Associate Director, Research-to-Policy Collaboration; Research Assistant Professor, Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center
Director, McCourtney Institute for Democracy and Professor of Political Science
Communications Specialist, McCourtney Institute for Democracy; Host, Democracy Works Podcast
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Cole Hons: Greetings, fellow Homo sapiens, and welcome to The Symbiotic Podcast. I'm your host Cole Hons, and today I'm very pleased to have three guests on our show as we launch into our new series of COVID-19 research briefs.
We've got Taylor Scott on the line today. Taylor is Associate Director of the Research-to-Policy Collaboration at Penn State within the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. We also have special guests from the Democracy Works Podcast, which is produced by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. We've got the Director of the McCourtney Institute, Michael Berkman, who is a professor of political science at Penn State, and we have the host of the Democracy Works podcast, Jenna Spinelle, on the line. Welcome, everybody. Thanks so much for being with us today.
Jenna Spinelle: It's great to be here, Cole. Thanks.
Taylor Scott: Thanks for having me.
Cole: So I just want to kick off with Taylor, and give Taylor a chance to tell us about a seed-funded project that the Huck Institutes, along with the Social Sciences Research Institute, got together and funded as part of a big, big effort at Penn State to fund coronavirus research. This project is called the "Rapid Translation of Research into coronavirus Policy Response," which sounds like a really important topic right now. Taylor, could you just briefly tell us what this project is about?
Taylor: Sure. Well, the reason I'm really excited about the work that we do is because we lament, in science, that the work that we produce takes so long to reach decision-makers, and make its way into actual use of research evidence. That's the area of work that we're, with, we're really focused on, is how does research get used by decision-makers and particularly, by legislators. So, what we know from that is that, it's not sufficient to just write up a little report and allow it to sit on the dusty shelf, but using research evidence is a very interactive process.
So, we've been doing this work for a few years now, and really were hoping to leverage this opportunity to be adapt-given responsive to decision-makers' needs around coronavirus research. We want to have a bridge between the research that's getting produced and the people who need it the most that guide decision-making. So our grant, our, the support from Penn State will help us to do some legislative needs assessments around their interests related to coronavirus research. Particularly, how it intersects with issues related to children and families, the social side of the pandemic.
We know, for instance, concerns about violence and maltreatment are on the rise, and going undetected because kids aren't in schools. Victims of violence not being able to flee into shelters. How do we respond to those issues with the experiences and knowledge and skill sets that researchers have accumulated across their careers? What, how can that be supporting decision-makers, as they grapple with how to address those tricky issues?
So we'll do a legislative needs assessment, working with legislative partners to identify their policy goals, and then identify ways that researchers with corresponding expertise or interest areas can be mobilized to respond to those issues. With the goal, in this case, to be doing digital interactions with congressional partners about the research and ways that researchers can get involved in supporting those interest areas.
Cole: Thank you very much for describing that. So, in a sense, you're almost acting like a matchmaker between politicians trying to make policy and researchers that have the good data to help them make that policy. Did I get that right?
Taylor: That's right. I like that description.
Cole: Right on. Well, it's certainly a very hot topic, to talk about research and policy. I should mention that we're having this conversation on May 6th. This is a day when the Trump administration is talking about disbanding their coronavirus task force, potentially. We've had people at state capitals, in recent weeks, with automatic weapons, protesting. We've got a guy making pipe bombs.
We've got, here in Pennsylvania, Centre County's about to go into the yellow zone. Other counties are not. At every level, it seems, this whole topic of research around coronavirus and policy-making couldn't be more contentious, and just, in our face, right? So with that, I want to turn things over to Michael and Jenna to talk about the political side of this whole topic, of research and policy-making, that is so hot right now and in our faces.
Jenna: Yeah, so, Cole, you touched on several topics that we covered on Democracy Works recently, from the protestors to issues of federalism. The kind of state-by-state response that we've seen in deciding to shut down, during the early part of the pandemic, and to reopen, now, as we enter into May, and moving on into the summer. That's something pretty unique to America's system of government.
