Posted July 18th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

It seems lazy to just post clips from the Colbert Report but Stephen nailed the abuses of cost-benefit analysis on Monday night, in the Word segment, “Priceless”, and I’m in France… [note: the video clip doesn’t seem to be working – hopefully Comedy Central will fix it soon]. The short version: “A human life is 6.9 million dollars. Gaming the system to protect industry from safety regulations: priceless.”
A billboard at CDG airport says getting lost in Paris is also priceless – which is true, but this time I got lost in Brittany and found a megalithic tomb. I’m not sure if it was facing the Atlantic or “La Manche” – the French name for what I have, until now, known as the English Channel. Back in Paris, on Bastille Day, a soldier riding a tank in a military convoy on its way back from the parade, saw my companion’s Obama button, smiled, and flashed a “V” sign, which says a lot about what has happened to America’s image. I did a few other things but on the blog, I try to stick to environmental science and policy stuff. Speaking of which, right now, I’m hiding in a farmhouse in another region, and working on a presentation I was invited to give next week at a seminar in Germany, on water and biodiversity – more on that later. Since I will be stopping in Berlin on the way, and will finally get to see what is left of the iron curtain, I may have to also revisit the idea of a Post-Cold War Reconstruction (will unfortunately miss the Obama rally in Berlin). I may also get around to posting some comments of my own on cost-benefit analysis.
[corrected and revised, 4:48 pm]

Science says

Posted April 24th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

The use of science as a masquerade for what is really a political debate really should be old news – when I worked at the NAS in the late ’80s, I recall hearing that an agency request for a study that would say what the standards, or acceptable levels should be for toxic substances, probably under the Clean Air Act, was turned down because it was not considered a scientific question. To their credit, the EPA Scientific Advisory Panel is also clear on this in advice regarding the secondary standard for allowable concentrations of ground level ozone, necessary to control smog. But the tape continues to be replayed in assertions on blogs and elsewhere about “what science tells us we need.” Yet another prominent example of this is commented on in this Nature article (sub req’d) by David Goldston, in response to criticism of the intervention by Bush to weaken regulations to control smog, and a statement by Carol Browner regarding the Clean Air Act, which she says “creates a moral and ethical commitment that we are going to let the science tell us what to do.” Since the article is behind a pay wall, I’m just going to paste some snips here:

But does it? The conceit that science alone should and can dictate clean-air standards is propagated by political figures of all stripes and often by scientists themselves. Politicians always want to argue that any regulatory measure they are supporting is the only one justified by science because doing so makes their position sound objective and above the political fray. That’s especially true in today’s polarized environment, when claiming to have science on your side may be the only line of argument that can reach someone who doesn’t share your ideological persuasion.

In reality, though, regulatory decisions involve policy judgements as well as scientific determinations, and the science is often uncertain. The Clean Air Act explicitly leaves decisions to the “judgment of the administrator” of the EPA (a presidential appointee), who is advised by, among others, a scientific panel. Contending that standards are based solely on science conflates policy and science questions, muddying the debate and putting scientists needlessly in the line of fire….


…The debate over the new ozone standards is just beginning, but the detrimental impact of confusing science with policy can be seen by looking back at what happened in 1997, when the EPA last changed the ozone rules. The fight then was over the primary ozone standard, the one designed to protect public health. The EPA proposed tightening the standard, and Browner (then EPA’s chief) repeatedly argued that the decision was dictated by the science.

As a congressional staffer, I fought for the EPA proposal and I still support it. But what the science actually demonstrated was that for a given level of ozone, there are a predictable number of excess hospital admissions from aggravated respiratory conditions. At the time, there was little indication that ozone caused chronic health problems or deaths. Therefore the policy issue was: “How many hospital admissions are acceptable?” Needless to say, no politician was interested in engaging in that debate. The members of the EPA’s science advisory panel at the time were split over what standard to suggest, but agreed that the number was a “policy call”, not a scientific question. The science in no way told Browner exactly what to do.

All this quickly got lost in what became a prolonged and highly acrimonious debate between supporters and opponents of the new rule, in which each side accused the other of using poor science. This was bad for policy because the question of how to decide on an acceptable level of protection never got raised, never mind discussed. And it was bad for science because accusations of poor science conducted in the service of political goals can only raise distrust and confusion about the scientific enterprise.

