There are many contentious areas in science because groups are looking for universal truths that validate their preconceived beliefs. Peter Van Doren comes back to the show today to talk about the role of science in the policy world. We look to scientists to conduct research that may better inform our policy decisions, but at the same time we have to make sure the science is trustworthy.
How should we use scientific evidence to make decisions? What kind of environmental regulation should there be? How much politics go in to scientific evidence? What is the role of science in policymaking?
Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the California Waiver, written by Peter Van Doren
EPA’s scientific advisers warn its regulatory rollbacks clash with established science, written by Juliet Eilperin
Trump proposes change to environmental rules to speed up highway projects, pipelines and more, written by Juliet Eilperin
Anti-vaxxers surge past rate allowed by herd immunity: Gallup, written by Tiana Lowe
The Politics of Science, Free Thoughts Podcast
Science Doesn’t Need Public Funding, Free Thoughts Podcast
Capitalism Can Save the Environment, Free Thoughts Podcast
00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Peter Van Doren, senior fellow at Cato and editor of Regulation magazine. It’s been a long time, Peter. People who just started listening this year, I think you might have been… Don’t understand the theme music that is playing that it’s just for you.
00:27 Peter Van Doren: The Cult of Free Thoughts.
00:29 Trevor Burrus: We’re just gonna have… Alright, Peter, learn us good. Go. No, that’s often what we talk about these episodes with Peter.
00:37 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, usually. Usually.
00:38 Trevor Burrus: Just…
00:39 Aaron Ross Powell: So this one I think we’re talking about science and the place of science in public policymaking. And so I wanna start with, a while back the astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, tweeted out a policy proposal of sorts. He said, “Earth needs a virtual country,” which he named #rationalia, with what he said was a one-line constitution, which reads, “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” Sounds like a pretty good idea.
01:14 Peter Van Doren: It does. I’m one of the few people at Cato with a science background, I was a chemistry major at MIT right up until the very end, which is a long story we won’t get into. And here at Cato, I’m often perceived as being someone who favors data analysis and rational analysis of things, and sometimes get frustrated with my colleagues who don’t know enough about statistics, and science, and data, and things like that. But I disagree with the statement that you just made, and thus I’m someone with a science background, but I’ve been around people with other backgrounds enough to learn that science is necessary and important in decisions, policy decisions, but it is not sufficient in my view, and that’s what we’re gonna talk about today.
02:11 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting ‘cause last week’s episode we had Terence Kealey on to talk about the production of science and how science is done and maybe politicized in certain ways, but you’re saying something a little bit different, maybe that’s true, but it’s also this question of, “Should we just say science can solve public policy,” whatever the science is, even if it’s bad science, if it’s like…
02:35 Peter Van Doren: I’ll give you the example that I wanna use from a recent newspaper analysis that drove me to think about talking about this today was, the Washington Post right at the end of the last year, their environmental correspondent, Julia [02:49] ____ wrote an article that said the EPA scientific advisory board had issued three draft reports that concluded the three proposed Trump environmental rules conflict with established science. And then the “therefore” not explicitly stated in the article, but you could read between the lines was, “Oh, when there are particularly mostly environmental questions, something called science should decide, or scientists and their advanced training and what they figure out about the world, in effect should tell us what to do about climate change, or a particular matter, or rivers and harbors, or water pollution. Any number of questions like that that science should decide.”
03:40 Peter Van Doren: And then what’s interesting is, Trump has changed the composition of the Science Advisory Boards greatly during his administration. So 2/3 of the members of the board that wrote this report were Trump appointees, and they were clearly different ideologically than the scientists that they had replaced, but they too were kind of chest-out-front saying, “We’re being ignored here, and we think… ” Again, something called science like Tyson’s quote that science and scientists and what they think should determine what policy ought to be.
04:22 Aaron Ross Powell: The problem here though… We can think of plenty of examples where we have scientific evidence or any kind of… We’ve got evidence of X, and then policy people prefer to do Y. So take anti-vax. There’s one where the science says, to prevent disease you need to vaccinate.
04:49 Peter Van Doren: There’s something called herd immunity. It exists.