But, hearkening back to some of what Taylor was saying, and this notion of expertise, something that we talk about also a lot on Democracy Works is why expertise is important in a democracy, and for listeners, Michael, that might not have heard, all of those rants on Democracy Works, would you mind telling us a little bit about the role that expertise plays in a democracy?
Michael Berkman: Well, no rant, but this is a really important topic, and Taylor, what an interesting initiative that you're involved with now. I think one way of thinking about this is there's always a tension between democracy and expertise in American politics. Or, maybe, a better way of thinking about it is that there's a tension between populism and expertise in American politics, where experts are often seen as the sort of elites that populists arise against, that populists think that they, populist movements, tend to think that they know the truth, that they know what's right, that they know what they need, and that elites are pointy-headed intellectuals, to borrow from George Wallace's terms. So there's constantly been this sort of tension within American politics.
I think we're seeing it, a lot of it, with the COVID. We're seeing it in the sort of protests, obviously, that you're talking about, which I think are really important distillations of this. I think the disbanding of the task force today, or at least the announcement that the task force will be winding down, is quite important, because I think it signals that the Trump administration is turning its attention from the scientific, from the science and the battle against the coronavirus, to reopening the government and a reliance on business leaders and economists to figure out how to do that.
Cole: That's right, and I've been thinking about that, as well. So, in a sense, it comes down to values, is what I see here. As a culture, as a nation, or any nation, or any subdivision you want to pick, what are the values that hold the most power, or how are those values stacked?
One way our director was talking about it to me this week, after talking to some local officials right here in Centre County, was, people feel like they have to face a choice between their life and their livelihood, and that's a horrible choice. When I see that, I wonder if there are more creative ways that we can honor both life and livelihood.
Cole: I think that a lot of times, those other ways, the more creative ways, can just get drowned out in the static of "my life, my livelihood," and the battle. Is there another way that isn't such a battle? It's really hard to find a way like that when the stakes are so high. When it is, when we're talking about hundreds of thousands of deaths, potentially, and looks like we're headed to those numbers, and millions of people out of work, right?
Michael: Yeah. I think when you look around the states, you look at the national government and the different ways that this has been dealt with. I think you see some very different approaches. There are some where, I think political leaders have done a very good job of trying to communicate what they're learning from their experts, from their scientists, from their public health professionals, and are able to do this in a nonpartisan sort of way, where they're not trying to turn it into a conflictual issue, but, rather say, "Here's what I've been learning. Here's what I think you need to know. Here's what I think this means, that we're going to need to do."
On the other hand, and I think you're seeing this, especially at the national level, you can turn this into a partisan conflict in and of itself, where the experts are on one side and the people are on the other, and that's where you're going to have a real clash, and that's where you're going to really have problems.
Part of that has involved, what I think, is an unrealistic kind of dichotomy between economics and public health, because without taking care of the virus, there will be no economic activity. You could open up whatever you want, but people are not going to feel safe going out, and so you're not really going to make any kind of progress. I mean, most economists you listen to talk about the need to first take care of the virus, and then you can move into more of these, into these sort of economic questions.
Cole: That's right. And, but, for people to be able to feel secure in that, they need to feel that they can feed their families and have a safe place to be, et cetera. I want to bring things back to Taylor. I know that last week, we talked, Taylor, and I asked you about some success stories, because I see what you're doing with the policy to, excuse me, the research policy collaboration that you're a part of. You've had some successes in the past, in bringing data to legislators that helped to fund more prevention of child abuse, et cetera. Could you speak to that, a little bit, and tell us, a happy moment that, where-
Cole: ... policy-making and research did come together?
Taylor: Sure. I also want to just piggyback on, I guess, where we've taken the narrative already, is about this kind of elitism, and how it becomes this tension between the people versus the elites. I do feel like, in a lot of my work, I try to carry through this idea of outreach, of the academic community, because, I do think that what's exacerbating this dichotomy right now is a lack of, a lack of trusting relationships between community partners, people who represent the people, and the people who are studying the people.