The 1997 ozone fight, even more clearly than the 2008 rerun, was a case of a policy debate masquerading as a science debate. In such instances, scientists ought to be busy ripping off the policymakers’ masks, not donning them.

This frame works because of the perception that science provides certainty and therefore, can be called on as the ultimate authority. So it should be no mystery why the uncertainty argument works as a way to avoid policy decisions. But the idea that “we” are the ultimate authority, via the messy process of politics, remains a scary one.

[Hat tip: Inscights.]

If only it were rocket science

Posted April 23rd, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

Krugman recalls some of the pitfalls of crossing disciplinary boundaries in the Limits to Growth debates that took place in the 1970s, when its author, Jay Forrester, decided to try his hand at economics. The result earned a scathing review from William Nordhaus, for whom Krugman worked as an assistant at the time. He gives an important rule of thumb:

The general rule to remember is that if some discipline seems less developed than your own, it’s probably not because the researchers aren’t as smart as you are, it’s because the subject is harder.)

Kudos to Krugman, and also to Environmental Economics for recognizing that this can go both ways, and that “economists do the same thing to sociologists and political scientists” or “x-ologists.” In fact, Nordhaus himself is among the better known culprits, as discussed in the classic paper by Funtowicz and Ravetz, The worth of a songbird (pdf), revisited by Paul Baer here on PNT in The worth of an ice sheet , with further comments from Jerry here. (Nordhaus’ role in climate science also surfaces in this paper by Naomi Oreskes et al about which I have another post in progress, but in the meantime, see what the Rabett  has to say.]  Long time readers of this blog who have been following the discourse on post-normal science can skip the rest but, a few highlights worth reiterating for everyone else:

F&R made the case that predictions made by Nordhaus in 1991 regarding the costs and benefits of climate change are based on arbitrary guestimates with extremely high uncertainty, e.g., his estimated impact of climate change on farms ranges from -10.6 to +9.7, billion $. This is acknowledged with caveats in the paper, e.g., “we now move from the terra infirma of climate change to the terra incognita of the social and economic impacts of climate change.” However, it is not reflected in his conclusion that “climate change is likely to produce a combination of gains and losses with no strong presumption of substantial net economic damage.” You would think that since the 1990s, knowledge might have progressed. But as Paul Baer points out, even the degree of risk implied by the “flaming arrows” diagram in the Stern report, which suggest that there is little to worry about until the average temperature rises by around 3 degrees C, can be traced back to a survey of Expert Opinion on Climate Change done by Nordhaus in 1994 in which “unsurprisingly, the estimated damage consequences of various temperature scenarios were significantly skewed between economists and natural scientists, as discussed in the original and in Roughgarden, T. and S. H. Schneider (1999).” As Paul also explained:

the specific risks implied by the “flaming arrows” are nowhere quantified directly. Instead, there is a single number calculated for “catastrophic impacts,” based on a probability distribution for the temperature threshold at which the risk begins, and for the “value” (in terms of lost GNP) if the catastrophe occurs. The parameters of this “damage function” are in turn based on an expert survey done by William Nordhaus in 1994. According to Stern (p. 153), “When global mean temperature rises to high levels (an average of 5°C above pre-industrial levels), the chance of large losses in regional GDP in the range of 5 – 20% begins to appear. This chance increases by an average of 10% per ºC rise in global mean temperature beyond 5°C.”

Among his main concluding points:

“catastrophic damage function” doesn’t adequately capture all the reasonable interpretations of the likelihood and value of melting the Greenland ice sheet, to say nothing of other potential “catastrophes.” Thus, it follows that the upper bound on damages for any different stabilization level has not been established. This alone should be enough to conclude that the economic justification for the lower-bound of 450 ppm CO2-e stabilization can’t be robust.

Lest anyone dismiss this as a rant against economics – it is not. I have no problem with economists who recognize the limits of their methodologies, and are clear about this in their conclusions. There are some. To be fair, I’ll end this with a quote from Gregory Bateson, who sees the same pitfall in the entire relationship between science and society:

“I have been playing recently with the idea that the position of the scientific community vis-à-vis nature is comparable to the position of one complex culture in contact with another. In such a culture contact there are various tendencies towards oversimplification. The themes of the other culture which are actually complex patterns tend to be reified, and, especially the modes of interaction tend to become quantitative (money, trade, etc.)”

