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Avoid inappropriate science use in spill policy-making

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.


Mr. Harris Plutocrat said...

How profoundly funny that such a whiney simpleton is given the keys to a "Public Policy and Evaluation" course covering what he considers "science" (which, based on this post, consists entirely of National Review and WSJ editorials). I'd love to see the reading list on that one, which is most likely just a series of GOP press releases and John Birch pamphlets. The Climate-Change denialist, creationist, Jindal cheerleader, would now like to tell us about "science informing policy." This is the same professor who wrote that "genuine scientific inquiry is a casualty of those that assert human activity makes any significant contribution to climate change." Why? because he says there is no such thing as "man-made global warming," that it is not scientific but "political" in nature. As he is wont to do, he sums up with a conspiracy theory about how climate change is a hoax meant to control the lives of Shreveportions. Sadow's conspiracy theory (which, incidentally, is identical to Lyndon LaRouche's) involves tens of thousands of seemingly-independent "researchers" (scientists) across the globe who secretly conspire to falsify data to gin up more U.S. "government dole" research money. As proof, our tinfoil-hatted professor says that "much" of this research was "found manipulated" by dastardly "perpetrators"! (No citations, of course.) Surely, this is all some sort of George Soros plot involving brownshirt teamsters and black panthers. Psst! Here is an inside tip from the inside of the liberal movement, Jeff: the black panthers have been quietly investing heavily in wind energy - maybe they know something we don't know.

Mr. Harris Plutocrat said...

Anyway, back in the real world, science informs policy when liberals run the show. The reverse is true when it is you people.

Case in point is this very blog post. If science informs policy, then why on earth would you suggest we bypass science and listen instead to an "observer of politics" shill for the GOP? In your little world Delroy Murdock knows more about science than the collective intellect of Louisiana coastal scientists. [readers: Sadow doesn't want you to read what scientists have to say, which is why he refuses to link to them, but if you want a reasoned debate on the issue's pros and cons, go here: and here:]. Then Sadow goes on to say *without any basis at all* (Sadow: your pure ideology is showing) that "we know" that sand berms "will ameliorate the effects of the oil." This despite the round opposition of the full spectrum of scientists who say that this idea is bad. Sadow says that we just "know" it does, so it does. Of course, you refuse to acknowledge or even address their science-based reasoning (any of it!), and instead take the same old Jeff Sadow trademark swipe at their motives: they are destroying the coast deliberately because the solution wasn't proposed by Obama and they want him to hog all the glory and are pouting because it's Jindal who came up with the idea.

Note to Jeff Sadow students. We now know the surest way to get an "A" in his GOP PR class. First, on the test start off by saying a few flowery things about how science is a noble occupation that informs good, pro-American decision-makers (tack on some pro-free market drivel for bonus points here). Second, acknowledge that scientists, though often well-intentioned when they are the god-fearing, National Review-reading kind, regrettably they do not have the answers to everything. Third, read through recent PR bulletins by the GOP and Chamber of Commerce. Fourth, write some sciency-stuff supporting whatever the GOP position is, and link to the National Review's talking points. Fifth, hurl vitriol and conjecture at anyone questioning your unsupported conclusions, and baselessly question their motives, but for god's sake don't address any of their scientific arguments! If you follow this five-step process, I promise that Sadow will lap up your test answers and give you an "A", and he'll feel deeply proud to be sending out into the future another worker bee for freedom.

Mr. Harris Plutocrat said...

days after your moronic whine about how wonderful the sand berms are and how evil the scientists are, since they don't know science as well as the National Review. Your sandberms are an utter failure and you have been exposed as a dishonest fraud and shill:

If Obama had proposed this, you wouldn't have any trouble highlighting the weakness of sand berms. You're a disgrace to your university.