04:51 Aaron Ross Powell: And the evidence is fairly overwhelming, but for a combination of sometimes political and sometimes just spending too much time reading in a Facebook echo chamber, people reject that and make decisions. And so you could imagine with these environmental panels that the issue is simply that they’ve made a recommendation, but for political reasons Trump’s base doesn’t want more environmental regulation or wants different kinds of environmental regulation they’re going to consciously ignore. That’s one way of thinking about it. The other way of thinking about it is that when you have scientific findings, and we’ll bracket the issues that we talked about last week with Terence Kealey of how much politics goes into the scientific findings on the supply side, and we’ll say… Let’s say the science is good science.
05:43 Peter Van Doren: Let’s assume it’s true. Whatever that means.
05:47 Aaron Ross Powell: The procedure for getting from, we have a set of facts about the nature of things to what do we do with that, what do we do next, what is the right policy to grow from that? And it sounds like you’re saying that the issue is more like that second one. Is that the science kind of underdetermines the policy?
06:00 Peter Van Doren: Yes, although I hadn’t thought about the vaccination case in my thinking before our discussion today in that I’m a sort of… I might be more science on that one, which is the decision of some people not to vaccinate their children for whatever reasons has consequences for others. And again, what therefore, so that I think even the anti-vaxxers would agree with my statement that their decision for their own children has consequences for others, eventually, once so-called herd immunity is, in other words, that a few people cannot be vaccinated but once we reach an important threshold and that number is what? 5%, 6%, 7%, I don’t know the right…
07:06 Trevor Burrus: Something around there, I think, yeah.
07:07 Peter Van Doren: There’s some number where “herd immunity” is more greatly at risk because of their decision, that we then have a dilemma between parental rights and the children in question and then other people’s children, and science doesn’t say what to do but it says if you don’t have vaccination levels above a certain amount, more kids are going to get childhood diseases.
07:37 Trevor Burrus: Well, the interesting on the vax question, and we’ll get this into what Aaron’s question was, is that, it’s obviously a charged topic and some Libertarians like to really get involved with it for parental rights purposes or things like this. But I think it actually highlights what we’re talking about because there are, I don’t know how many vaccinations, the diseases you can vaccinate against, I mean hundreds, I’m sure, minimum. And we talk about measles and I think we’re there. If your cost benefit analysis says if you want your kids to survive, you should get measles vaccines, but then you have questions about the HPV vaccine or something that is a much rarer disease, typhus or something like this, that maybe it’s not worth it to get the vaccine. And science doesn’t answer those questions either, right? It doesn’t… Right?
08:25 Trevor Burrus: You can’t say scientists have decided that you should get the typhus vaccine and Amica, probably not, if you had a zero risk threshold, and you said that there is a nonzero possibility you’ll get typhus, which may be in the United States there is one, but science still doesn’t answer that question, unless they proclaim the sort of nonzero risk thing. It reminds the particular matter or thing we’ll get into, where if scientists say an over 0% chance of getting a disease means we have decided you should get this vaccine, but many vaccines you shouldn’t get if you’re not leaving the United States or going to sub-Saharan Africa or things like this. And again, the same point holds true that science can give us the probabilities, but not tell us what we should do.
09:13 Peter Van Doren: I mean, yes, that, in effect, economics or cost-benefit analysis or other values, other than costs and benefits, religious values of one sort or another, or philosophical values drawn from nonreligious traditions that those values create what economists call, ‘cause that’s how I think, a weighting function. Which is you have all these facts out there and then you have to add them up somehow, even though they’re not cardinal, like numbers on a thermometer. You have to add up the various considerations that you have and then you, as a person, have to come to a decision, which is zero or one, usually sometimes, how much. And political dispute, policy dispute is often about the unobserved weighting functions that people have, which is because I really value this dearly, I am or let’s say, liberty. I value freedom so highly that I’m willing to risk the possibility of fill-in-the-blank by not doing something that science requests or scientists believe I should do. I think that’s the discussion.
10:31 Trevor Burrus: I looked at the Washington Post article you referenced, I mean some of these things when I read, the advisory board said the proposal neglects established science, that shows how contamination of groundwater, wetlands and waterways can spread to drinking water supplies. Well, of course they can.
