The interplay of science and public policy is always difficult, and the proliferation of junk science makes it worse. (More)

Science in Politics, Part III: Better Science for Better Policy (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at science in politics. Thursday we began with why opponents of the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program are not just losing, but “losing it.” Yesterday we asked if psychology research is hamstrung by too little replication, or too little coherent theory. Today we conclude with whether the social sciences have enough rigor to reliably guide policy.

Your walk through the park

Each morning, you walk across the park to work. You come in through the south entrance. There’s a kids’ playground in the southwest quadrant of the park and you don’t want to cut across, so you go north along the walkway to the duck pond. Your office is just past the west entrance so the shortest route would be to turn left and circle the pond clockwise. But you like to watch the ducklings paddle behind their mom, and there are some nice statues along the walkway, so you turn right and circle three-quarters of the pond, counter-clockwise.

Then you head for the west exit. As you near that exit the east-west walkway meets a diagonal walkway from the north entrance. People tend on the east-west walkway tend to drift to the south side to make room for people coming from that diagonal walkway, so you rarely bump into anyone unless they’re talking or texting on their phones. All in all, your walking-to-work-through-the-park looks like this:

 photo YourParkWalk.jpg

(Correction: The statue immediately west of the duck pond should be on the north side of the walkway, not on the south side.)

If anyone asked why you take that route, you might give them the reasons I described above. But what if I told you that your route through the park was planned for you, by the architect who designed it?

“A minimal set of simple rules”

Those lovely trees around the playground are there, in part, to discourage people from cutting that diagonal. Those pretty statues around the pond encourage people to move to the other side of the walkway and circle the pond counter-clockwise. So do the statues at the intersection with the diagonal walkway.

The park can be crowded in the morning, with people going to work and seniors feeding the ducks and moms taking their kids to the playground. But it rarely feels crowded … because the architect laid it out to smooth the pedestrian flow.

The architect didn’t do that by asking people about their reasons for choosing this or that pathway. Instead, the architect used cellular automata modeling to predict how people would walk through the park. Most of us like to believe we think about what we do – and we think about some things – but when it comes to choosing a path through a park, mall, train or bus station, or other crowded place … most of us follow very predictable patterns:

[Cellular automata] models, generally, and CA models of vehicular traffic, in particular, have been undergoing rigorous study and examination. CA models include the dynamic phenomena of fluid flow models and are easier to apply on realistic networks. CA models approximate the more complex models with a minimal set of simple rules. CA models run fast. They are microscopic models and can be designed to give individual properties to each traveler. They are intuitively understandable and in some sense the rule sets and individual properties make them behavioral models. The flow characteristics emerge from the application of the rule set to the individual travelers.

It’s not very flattering but, when it comes to choosing your path through the park, you’re a simple-minded creature who can be modeled on a computer. And the science of cellular automata modeling is rigorous and grounded enough that architects can rely on it when designing buildings and landscapes.

“We must sharpen our collective scientific understanding”

But in other fields, the science isn’t yet that strong. Consider the 2015 Global Sustainable Development Report delivered at the United Nations:

A new United Nations flagship report launched today finds that solutions to the challenges to people and planet must build on clear scientific findings in order to be sustainable.

“The successful implementation of the new sustainable development agenda requires a strong scientific foundation that is understood by policymakers,” said Wu Hongbo, UN Under-Secretary-General of Economic and Social Affairs, referring to the proposed 17 sustainable development goals, scheduled for adoption in September in New York.
“This report shows us how we must sharpen our collective scientific understanding and presentation so that we can make informed decisions that improve people’s lives,” stressed Mr. Hongbo.

The report outlines some topics that scientists think they understand pretty well, and many topics that need a lot more study:

Although there are estimates that the global oceans-based economy is estimated at between 3 and 6 trillion dollars a year, experts say there is a real lack of scientific information on how improvements in human well-being can reduce further ocean degradation.

They suggest that further research needs to be undertaken on the effects of changes in lifestyle, such as reductions in consumptions, on the sustainability of marine resource use.

“We need to understand real humans”

As we saw yesterday, psychology and the other social sciences still struggle to produce coherent bodies of theory on par with, say, Einstein’s theory of relativity or even cellular automata modeling of traffic flows. And as researchers for Ideas42 explain, the absence of or inattention to solid science leaves too much room for bad assumptions:

The fact is that all of us fall prey to behavioral quirks. And yet most policy, program and product design is based on the traditional economic model, which makes a number of assumptions about human behavior. According to this theory, we weigh all available information, assess the costs and benefits of each option, and make a choice that’s in our own best interests. And then we act on it.

But, as we can see from our own lives, this often isn’t the case – and that can sometimes lead us to do things that aren’t in our own best interest.

This means that if we’re going to design effective policies, programs and products that help people make and follow through on the best decisions for themselves – and for society – we need to understand real humans. We need behavioral science.

“Why are those factors now insignificant?”

And then there’s junk science, such as that being peddled at the George Marshall Institute to promote “science in public policy”:

The Glacier Bay glacier began receding in 1750 and by 1794 it had retreated miles. Drawing on the observation of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, by 1879 the glacier had retreated 30 miles and by 1900, Glacier Bay was mostly ice free. This historical evidence clearly makes the President’s visit and remarks a pseudo-event.

If the changes in Alaska and other changes caused by a climate that has been changing from the dawn of life on our planet were the result of natural factors, as clearly they had to be, why are those factors now insignificant? The fact is that they aren’t.

In other words, because some glaciers melted before humans began burning fossil fuels, the greenhouse gas levels caused by fossil fuels can have nothing to do with the much faster rate of glacier melt now. The melting was caused by “natural factors” back then, so it must be “natural factors” now.

And because climate models are not yet detailed enough to predict exactly which impacts will happen when and where, ‘think tanks’ like the George Marshall Institute can blithely dismiss the science as “inconclusive” … and advocate bad policy.

There will always be tension between the scientific and political processes. We don’t want to be ruled by people in white lab coats. We want our opinions heard, however inexpert our opinions may be. On the other hand, we want also workable solutions to real problems, and often the experts really are better at getting us there.

But for us to trust those experts, we need good science that is good enough to push out bad science … and junk science.




Happy Saturday!