So, if we are kind of in our ivory tower, separate from the people, how can they trust the ivory tower? So I think that our academies are really starting to recognize the need for scholarly engagement, and so we're really part of that effort, as well, and this is both a systemic effort, a systemic need within our institutions to reinforce those engagement efforts, as well as providing mechanisms for doing so, and that's what we are. We are a mechanism for scholarly engagement in the policies space, particularly.
In terms of successes, carrying that relational aspect through, we can look at something that we've done in the policy space to work with policy-makers on the prevention science of child abuse. That is that we know that there's a lot of promise in preventing child abuse before it occurs, and that has the potential to be really cost-effective, because, if you don't prevent child abuse, you can expect a lot of downstream consequences from that trauma to occur for the victims and the families, and the system, as well, including the cost of foster care, as well as the cost of mental and behavioral challenges for the kids who may not do as well in school as a consequence of lifelong, consequence of trauma.
So, why don't we just prevent it in the first place? But we need to be able to effectively communicate that science, and so what we did, working with the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, is that we formed some relationships with, particularly the leaders in Congress on child maltreatment initiatives. That includes caucus leaders and committee leaders staff.
For example, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in the Senate, is one that is charged with the reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. So working in coordination with those legislative partners, we knew and anticipated that they were looking to reauthorize that big piece of child welfare legislation that does have a prevention component, and we organized a congressional briefing at the end of 2018, just before the new Congress started, in that lame duck period, and they were starting to put pen to paper on how they wanted to reauthorize that legislation.
So it was great timing for us, and we could only navigate that timing in partnership with the legislative offices. So, once we planned that briefing, we, I believe that the folks at the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network became recognized as leaders, scholarly leaders in that space, and as a consequence, we were asked to provide testimony in, which is a lot more formal of an activity, compared to congressional briefing. That's something that external organizations outside of Congress can plan and produce, like a panel for policy audiences.
In comparison, a testimony is something that is a hearing that is organized by a committee. For example, a formal entity within Congress, and becomes a part of official congressional record, and they generally only go to the folks who they trust to sort of stay, to not sink the ship of whatever legislative effort they're going to do. They want to make sure it's a super-credible entity that they can count on to do quality work for that testimonial speak.
So they came to us about that, which was really exciting. We had two weeks to prepare written testimony, prepare oral testimony, which is about three minutes, and prepare for questions, and then have someone travel to give that. Two weeks turnaround for something that's official record seems like, really shocking to most people in the academy, so we helped to navigate that policy experience, and we came at it as a team effort of folks from the Center who were all working together to shape that narrative very quickly, and have that person travel and represent the work.
Of course, there's a lot of voices in any policy effort, so it's hard to point a finger to say exactly what the "when" is for any one particular effort, but we can say that the House, in particular, aimed, in past legislative effort, that increased prevention funding significantly.
Cole: Well done. You know, I love the fact that you talked about the collaborative side of that. We're always about collaboration on this podcast, and also, you talked about time. The accelerated time line of two weeks. That reminds me of something Jenna brought up to me yesterday that we really need to touch on in this conversation, about the real-time aspect of what's going on with COVID-19. Jenna, do you want to hit us with that question?
Jenna: Yeah, sure. I do have one other follow-up, though, but before we get to that, so Taylor, as you were just describing, there's all this work that happens, it seems like on a bipartisan basis, and I'm reminded of an interview that we did on our show with a political scientist named Frances Lee, who's at Princeton. One of the things she talked about was how, in, how the media and the public kind of perceives Congress. It's very much about the partisan confrontations and all of those sorts of things, and these more bipartisan efforts tend not to get the media spotlight.
One, because it's not as lucrative for the media's profit models, but also, there is some incentive on behalf of the lawmakers, themselves, that if they can amp up that they're fighting for their side, that's going to help rally voters for the next election. So, I'm wondering what your experience in this realm has been? I mean, are the people you work with, are these efforts getting attention or are they more behind the scenes, or, how do the folks you work with navigate this tension between their policy objectives and maybe their partisan allegiances that they feel like they have to project?