10:47 Peter Van Doren: This refers to the…
10:47 Trevor Burrus: There’s a nonzero chance, right?
10:50 Peter Van Doren: Right. This refers to the waters of the United States rule, which the 1970, the Clean Water Act, ‘72 Clean Water Act, said that the EPA shall issue permits for the discharge of stuff, pollutants and other things into navigable waters, then it went on in the text of the statute to state that navigable waters are waters of the United States, full stop. That’s it. So then there’s been two, three generations of legal dispute over how to interpret that statute with liberal, with democratic administrations tending to go on the feds. The feds have more power.
11:40 Trevor Burrus: Expansive, yeah.
11:41 Peter Van Doren: Expansive end of the continuum.
11:43 Trevor Burrus: The bird bath in your backyard might be a water of the United States.
11:46 Peter Van Doren: Yes.
11:46 Trevor Burrus: If it, yes.
11:47 Peter Van Doren: Yes, that would be the funny way of describing that position, and the Supreme Court has weighed in on this twice and said, “Well, we think there are limits,” and they come up with another legal term called significant nexus of something to describe, that’s now the word that defines when the fed power ends and the state power begins in the regulation of discharge. In any way, this clearly is from a scientific point of view, somewhat nonsense, going the following sense. Everything you put into some small thing eventually through the filtration of groundwater and whatever, probably ends up eventually somewhere in a navigable water. But everyone realizes that the writers of the statute probably did not want the feds to have regulatory authority over everything, and therefore, this ends up being not a scientific decision, but a policy wrestling match, which goes back and forth and back and forth and we’re now in one phase of that struggle. But the scientific advisory report to the EPA acted as if science should and ought to decide what the waters of the United States are.
13:10 Aaron Ross Powell: And this… Going back, you mentioned that the weighting function, it seems like the role of a lot of science talk in both policymaking and in politics in general, it’s almost used in an attempt to sidestep having to argue about weighting functions that you and I have different preferences, different tastes. And it’s not just that it’s complicated to argue about those things because there’s so many determining factors and there’s differences in values and where those values come from and it’s hard to critique them and so on. So it’s hard to have that conversation, but it’s also hard to make arguments in it because you get down to, well, simply like my preferences are better than yours, and so you should be compelled to act in accord with my preferences instead of your preferences. And I think, I mean, the majority of American politics simply is people doing that, but they don’t wanna come out and say they’re doing that because I think at some level, all or at least most of us recognize that there’s something untoward about doing that explicitly. And so…
14:22 Peter Van Doren: Instead of I mean, you’re right. I mean, behind everyone’s back, we go, “I really don’t like that person or their preferences and I really want to eliminate their preferences from the policy discussion, and guess what? Here’s an easy way to do it.” Say science has determined that you were out of bounds as opposed to, “I don’t like your preferences,” which leads to a more difficult conversation. Science, in my view as someone who has a quasi-science background is, most people don’t understand it, most people don’t understand statistics, they don’t understand what scientists do, how they argue, what the process is. It’s a modern version of the priesthood, it acts as a silencer of further discussion in a way that most people say, “Wow, that person wears a white lab coat, and seems really smart. And maybe I ought to pay attention to them and my little backyard pond maybe it’s a big polluter and I ought to listen to them.”
15:30 Trevor Burrus: And I can’t read the Scripture in the original Latin or understand the scientific papers.
15:34 Peter Van Doren: Yes. Yes, yeah.
15:36 Aaron Ross Powell: This also sounds a lot like the way the Constitution is used in a lot of American political debate too that most people, most Americans don’t really… They’ve never read it, they don’t know exactly what’s in it, they’ve heard some things about it.
15:52 Peter Van Doren: But if someone from Cato says something’s unconstitutional, wow, even I don’t always… I ask Trevor and Aaron, “Well, what does that mean?”
16:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Right, but even outside of like the experts. So, the lawyers who know more about it than the average person, they disagree about it in the same way scientists disagree. But the average personal view, I have my political preferences. So I like guns, you don’t like guns and I can just say Second Amendment rather than having the argument of preferences without… And you can… You obviously, the Second Amendment, there’s prolonged jurisprudential history about what this thing actually means, but most people don’t know anything about that, it’s simply like…
16:31 Peter Van Doren: It stops discussion.
