One of the things we get into with my Public Policy and Evaluation course (coming to you through the Internet soon, if you are privileged enough to be enrolled at LSUS, are of senior standing, and having completed a course in research methods) is the role that science takes in the making of policy. Such an understanding has a direct and immediate impact surrounding the ecological disaster that continues to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, courtesy of an unrestrained blowout well, as the uses scientific inquiry have been used to perpetuate the negative impact of the situation.
Three principles should govern the interaction of science and policy-making. First, science is an input, not the output, in the process. To mistakenly reverse the causation produces folly that comes across loudly and clearly in the question of man-made global warming, where science became perverted to follow a political agenda (which still is not being admitted by the perpetrators).
Second, science is one of many and not automatically the primary input into the process. Many other factors come into play here because we are talking about politics – the reconciling of social differences to produce a way of governing society, presumably in the best way possible. It means there are tradeoffs to reach the desired end state of the majority, where it’s possible that in taking an action that poses a nontrivial and significant chance that environmental degradation would occur becomes justified because of the greater nontrivial and significant chance it will benefit human beings.
Third, uncertainty in science prohibits the transfer of its risk/return ratio to become the defining criterion in evaluating public policy. Science makes an assumption of certainty in theory, but in practice it’s nowhere close because of the limitations of human knowledge. Certain tactics may or may not produce costs and/or benefits of uncertain magnitudes. Therefore, such calculations cannot be the only criteria by which to decide, and unlikely even the most important ones when balanced with human needs.
Applying these to the public policy problem in the Gulf, some scientists – who, to remind of the third principle, have a myopic view about larger concerns that, given the limitations of science, isn’t even a necessarily valid view – worry about how strategies involving sand berms and rock barriers may cause other environmental damage. Others are concerned about whether funds would not be better used for longer-term threats such as coastal erosion, given the low return they see on those strategies – which, to remind, becomes problematic according to the second principle.
It’s not surprising, actually, that the best analogy about the debate over tactics in response comes not from a scientist but an astute observer of politics, Delroy Murdock. The columnist, in a piece expanding upon some of the same observations that recently appeared in this space about the insufficient, even politicized, actions of the Pres. Barack Obama Administration to the crisis, in response to these kinds of concerns, notes “ … if your house is burning down during an electrical storm, go ahead and call 911. Don’t sit there paralyzed in fear because a lightning bolt might electrocute you as you phone the fire department.”
The fact is, we know the use of sand berms, rock barriers, and the like will ameliorate the effects of the oil – maybe a lot, maybe only somewhat. We also know that oil getting onto the coast and into ecosystems is going to have a negative impact on many aspects of human existence – perhaps a lot, perhaps only some. Finally, we know that this is happening now in the short term with a certainty of one.
By contrast, potential negative impacts of the use of these tactics are precisely that – potential and highly uncertain that they will occur. That they would occur in the long term further reduces the expected value in their harm – whereas the harm being done by the sheen is certain and much more quantifiable. To not understand this demonstrates a misunderstanding of the necessity of reviewing the entire, big picture that includes human needs and of a proper consideration of genuine risks and rewards. As much as we may distrust politicians, at least a representative democracy holding them accountable to the people does provide great impetus to them to better evaluate in these instances.
More specifically, in the current crisis it’s not good enough to argue that in order to save the coast by not pursuing some strategies you had to destroy it by the neglecting to implement these strategies. One hopes this view has not evolved in violation of the first principle above – opposition to these strategies coming because they were not enacted by the Obama Administration which is suffering politically through its handling of the crisis while Louisiana’s pursuit of them has made Obama appear by contrast to be even more inept. But were that the case neither would that be a surprise either.