Taylor: Okay, so I think that you're hinting at something that I categorize as, this tension between inside and outside approaches, where, this concept came from Ken Maton at UMBC. He's a, another community psychologist that I work with, and that, around ideas, he published a book about how psychologists engage in policy process. I love this dimension, this characterization, because there's a lot of different ways to go about policy engagement, and they can be symbiotic or they can be synergistic, where, on one side of the coin, you have people who can really sort of rally and say, "This is not right. You need to be, policy-makers need to be doing something different."
Then, on the other side of the coin, there's people who work with policy-makers on existing policy priorities and goals. I think that the trust in those relationships, on the inside approach to, sort of, providing more technical assistance and consultation, is something that you have to be very careful about, because your allegiances on the outside approaches can potentially undermine your credibility as a trusted consultant. But, in the grand scheme of things, you might expect those two efforts to, those two types of efforts to really work in synchrony, because, on the outside of Congress, you have efforts to really mobilize public support, which is, for lack of a better word, a bit of a more coercive technique, to convince policy-makers to do something different that they're not doing already.
But it's very important, especially whenever there's not already the demonstrated public will, that policy-makers' real goal is to serve people, right? They're elected to serve and represent the beliefs of the people, and if the beliefs of the people aren't consistent with the science, then that's probably where you need to go to shape the agenda, the political agenda.
Working within the political agenda, we can help to respond to the existing needs or interests, and potentially, do a bit of a subtler navigation of those interests. But it's much more, it's much less political behind the scenes, I would say.
Michael: Yeah. I'm sorry.
Jenna: Go ahead, Michael.
Michael: Yeah, I was going to, just to pop in for a minute. So I think what Taylor is describing about their work at the committee level is exactly where you would expect expertise to have the most influence, and the most impact on policy-making, because here is a level that's sort of below public perception. It's lower visibility, and more importantly, you're talking about ongoing relationships that allow legislators and their staffs to develop, it's an element of trust, with the experts that they're talking to, or their representatives, or however this is being communicated. Then, that can work its way into policy-making through their discussions. Through the committee hearings, as Taylor was talking about, and this all tends to take place at a level that I think is sort of below public attention, and below the sort of partisan conflicts that happen when things are raised up, to say, the leadership level or to the party level.
Now, where I think we start to run into some problems, and why I think the initiative that's being described today is so important, is that, in many ways, committee work has been increasingly devalued within Congress, and I think that's some of what Frances Lee is getting at, that you were referring to before. Parties in Congress are becoming more ideologically coherent, and conflict within Congress has actually become much more competitive, in terms of who's going to control both the House and the Senate.
This means that, at a certain level, that the conflict between parties is more intense than ever before because it doesn't take much to switch the chambers from one party to the other. It also means that things tend to get elevated up to the leadership level. Here are some other examples of this. For example, members of Congress are hiring fewer staff within Washington. They're putting more of it out in their districts. District staff take care of constituency issues, but they don't really take care of the hard work of policy-making, and there are fewer committee hearings than there used to be. Work is, increasingly, taken out of the hands of committees and put into these sort of on-the-bus bills which are pulling together work, pulling together issues from a variety of committees, and, into the leadership committees or other kinds of leadership tools.
The committee system in Congress was developed, in large part, to develop expertise. So the idea here was that you can let people work over a long period of time. This is why seniority was important. They get to know an area, they get to know the experts within that area. So the committee work is very important, then, and efforts to sort of undermine committees, for example, term limits, undermine that element of committees, because it means that you're taking people out just as they're really starting to learn what it is that they're talking about, and when they're really starting to learn who the experts are in the area that they need to talk with. So I think the kind of thing Taylor describes is fighting against some important trends in Congress, as a way of getting important scientific information into the hands of legislators.
Taylor: I think you're right that the polarization of Congress is more challenging and problematic than most people have experienced in their lives.
