Monday, December 21, 2009

Policy, Not Science, Is the Point

Two years ago, I wrote:
From here in D.C., many seem to believe bureaucrats and science trump popular sovereignty. It shouldn't be so.

Critics have it completely backwards. Government is about policymaking. And while science and data gathering may be "independent" in some sense, policy is not.

[I]t simply isn't the case that science settles the question--if their populations truly are declining, "preferring pipelines to polar bears" isn't necessarily irrational.
Daniel Sarewitz and Samuel Thernstrom make s similar point in Wednesday's LA Times:
[B]oth parties have agreed, although tacitly, on one thing: Science is the appropriate arbiter of the political debate, and policy decisions should be determined by objective scientific assessments of future risks. This seductive idea gives politicians something to hide behind when faced with divisive decisions. If "pure" science dictates our actions, then there is no need to acknowledge the role that political interests and social values play in deciding how society should address climate change.

The idea that pure, disinterested science should decide political disputes was a staple of Democratic politics during the George W. Bush administration. Now it's payback time, as Republicans gloat over an alleged "smoking gun" of scientific misconduct provided by recently released e-mails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. After decrying the "Republican war on science," Democrats are hard-pressed to explain the discovery of their own partisans in the scientific trenches.

We do not believe the East Anglia e-mails expose a conspiracy that invalidates the larger body of evidence demonstrating anthropogenic warming; nevertheless, the damage to public confidence in climate science, particularly among Republicans and independents, may be enormous. The terrible danger -- one that has been brewing for years -- is that the invaluable role science should play in informing policy and politics will be irrevocably undermined, as citizens come to see science as nothing more than a tool for partisans of all stripes. . .

Thus, we write neither to attack nor to defend the East Anglia scientists, but to make clear that the ideal of pure science as a source of truth that can cut through politics is false. . .

The real scandal illustrated by the e-mails is not that scientists tried to undermine peer review, fudge and conceal data, and torpedo competitors, but that scientists and advocates on both sides of the climate debate continue to claim political authority derived from a false ideal of pure science. This charade is a disservice to both science and democracy. To science, because the reality cannot live up to the myth; to democracy, because the difficult political choices created by the genuine but also uncertain threat of climate change are concealed by the scientific debate.

What is the solution? Let politics do its job; indeed, demand it.
(via Volokh Conspiracy)


OBloodyHell said...

> should be determined by objective scientific assessments of future risks.

Even if you grant this, you don't want to make the mistake of Pascal's Wager, which they've been using all along as an argument.

OBloodyHell said...

> What is the solution? Let politics do its job; indeed, demand it.

I don't think that's the problem. They want the political solution, it's just the political solution of the Imperial Diktat, not the solution of the Democratic Ideal.

OBloodyHell said...

...Gives new meaning to be in support of "ID", don't it?

Carl said...

Partial answer here (what you call "Pascal's Wager" I call the "precautionary principle").

OBloodyHell said...

> I fully understand the "precautionary principle," which is not necessarily un-sound. I just haven't seen enough to apply it to climate change.

Pascal's Wager is inherently flawed. The Precautionary Principle, on the other hand, is a blatantly sensible Rule of Thumb.

They are making Pascal's Wager, not implementing the PP.

The former is a claim based on a simplistic examination of the problem.

The latter is a rational application of an idea based on a careful examination of a situation, the risks involved behind selecting the wrong alternative, AND the opportunity costs of each option.

What part of "careful examination" do you think has been applied here? What risks have been detailed? What opportunity costs identified and laid out?

Right, and QED: It's Pascal's Wager, not the Precautionary Principle in play here.

To call it the PP is to grant legitimacy to the claim which it hasn't even sought.