Bert Bolin

Posted January 3rd, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

When the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, I wondered why Bert Bolin wasn’t standing next to Al Gore. As it turns out, he would have been, had he not been too ill to travel – at least he lived long enough to enjoy the honor (hat tip Climate Science Watch).

Which brings me back to a post I started awhile back, but never got around to finishing, about the important role of synthesis in science, which is rarely mentioned – not at all for example in this article by scientific historian Naomi Oreskes on the history of the consensus of climate change. To be fair, there are only so many things one can say in an op-ed, but in between the work of those she mentions was a report from a workshop led by Bert Bolin in 1977, under the auspices of the ICSU Scientific Committee on Problems in the Environment (SCOPE), at which 66 scientists from 22 countries tried to nail down the “missing carbon.” An excerpt from the preface of SCOPE report number 13:

One major problem, which constantly cropped up in the discussions, concerned the carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere. This issue is very significant because the potential increase of CO2 in air remains substantially unpredictable as a factor in climatic variations. For us, the CO2 question is only one of many important issues concerning carbon. It also appears that an answer to the build-up of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere can only be found by placing the CO2 problem in its proper environmental context, that is, the global cycle of carbon. Consequently we have tried, in a series of articles, to treat the carbon cycle by dividing it into various segments, i.e. hydrosphere, biosphere, atmosphere and lithosphere. Rather than concentrating on the accumulation and compilation of the data alone, we were guided by the intention to reveal the mechanisms of the carbon cycle in terms of sinks and sources and the kinetics of transfer and exchange.

Subsequently, in 1981, he led another interdisciplinary team that examined interactions among all of the major biogeochemical cycles: carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, phosphorus that resulted in SCOPE 21. And then, another review in preparation for a 1985 UNEP/WMO/ICSU International Conference on The Assessment of the Role of Carbon Dioxide and of Other Greenhouse Gases in Climate Variations and Associated Impacts, held in Villach Austria, that produced the following recommendation:

Recommended actions: Major uncertainties remain in predictions of changes in global and regional precipitation and temperature patterns. Ecosystem responses are also imperfectly known. Nevertheless, the understanding of the greenhouse question is sufficiently developed that scientists and policy-makers should begin an active collaboration to explore the effectiveness of alternative policies and adjustments. Efforts should be made to design methods necessary for such collaboration. UNEP, WMO and ICSU should establish a small task force on green- house gases, or take other measures, to: Help ensure that appropriate agencies and bodies follow up the recommendations of Villach 1985. Ensure periodic assessments are undertaken of the state of scientific understanding and its practical implications. Provide advice on further mechanisms and actions required at the national or international levels. Encourage research in developing countries to improve energy efficiency and conservation. Initiate; if deemed necessary, consideration of a global convention.

which appears in SCOPE 29, The Greenhouse Effect, Climatic Change and Ecosystems. Following which, the IPCC was formed.

I started to learn about all of this around 1991, when, as an employee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, I was assigned as staff to the US Committee for SCOPE – an international body that was established to provide this kind of synthesis on emerging global environmental problems – which is how they get on the radar screen. Much of the credit for the establishment of SCOPE goes to Gilbert White, who very much influenced my decision to become a geographer, after many years of frustration doing interdisciplinary work in institutions that at best, seem intentionally designed to make it difficult. At worst, such endeavors get dismissed as “academic moonlighting.” So I appreciate what a feat it must have been, both to create SCOPE and the IPCC – and remain in awe. They have both served not only to advance knowledge, but to build the capacity for international collaboration in science, which can be a starting point for collaboration in addressing global problems. A few quotes from Gilbert White:

“What is important is where we stand in relation to the tasks of society . . . What shall it profit [the profession of geography] if it fabricates a nifty discipline about the world while that world and the human spirit are degraded?”

“I feel strongly that I should not go into research unless it promises results that would advance the aims of the people affected and unless I am prepared to take all practicable steps to help translate the results into action.”

Added note: One of the reasons the SCOPE reports were obscured to those outside the scientific community involved in producing them, was because they were once outrageously expensive, and the internet did not yet exist. But volumes 1-59 are now available for download in their entirety. Newer volumes are now published by Island Press at much more reasonable rates.