Michael: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Taylor: But, I also want to add, maybe, a brief of fresh, breath of fresh air, that behind the scenes, things look a little bit more functional than what we see in the media. Even, I can point to some examples where bipartisanship seems to be working fairly okay. For example, staff in Ways and Means, one of the most reputable committees in the House, because they control entitlement, funding, and taxes, it's a long-standing committee. They say that their bipartisan process has been working pretty well because they work well together.
That's not the case in all committees, of course, and it may not be the case in all subcommittees, subtopic issues, that are really where the fever pitch and polarization is occurring. But I think that, on the outside of things, things look a lot more dramatic than what you see when you're behind scenes.
Michael: Yeah, I think that's very true, and committees are quite different. Some, as you described, like I think Ways and Means, sort of an elite committee, much less partisan sort of committee. Others are really designed by their leaders in terms of who they put on them, for them to represent the sort of partisan conflicts that are going on at the level of elite partisan competition.
So, for example, the judiciary committees are highly partisan. I could point to others, too. Committees who are dealing with issues around climate change. It's much more difficult, I think, to get science in, in a bipartisan sort of way, on those committees than it might be on some of the others. Like, for example, the, what you were talking about with child abuse issues.
Jenna: So the other thing that's sort of complicating all of this, bringing it back around to COVID-19, is that the policy and the legislating, essentially, is happening at the same time. I think that that's what you were getting at, Cole. So, how are legislators navigating some of these challenges, or maybe not? How is that playing out, both from a policy perspective and from a political one?
Michael: Yeah, well, when I think, when you're in a crisis sort of situation like this, policy-making power passes more to the executive than in the legislature. So mostly what you're seeing going on within the legislature right now are these sort of economic responses to what's going on, and not a whole lot about decision-making around when we should reopen, how we should be addressing this. That's all being dealt with within the executive branch, and of course, the state governments. Drawing on already-passed legislation that empowers the CDC and the NIH and these other agencies to take certain kinds of action, or sort of play certain sorts of advisory roles, and I think you're seeing real differences across the states and across the countries, in how expertise is used to make these sort of decisions.
You look at countries like New Zealand and Australia, one led by a conservative government, one led by a liberal government, but in both cases, experts, public health officials, really took the lead in making decisions about what was going to be done. They have similar sort of responses, and effective responses, as well, because everything was sort of moved below the ideological level, and their experts were allowed to have a large say.
I think you saw this in Seattle, actually, in the United States. But you can sort of see this conflict between the public and the experts, play themselves out in different kinds of states, where states with more conservative populations, more populist populations, where there is much more resistance to expertise, are under pressure to open much sooner. I think that's why they're opening sooner. They're responding to the pressure that they're getting from their constituents.
Taylor: I definitely agree. There's a lot of impetus for the executive branch in the COVID crisis, but Congress has also been busier than ever. Like, it's unheard of to see this much legislative activity going on right now. I just pulled up my dashboard and it looks like-
Michael: In very little time, too.
Taylor: Very little time. In the last three months, they've introduced 322 bills related to COVID-19, where the fever pitch looked like it happened around March 22nd. The activity has sort of stabilized since then, but I remember, just anecdotally, looking at my dashboard one day and seeing at least 30 bills introduced on one day. I was just astonished, because usually, in this term of the legislative session, they're not introducing as many bills. They're looking to just sort of ride the wave of the stuff they already in the first half of the term, and get things passed so that they can look good for elections.
Michael: Yeah, I have no doubt that COVID has completely realigned the agenda within Congress, and they're working pretty feverishly, especially when you consider how rarely they're actually in session these days. Especially the House, which is, had been in session less than the Senate has, and the Senate's in session, mostly, in order to do judicial nominees, not really to work on COVID-related issues.
But there are a whole variety of issues that COVID raises that they're legislating on, but you know, the immediate decisions. Do we close this border or not? Do we, are we making, are the guidelines from the CDC going to set this kind of requirement for opening up or this kind? Well, suggestion, not requirement, for opening up, or this kind of suggestion? All that's coming out of the executive branch under preexisting authorizations passed at other times.