16:32 Aaron Ross Powell: It stops discussion and it’s a way to sidestep having that conversation.
16:36 Trevor Burrus: Bringing up guns is interesting because what Peter was saying previously about the science comes in and just says, “This is the answer.” In the guns debate that that has come up too. Now, this is social science so it’s even squishier than the environmental science, but you have people in the public health guns world, which is a lot of times stuff coming out of Johns Hopkins who say essentially scientists have determined you shouldn’t have a gun in your house because the risks will outweigh the benefits. And every time I hear that, I’m just completely perplexed about how someone could even claim that. I mean, it’s a categorium. It’s like… But has science determined whether I should have a pool and is the fact that I love swimming factor into this at all? It’s like, “No, science has determined that you shouldn’t have a gun.”
17:23 Peter Van Doren: Related to your discussion. Notice the scrum that has occurred over whether the CDC or the federal government is allowed to commission or spend money on quote…
17:35 Trevor Burrus: Gun research.
17:36 Peter Van Doren: “Gun research.”
17:37 Trevor Burrus: Yes, which they have been forever, and that’s if anyone listening and hears it all the time, they just can’t advocate for gun control.
17:43 Peter Van Doren: But notice from the dams, the base is very…
17:47 Trevor Burrus: Why does GOP hate science, yes. Why are they afraid of the CDC?
17:51 Peter Van Doren: Sir, are you aware that in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill that just passed in December, there is money now for the CDC to start again and not be banned from “gun research”?
18:05 Trevor Burrus: Yes, I am aware of that.
18:08 Peter Van Doren: But what’s interesting is, notice that if you’re for gun restrictions, you think that having the scientific research will be the… An overused word now, trump card in your analysis of this decision. You can’t say, “I want gun control.” You have to say, “The CDC says we need or ought to have gun control because they’re scientists.” And somehow that makes your preferences better than if you just said, “Oh, guns are really scary from my point of view.” And I think the Second Amendment allows the freedom of the right to bear arms but even the Cato Institute has said it doesn’t mean an unlimited license to do X, Y or Z, and therefore… Then we have to argue about it rather than say.
19:00 Trevor Burrus: I just want one more point on that before your questionnaire and one more point is just the idea there is that the CDC inevitably will come up with a probationary kind of suggestion because it doesn’t take into account preferences. See? That’s why I brought in like swimming pools.
19:19 Peter Van Doren: No, I mean…
19:19 Trevor Burrus: Right?
19:19 Peter Van Doren: I think our priors would agree with what you’re saying, but…
19:23 Trevor Burrus: If you just looked at dead kids, let’s say drowning in swimming pools and said, “This is not worth the risk of having a swimming pool and ignored liking to swim, then you would come up with the conclusion that you shouldn’t have swimming pools and if you ignored liking to shoot. You would come up with the same conclusion, which is why it’s a category here.
19:43 Peter Van Doren: Right. Yeah.
19:44 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s striking how much… I’ve long thought that America’s increasingly a secular place, and even, I mean, our politics is increasingly secular in the sense that even though we have a lot of… Enormous numbers of Americans have religious beliefs, but we tend not to make religious arguments in the public policy sphere. Right? Not anymore. That’s becoming increasingly the case. How much of an American public discourse and politics of voters ends up looking like sublimated religion in the sense that what we want is what religion is. If we’re arguing about policy with religious overtones, it’s about an appeal to universal truth. Like, my God who is… Either knows universal truth or determines universal truth says X and we should do what’s in line with X.
20:44 Peter Van Doren: Think about… I’m totally agreeing with you, and I’m sorry to butt in, but I read National Academy of Sciences’ tone’s publications, “The National Academy of Sciences,” publishes a 700-page book reviewing the literature on X and then has bunches of “therefores” at the end that says, “The priests have gone into the caves, they’ve looked at the documents with footnotes and here’s what we should do.”
21:13 Aaron Ross Powell: And I think we need to be careful to not… It’s not a perfect analogy because there is a huge amount of truth value to science.
21:23 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, it sounds like we’re really antiscience.
