Thursday, July 14, 2011

Policy Analysis Dependent of Scientific Knowledge

Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times.: I quote:
How can we, nonexperts, take account of expert opinion when it is relevant to decisions about public policy?

To answer this question, we need to reflect on the logic of appeals to the authority of experts. First of all, such appeals require a decision about who the experts on a given topic are. Until there is agreement about this, expert opinion can have no persuasive role in our discussions. Another requirement is that there be a consensus among the experts about points relevant to our discussion. Precisely because we are not experts, we are in no position to adjudicate disputes among those who are. Finally, given a consensus on a claim among recognized experts, we nonexperts have no basis for rejecting the truth of the claim.
Professor Gutting goes on to discuss the example of Anthropogenic Climate Change.

It seems to me that if there is complete scientific consensus about an issue, then either decision makers will accept that consensus or will deny the relevance of scientific opinion as the basis for decision making. I think something of that kind occurred when Thabo Mbeki refused to base South African HIV/AIDS policy on the medical consensus that AIDS is caused by HIV.

The situation of Anthropogenic Climate Change is one in which 95 percent of experts agree, with only one in twenty disputing the widely agreed upon position. There is a basis for adjudicating the validity of the position held by the minority, and that is an investigation of the factors that may be involved in the decision making of those experts. Often we find, for example, that they have interests in the outcome of the policy decisions which should be disclosed. (I was on the editorial advisory board of a journal dealing with intellectual property law where we decided to require such disclosure by authors of all articles.)

The situation described by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is perhaps of considerable interest. In the midst of a paradigm shift in a scientific field, the majority -- including older, more senior scientists -- can be expected to support the expiring view, while a minority -- led by younger, less famous scientists -- can be expected to support the arriving view. Is this really a realistic scenario? I recently read Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnas about the battle between Edison and Westinghouse (and their companies) as to the better technology for electrical networks -- AC or DC. Edison was the more famous (and better at self publication) and he was supported by such luminaries as Lord Kelvin. However, Westinghouse in supporting the newer technology turned out to be correct.

In that case, the situation was far from clear since neither technology was sufficiently mature in the early stages of the policy debate that their utility could be conclusively determined, much less their cost effectiveness. Before AC won out, large investments had been made in DC systems which were eventually outdated and discarded. An illuminating example was the millions of dollars spent on the tunnels required for the Niagara Falls power plant before it was clear whether AC or DC power would be preferable. Had AC power not proven to be cost effective, the power plant might well have been limited to supplying the Niagara industrial zone. Since the power in the falling water was sufficient to supply a large portion of the total electrical power for the north eastern United States for many years, inability to send the power to where it was needed would have been very costly.

Of course, one can not use a decision rule of accepting the ideas of the younger scientists contesting the established scientific paradigm against that of the older, more established scientists. Most of the people seeking to overthrow an existing paradigm may well be wrong. In the case of the AC-DC controversy time resolved the issues of the feasibility of proposed technologies, and the market resolved the issues of the cost-effectiveness of the alternatives. Perhaps the lesson from this example is that policy makers should avoid rush to judgment, allowing scientific or technological controversies to ripen until a solution becomes apparent.

I would also note that in developed nations there are mechanisms that legislative and executive branches of government can use to deal with such issues, complementing or indeed replacing the legislative knowledge systems or the bureaucratic knowledge systems. These are the Academies of Science, which are staffed by experts in the analysis of scientific/technological systems, with strong procedures for consultation with many scientists providing a range of views, and also with strong procedures for differentiating those issues on which reliable consensus exists from those which are still ripening.

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