There's also, I mean, and this is something that kind of concerns me about what's going on in Congress right now, there's no oversight of executive actions going on, and this is a big part of what Congress is supposed to be doing. Part of it is the kind of stonewalling we've often seen from the administration, in terms of allowing the House, in particular, to exercise oversight, but they also just haven't really quite figured out this issue of, how do we have hearings, for example, remotely? It can be done, but there's nothing more traditionally-oriented than Congress, so it's very hard to get them to move to new ways of doing things. Even the Supreme Court moved more to, was able to move to a virtual meeting, more than the Congress has been able to.
Cole: I'd like to circle back around to something that Taylor shared earlier about the Research-to-Policy Collaboration and the fact that you've made these connections, you've done the matchmaking. Particularly around child abuse prevention, was one of those areas, and about prevention of things we don't want to happen. You've gotten quite good at that.
So I'm wondering, how do you shift to this new COVID world where everything is happening hyper-fast, its stakes so high, and so many dimensions? Economic, health, et cetera, et cetera. Are there people you're focusing on, new folks that you want to reach, to add into your sort of Rolodex of different political offices that you're focusing on, in terms of COVID? Then, on the other side, are there particular researchers that you're trying match up with those different offices?
Taylor: Certainly. I can't remember our exact numbers, but I think that, since all of this started, we've probably identified another 60 to 70, maybe more, researchers, who are eager to get involved in translating research, as it relates to COVID-19. Very exciting to see people who are so passionate about these issues really ready to invest their time, especially when there's not structures and, structural reinforcement from our academic institutions, on average, to help sustain academic, scholarly engagement. This is really an intrinsic reward system that we're operating on, that people want their research to matter. They want to make a difference in the world.
On the congressional side, certainly there are different strategic priorities of how you reach out to someone, depending on the kind of area of impact you're looking to have. So, for example, in the work that the Huck Center is doing, one of the things that we would hope to do is to reach out to legislators who represent other universities, because the Huck Center is hoping to do a study that would look at the serology and immunity that comes from the crisis, from having been exposed to the virus, if that's a protective factor, for communities to have people who have already got that immunity.
It, how can we examine whether or not, sorry, I'm not doing this topic justice. But my point here is that when you have a congressional, when you have a particular effort, where you know that key targets include those with jurisdiction or those who are champions of particular issues, in this case it would be of land-grant universities that are key to studying the serology or the transmission of a virus and the immunity process, then we need to work with those partners who have the potential to make a difference in that area. So it shifts our priorities, in terms of how we outreach with those congressional, the leadership in those topic areas.
Cole: Is there a committee put together, has there been a committee put together at the congressional level that's just focusing on COVID-19? I actually don't know that right now.
Taylor: I don't know that right now either.
Michael: I thought actually that the House had formed a committee that, in part, was going to have oversight over COVID-19. In particular, the enormous sums of money that are going out the door for-
Taylor: They need an oversight committee.
Taylor: ... to make sure that there's accountability of how those government dollars-
Michael: Yeah. Oh, absolutely, and there's been resistance to it. It's become very politicized. I'm not exactly sure where it stands, but it is within the power of the majority to basically do what they want on these things, so in, so I-
Taylor: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Michael: ... expect that they form a committee like that, and then the minority has the choice of putting members on that committee, or not. But I certainly expect that we'll see something like that.
The Senate may be less likely, but the House is much more reliant on committees than the Senate is. It's a larger institution. It's organized differently. It makes more use of committees than the Senate tends to do anyway.
Taylor: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So looking at this, it says that the oversight committee will be looking to provide oversight on the nation's preparedness in response to the outbreak.
