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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Policy and Science

Prof. Eubanks posted a blog with a quote from a scientist, Dr. Roy Spencer about issues with global warming. He asked how we should evaluate policy alternatives when scientists disagree. I think to start, since BCA is the analytic part of our efficiency analysis, and the scientific method is the way scientists substantiate hypotheses, it's only natural, as well as correct, to deal with policy issues that have been tested many times over. In this case, it will be relatively easy to determine which policies have potential pareto improvements. It's easier to evaluate policy on something we know happens, like second hand smoke hurting nonsmokers, than to deal with global warming.

Inevitably, there will come about a political issue that deals with a scientific claim or concern that hasn't had the time to be tested over and over. This case is tricky. Just like economists apply their BCA to policy alternatives, determining which ones are viable, the scientists should evaluate their claims and present their findings clearly to policymakers. The scientists would only present findings which had a substantial amount of research to back them up. If there weren't any filters, policymakers would be swimming in possible scientific problems in the world and the policies to fix them.

It is important to note that scientists are not policymakers. However, that doesn't mean their findings aren't important to the elected officials. Ideally, the politicians would be as well informed as possible. That education would come from scientists and economists, and public opinion.

For policy alternitives when scientists disagree, economists should look at each possibility, applying their BCA to each possibility. This would help the politician clarify what he's accomplishing/hurting when he chooses a policy. Once again, ideally, the scientists would do experiments to substantiate one of the claims instead of handing a policymaker 20 sheets of possible outcomes from global warming, and how to stop them. I think in the end, we can't know everything, so, hopefully, the elected officials make the best decision they can, and we hope our o-zone sticks around till we're gone.

Let me add something to the mix that I think your post doesn't consider.

In class we talked about the demand and supply of legislation. When policy issues are controversial, and when the issue includes controversy over what science does and doesn't know, we might want to consider who the people are who are demanding the legislation. Perhaps this isn't quite clear enough. Could it be the case that scientists themselves are some of the people who demand the legislation?

In the case of the global warming policy issue, perhaps part of the political debate concerns clarifying what is and what is not true with respect to economic activities contributing or even causing global warming. Could it be the case that some scientists who study climate would see their own self interest in making global warming a significant political issue? Could doing this increase the funding for and perceived importance of the research done by climate scientists?

Aaron Wildavsky in, But Is It True, recounts that a few years back a very noted global warming scientist was heard to say in an interview that when it came to something like global warming it was justified to lie about what we knew if that is what it took to get the attention of politicians.

So, add to the mix of you discussion the idea that the controversy about scientific understanding might itself be an element in the demand and supply of legislation.
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