21:25 Aaron Ross Powell: We’re not antiscience.
21:26 Peter Van Doren: I’m not. I like…
21:26 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.
21:28 Aaron Ross Powell: Scientists find all sorts of truths. Our lives are measurably improved by the application of those truths.
21:36 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, they came up with the technology to fake the moon landing, I mean, it’s exactly.
21:43 Aaron Ross Powell: But that’s not in the policy debates, and in politics, and in just kind of an ordinary… Like Twitter spats, that’s not really the role that science is playing. Right? Usually it’s, these types of things happen around particularly contentious areas in science where there’s disagreement or where the scientific facts are being very clearly used by the sides to advance prior… In the same way as our… I asked the question to Patrick Eddington in our episode with him about intelligence gathering of, you’ve spent all your time staring at these satellite maps trying to figure out if the tanks have moved, and you’ve written up your report, and you give it to the policymaker. Is the policymaker basing his decisions upon the data you’ve brought to him? Or is he using the data to support the decision he already… He’s looking for data that… And I think in a lot of our debates, it looks that way, that people… The environmental movement wants us to… A lot of environmentalists simply just don’t want us having as many kids, don’t want us factor… There’s an aesthetic sort of thing. And then we can grab onto this universal truth and use it to bludgeon people who disagree with us and to brand people who disagree with us not as people who disagree with us but as heretics from the universal truth.
23:00 Aaron Ross Powell: The Neil deGrasse Tyson thing is like, there’s just this evidence, and it’s… What we should do is just simply do what’s in line with the evidence. It’s similar to, if God says X, we should do what’s in line with X. And I think that’s where these problems come in because then this ticks backwards into the science itself, that the scientists participating in these political debates… Again, this isn’t all scientists by any stretch of imagination, start to see their role not just as gatherers of data and evidence and assessors of it, but they’re the people who were looking to tell us what to do with it.
23:41 Trevor Burrus: Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson and other people… Yeah, it does have a religious overtone to it, I guess.
23:48 Peter Van Doren: Bob Nelson who sadly recently deceased, member of the Editorial Board of Regulation and an economist who worked for the federal government for 20 some odd years in the think tank within the Department of Interior, and then went on to a successful professorial career at the University of Maryland, his work towards the end of his life was on environmentalism as the new American religion. And so, this feeds on here not only as science is the new religion, but environmentalism in worshipping science is also… Environmentalism itself is a belief system that borders on… ‘Cause they talk about the sacred, and the Earth, and the…
24:36 Trevor Burrus: Well, I think it’s important, we’re also not…
24:38 Peter Van Doren: As opposed to cost and benefits.
24:39 Trevor Burrus: We’re also not degrading environmentalism here because it’s important if we do view it as a preference, like Aaron mentioned. Years ago we did an episode touching on some more themes with you about letting environmentalist preferences count. If you…
24:54 Peter Van Doren: Yes, I’m neutral. Again, I hope the listeners do not think we’re making fun of science or environment. ‘Cause I’m a science nerd and yet I want people with advanced training to be very careful about what “therefores” come out of the knowledge that they have.
25:15 Trevor Burrus: The observation was made… I read recently that one way that you can see that a lot of environmentalists just have preferences is, with the antagonism that many have to nuclear power, because if it’s an aesthetic revulsion to consumerism in the modern city-state, then if you came along and said, this isn’t true of all environmentalists, but some, and you came along and you said, “Hey, you’re right about global warming, and greenhouse gases, we should just take out the factories that are powering our lives that do carbon emissions and replace them with nuclear and we can all continue to go about our business. And so, for some environmentalists, they go, “Well, I want it more. I don’t want us to continue to go about our business on a spiritual level, I don’t want us to continue to go to shopping malls and buy things that we just throw away,” and all these kind of things that are aesthetically revolting to them. And that’s fine. That’s a justified aesthetic position, preferences, but it doesn’t get solved by science and then coming back and saying, “I oppose nuclear power because the science says it’s not worth it.”
26:18 Peter Van Doren: Part of this is… Let’s go to libertarianism/economics and try to understand the boundary between private and something beyond private. In other words, what sphere of the world do you have control over, and then, what does it mean for the world to impinge on that? So I’m thinking of, if you’re really different, say the Amish or Anabaptist movements, or very, very Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, or…
26:52 Trevor Burrus: Scientologists. [chuckle] Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints.