Michael: Yeah, so that's the, that's the standing oversight committee, not a-
Michael: Not a new committee. Right. But I, because there is a standing oversight committee. I'm sure, even though Congress is not in session, that their staff, they're working remotely like everybody else, and I'm sure they're doing quite a bit of this oversight as we're speaking. But I do believe they're going to form a separate committee to overlook, I'm sorry, to oversee, some of this money that's been going out the door.
Jenna: Right. So I know we only have a few minutes left, but I wanted to come back to something that is really at the heart of democracy, and I think also at the heart of a lot of this. This policy work we've been talking about, and that is, where people get their information, or kind of, the sources that they value for information.
There's increasingly, I think, a divide, where people, largely on the right, tend to be more apt to conspiracy theories or sources of information that are not grounded in policy or in expertise, or all of these things we've been talking about. So, the very cynical question that's been going through the back of my mind through this whole discussion as we've been prepping, and so, there's all this work being done, but what is the impact, if the public doesn't believe it, or some segment of the public doesn't believe it or doesn't buy it, or is prone to believe something, that it's not entirely based in evidence?
I'm just wondering, how can these, is the best case scenario here that these two things just continue to exist in separate worlds, where the people who are onboard with policy and expertise are kind of on one side, and then people that have a different set of beliefs are on another, or, where do we go from here?
Michael: Can I hop in here?
Jenna: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael: Yeah, so, I hear Taylor describe being two things, if I'm not misrepresented. It's Taylor, one is that you're focusing on the committee level, and working with members and staff in the policy-making process. Then, there's also this need for scientists and academics to get their research out into the public in a way that they can understand it. I know that's something that's discussed quite a bit within the social sciences these days, and how to do that.
The issue on the second, in particular, is really this notion that there's almost epistemological polarization going on in this country right now at the mass level, where you have people divided along partisan, almost tribal lines, where they're within their own media sources and in many cases, media silos, and in one of them, in particular, conspiracy theories abound. There is a sort of populous distrust of expertise, and it is very difficult to get through that.
I don't have a simple answer for how that would be done, and I think, actually, that what you're often seeing from national politicians plays directly into this, by just sort of confusing things. I mean, we need, it's up to political leaders, I think, to communicate the science, the expertise, what needs to be done, in ways that the public can understand. Part of what this means is to not contradict them when you're standing next to them. To not confuse things by just throwing out a whole range of facts, some of which are true and some of which are just pulled out of thin air.
It means not creating a sort of chaotic environment, where you don't know what's true and what's not. I think that is what we're seeing more and more, especially within the right, I think. This is very challenging, when you get into an issue that deals with such complex scientific information.
Now, it's not inevitable that things go this way. I look at some states led by Democratic governors and led by Republican governors, where the governors have very high approval from the public, and they're taking very strong action, relatively speaking. Not compared to what happened in Asia, but very strong measures within their states for social distancing and the like. The public supports them and understands what's going on. There's a sort of coherent message that's coming out.
The national level, I think you're seeing something very different. From my point of view, I'm just as happy to see the task force go, because I think that it was confusing matters. I think they were standing up there as a sort of foil to the president, for him to argue with, and for him to contradict, and in a way, to play into this kind of very confused sort of information echo system that's really quite dangerous.
Taylor: I think that what you said about contradicting the vision-makers is really important, especially in the work that I do, is, sort of relational focus, but also, we're trying to draw on communication sciences as well, and one of the things that we have recognized is that it's bad practice to reiterate a mistruth. Instead, best practice is to just say the truth, and stick to the truth. That is something that doesn't have to directly contradict the decision-maker and say, "You lie," ruining that relationship and putting, pitting yourself at odds, politically, with whoever backs that person, because they're going to trust their political leader and that ideology. Instead, just saying, "Well, the truth is this thing." You're following communication best science, as well as not putting yourself in jeopardy of politicizing you against the politician.
Taylor: But the other thing that I want to also recognize is that, in order for scientists to have better relationships with communities, with people, with organizations, politicians, we also need to recognize that there are multiple forms of expertise that policy-makers and decision-makers rely on, including decision-making, relies on lived experiences of their constituents, as well as the folks who are policy experts and, admittedly, a lot of scientists don't have a lot of policy training. So how are we supposed to predict what the unintended consequences are of taking action on our narrow slice of expertise?
