contributes to setting policy in an administration. However, both policy for science and the conditions in which science is a real contribution to administration policy are more complex. They are created or (more often) discovered in a rough never-ending mixture of fear, hope, personalities, accidents, public opinion, well-reasoned reports, stupidity, research announcements from principal investigators in industry and universities, viral internet communications, newly introduced technologies, talk radio, culture, religion and the like. The failure of academic or government “science policy” courses to recognize the contribution of non-official players is a major falicy.

    In my opinion.

  3. Already it seems that there might be more than a few axioms that resemble Bob’s ‘modest fallacy for a first-order fallacy’

    I was specifically interested in things that were true and turned out not to be. The first-order stuff reflects things we thought were true but have turned out to be at best overly simplistic. I don’t know how important that difference is, but it’s worth mentioning.

    Praj, I’m not sure some of your list has ever been true, but that may be an issue of what is counted. I’m looking at Number 5 in particular.

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