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.]

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