26:57 Peter Van Doren: So in other words, if you separate yourself from the world and live your life the way you wanted to, but what rights… Where does the right to control your sphere, and the right for the outside world? So does it matter that the rest of the world is consumerist, and you’re a back-to-the-lander, and you live in Alaska, somewhere?
27:24 Trevor Burrus: It might matter on the abstract. And it’s going to Aaron’s alluded point that… And again, that’s not insulting, it’s more of an observation. But on the point where you can live in your Christian community, and there might be people engaging in homosexual acts very far away from you, and you wanna ban it, ‘cause you just don’t even like the idea that that’s happening. And you can live in your rural Alaska community.
27:46 Peter Van Doren: Right. Right.
27:46 Trevor Burrus: This is not assuming environmental catastrophe, which someone probably gonna put a comment on this. But with some cost of global warming, but you live in your rural community and then you just don’t like that there are people doing this kind of behavior that is aesthetically unappealing to you.
28:03 Peter Van Doren: Right.
28:05 Trevor Burrus: I do wanna get to this particular matter one, ‘cause in this blog post you wrote, is a very good job of explaining how this all works out. And I like the particulate matter thing because it just seems for my whole life that I’ve been paying any amount of political attention. Every time a republican administration gets into office, you have attacks on them, usually environmental purposes, for environmental policy saying that they’re antiscience and they’re killing people. And sometimes that’s because you come in and you say, “This administration wanted to lower the amount of particulate matter in the air to 5 parts per billion or something. And I decided to halt that rule, and let it be at 9 parts per billion.” And then someone says, “Well, you’ve killed 100,000 people or something because of the 4 parts per billion you’d allowed.”
28:57 Peter Van Doren: Right.
28:57 Trevor Burrus: And that’s what this whole debate is about.
29:00 Peter Van Doren: Right. So let’s… Again, can… What role can science play in the determination of exposure to stuff pollutants? . One possibility, and here’s where science would be in a strongest position, would be, if in the… Imagine, I know it’s radio or audio.
29:25 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s the Internet, Peter.
29:25 Peter Van Doren: Okay. Sorry. [chuckle]
29:27 Trevor Burrus: That’s the radio. Well, it’s the Radio Show coming to you live from Peter Van Doren. Here we go. [29:31] ____ young man, come on out from Upstate New York. Go for it, Peter. That’s my horrible radio announcement. Caleb’s gonna write about this.
29:39 Peter Van Doren: Imagine the X-axis in our discussion is amount of pollutant to which you’re exposed, and then the Y-axis is the mortality rate or morbidity rate from exposure. If there were a large discontinuity in the function, in that X-Y space, so that… What scientists call a threshold effect, if you got below a certain amount of exposure to PM, then whoo! No cost, right? And if you were above that threshold, then lots of costs.
30:11 Trevor Burrus: Because it’s not the dose, it’s the poison, kind of thing?
30:13 Peter Van Doren: Yeah.
30:13 Trevor Burrus: So that’s a poison that’s a dose.
30:15 Peter Van Doren: Let’s assume that those dialyzed tracks were true, then the… What we’ve called so far in this discussion, defaults therefore from science wouldn’t be so faults. In other words, the if-then discussion in a pollution context would be, “Wow, if we cut back below this level, we really will not observe any health effects at all.” Whoo! Okay. Then you could say, “Wow, I weight pollution.” People weight pollution differently, and the costs, and benefits, and the jobs, and okay. But that discontinuity would certainly inform the benefits of many bystanders or their preferences. It turns out that we don’t think PM is like that as a pollutant, that it has no threshold. And therefore, it’s a continuous exposure, health effect function. And therefore, what the Clean Act requires is that the EPA designate a level of exposure below which there are no health effects, is in fact, impossible. [chuckle]
31:16 Trevor Burrus: That would mean they’d have to ban all factories and industrialization, right?