So, I think it's helpful to build relationships, when we recognize these multiple forms of expertise, because it allows us to develop partnerships that would help to well balance out the narrow slice of scientific knowledge that we have, and thinking about how that can actually be used and what the meaning behind that would be for people at different levels in our communities, and local level, state level, different levels of government. Different types of organizations.
Michael: Yeah. I think you need both the experts and the politicians working together and, I mean, there is something that a politician brings to this that a scientist or a public health official does not necessarily bring to it. An understanding of their constituents, an understanding of how to communicate with them, an understanding of what will fly and what won't, an understanding of how to lay the groundwork for certain kinds of changes that may be coming for people's lives. I mean, so, it's important that they be able to work together.
What concerns me about this sort of epistemological polarization, and I was mentioning, is that, it almost seems, sometimes in this country, like people are seeing two entirely different realities, or working from different sets of facts, or understandings of what is happening in the world and where they're getting their information from. Democracy needs some kind of a common basis in what's actually happening in the world in order to be able to come up with solutions to it.
Now, I mean, the truth will always be contested. People will always bring in their, sort of, the facts and the information that helps to advance their point of view. So, to a certain extent, information is always partisan in that it's being brought in to advance one argument or another. But we're at a kind of different point where there is not even common agreement on what we're seeing in front of ourselves, and that's been developing for many years. It's a complex topic. So let me just leave it at, I'll just leave it at that. Yup.
Cole: Thank you, Michael and Taylor. We're going to be running out of time here pretty soon, so I'm going to try to reflect back some things that I just heard, as we wrap this up. It's been a fascinating conversation, to bring together two worlds of politics and research, as we're always trying to do on the podcast, is bring in different voices from different places. So, I just want to wrap up here by saying, Taylor, I heard what you said. It's best policy in communication to stick to "Just the facts, ma'am," and Michael, what you're saying is not everybody agrees on those facts.
Cole: So, this idea of trust and who do we believe and what are the facts, and also the lived experience that Taylor brought up, I think is really important. Here, right here in Centre County, Penn State is about to launch a local effort. It's called the "Data for Action Plan for Centre County," where we listen to the voices of the different people and we hear what they're going through with COVID on the economic side, on the health side, on the belief side, and we're trying to put this into practice. Like, real time, gather the data and help local officials to make better informed decisions for the safety of Centre County residents, and also doing the serology testing of the potential immunity to COVID that Taylor spoke of earlier.
So we are in the middle of this right now, and a big thing going on in those conversations is the voices, the voices of all those different people that need to be heard, and what do they believe, and where are they getting their information? We really have to address these things. We really have to address them and unpack them and hear the voices, and make the connections, the way that Taylor's doing with her group, is that connective, the collaborative, so that the voices can be heard. So that we can have the best picture possible, to make the best decisions possible, and continue to evolve our processes so that those processes do serve everybody more and more.
That's, at least, my hope. That's what, we're trying to contribute to that right here with this podcast, by bringing different voices on to be heard and share ideas, with this idea that we can get better at it. We can evolve this, and democracy is a good way to do that. We should preserve democracy so that these voices can be heard, so that we don't fall into some sort of fascist situation where people are just dominated beyond belief.
We're trying to evolve past that, as well, and find creative solutions where, it's not a question of your life or your livelihood. So, I want to thank all of you for being on the podcast today. I think you're all doing great work that helps to evolve our culture, and helps to preserve democracy, and helps to make connections of people that maybe wouldn't get connected, and that, we're doing all the stuff in service to the evolution of our society, towards a healthier, happier, more prosperous one.
It's certainly a really difficult time for everybody right now, but I would say that doing this kind of work is that much more important. So I want to thank all of you for the work you're doing. I want to thank you for being on the podcast today. To our listeners out there, thanks for listening in. Don't stop coevolving. Thanks a lot.