Sunday, November 27, 2011

Science For Thee, But Not For Me

A common refrain for some people who criticize Harper is that he ‘hates science’. They will usually list a few causes celebre (ie Insite, climate change, etc…) where Harper supposedly ignored or is ignoring scientific advice in a decision or a position. These accusations do an injustice to the issues under consideration by grossly simplifying them but more so I tend to think they are hypocritical.

To begin with, I believe policy decisions should be informed by facts and scientific research but that there are other factors that also must be considered in making a decision on public policy, including matters of principle and morality. And ultimately, the people who will be held responsible for the success or failures of public policy are the leaders who made the decisions and not necessarily the scientists who perform studies or advise them.

As an example, during the events at Fukushima the Japanese government came out with an evacuation order that extended up to 50km from the stricken reactors. The American government came out shortly afterwards telling its citizens to stay at least 80km away from the reactor, claiming that their decision was based on ‘science’. While Obama seemed to be implying that the Japanese government was wrong, the Japanese government received the exact same if not better scientific information. The differences are probably driven by matters of practicality (it’s easier to evacuate all the Americans within 80km of Fukushima than all the Japanese) and the need to continue rescue efforts (evacuating up to 80km will restrict the movement of rescuers and potentially cause more deaths among survivors) rather than political expediency (if you are going to evacuate up to 50km then it won’t be any worse politically to evacuate up to 80km).

In terms of criminal policy, some people point to certain jurisdictions with tough criminal laws and longer sentences as being models of what not to do since some social studies have implied that these are ineffective at deterring or reducing crime. But advocates of tougher criminal laws will essentially argue that the current system does not provide justice to victims who have suffered and reducing sentences to the point where they are nearly trivial undermines confidence in the justice system. (Ironically, that would probably reduce the number of reported) Is a few months house arrest for a rapist ‘justice’? Does murdering someone really merit only a few years in a pampered jail cell where you can earn a university degree? Is stealing millions from taxpayers adequately punished by forcing the person to go on a speaking tour?

Critics of Harper’s government should understand what I’m saying because often they will hold positions that go against the grain of scientific studies. Nuclear power has been shown to be more cost effective than many other ‘renewable’ sources of electricity, and repeated studies have shown the risks associated with radiation are manageable or negligible. But when a study comes out in Germany that contradicts studies in France and the UK, anti-nuclear advocates will cling to the German study and ignore the others. Animals dissections in high school classrooms are frowned upon even though it is known that hands on training and education is far more effective than reading from a book. The seal hunt is attacked even though it is needed to maintain fish stocks which would otherwise be depleted by the large seal population. Animal based testing of products is condemned even though it is one of the best methods for testing new products. Tungsten filament light bulbs are banned even though there is no scientific evidence that they are harmful or dangerous to use. Some people oppose genetically modified foods in absence of any scientific evidence that they are harmful, relying on anecdotes, unconfirmed reports or gut feelings. Studies showing that cell phones or high voltage electrical wires do not pose a health risk are downplayed by people who claim that they do. Evidence showing that limited, increased exposure to radiation is beneficial for your health is buried. Comparisons of health care systems showing that public-private mixes (like in France) provide better care than public only are viciously assaulted.

This is not to say that I don’t have concerns about animal testing, private health care, the seal hunt, radiation exposure or the other items in my list. But my concerns are not always based on the best available ‘science’ but sometimes on morality or other principles. Animal based testing and the seal hunt can be cruel, tungsten filament light bulbs are inefficient and I’m suspicious that long term exposure to any amount of increased radiation can cause cancer in some people despite what the studies I have read say.

What I am not attempting to do is defend Harper from any specific accusation, nor to condemn anyone’s opinion unworthy of consideration because it runs contrary to the best available studies. On a large number of issues, ignoring scientific reality is extremely dangerous and should be condemned. But on a large range of other issues, someone may form their opinions on life experiences or moral principles, and just because their opinion is not fully supported by scientific studies doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong. But it hopefully means they have weighed the evidence and made an informed decision that this other principle is more important.

That is how I see the role of science in public policy; to provide the best information possible and allow those with the responsibility to make informed decisions. If they decide that some moral principle is more important, that doesn’t mean they hate science and it does them a disservice to accuse them of doing so.

That's just my opinion though.

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