31:19 Peter Van Doren: But since they can’t do that, they then have to in effect weigh costs and benefits in their decision. But they can’t say they’re doing that, ‘cause the law doesn’t allow that. So the PM in science debate is odd because those who want less exposure are invoking the notion that science can tell us what the right amount of exposure is, but that’s really only plausible for things that have large threshold effects. And that’s probably not the case here. So that means all real-world conventional pollution, health effect discussions are in fact really economic cost-benefit discussions in disguise. And science actually doesn’t have the role that anyone thinks it does.
32:04 Trevor Burrus: You also… Well, I think you… I’m trying to find that quote here where the Obama administration and the Bush administration did different things based on the same study.
32:16 Peter Van Doren: Oh, that was ozone exposure. [chuckle]
32:17 Trevor Burrus: Ozone, yeah.
32:17 Peter Van Doren: That was… [chuckle]
32:17 Trevor Burrus: Says the… Under Bush in 2007, the EPA proposed… I’m reading from Peter’s blog post here, setting the standard for ozone between 0.07 and 0.075 parts per million. The scientific justification was the interpretation of two studies by Dr. William Adams. And then the Obama administration had to mandate between 0.06 and 0.07 based on the same paper.
32:44 Peter Van Doren: Correct. And then the author came out and said the reinterpretation of the standard airs, in the statistical sense by the Obama administration, wasn’t correct. [chuckle] So the author then refuted the more liberal interpret… Anyway, it just… To me, that’s the absurd nihilistic weirdness universe one gets into if you think…
33:09 Trevor Burrus: A few more cost.
33:10 Peter Van Doren: Well, because the Clean Air Act says you have to. So we’ve said this before in our discussions which is, you gotta go back to the statute and have a more rational discussion about conventional pollution and health. But it turns out the society doesn’t wanna have such a discussion, instead they want science to decide. I mean, that’s what’s so odd is the public may not, even if they listen to our discussion here, they may wanna punt on this, they seemed to, they want somebody with advanced training to decide for them what to do about this because to have the discussion about how much the factories are or aren’t worth of the jobs or the whatever, it seems they wanna punt on that. Or maybe I’m missing.
34:02 Aaron Ross Powell: How much is general mystique around scientists? So, we’ve, for the last several months, my family has watched a lot of ’50s monster feature movies because my soon-to-be 7-year-old son is into scary movies and monsters and things.
34:20 Trevor Burrus: Even like the Blob and Day of the Triffids, and things like this or…
34:24 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah and Them.
34:25 Trevor Burrus: Them, okay, alright.
34:26 Peter Van Doren: Cold war sci-fi.
34:28 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, and…
34:28 Trevor Burrus: Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
34:30 Aaron Ross Powell: And we’re looking for movies that he can watch that aren’t like he doesn’t immediately identify as, “Oh, this is for kids, but also isn’t going to terrify a 7-year-old.” And these ’50s Creature Features seem to fit that bill. But one of the striking things in these movies is the scientists, there’s always the scientists. More often than not, they have like German accent, which is kind of odd, but they usually are not American.
34:53 Peter Van Doren: Not really given what they were made [34:55] ____.
34:55 Aaron Ross Powell: Right. So they… But they have, there’s some sort of…
34:58 Trevor Burrus: There’s something wrong with these [35:00] ____.
35:01 Aaron Ross Powell: But then it’s… And they’re called professor and they’re scientists, but the way they’re portrayed is, these guys are basically the smartest people who ever existed, and they know everything about everything, right? It’s this kind of universal knowledge that they possess, and scientists don’t play… We don’t have movies with scientists like that quite as much anymore, but…
35:26 Trevor Burrus: Twister.
35:27 Aaron Ross Powell: But I wonder how much of that kind of attitude of, it’s not just that… So there’s the facts and values distinction, right? And the science can perhaps determine facts, maybe better than other methods can, but the kinds of people who are smart enough to be scientists also probably know a fair amount, have good ideas about the value side of things, too. And so, if we’re going to defer to the judgment of anyone on these issues which we, in a system like ours, you have to defer to other people’s judgment on all sorts of things, it’s probably better to defer to the judgment of really smart people than it is to defer to the judgment of the guy who just won a popularity contest to get a seat in the house.
36:16 Trevor Burrus: I’d like to point all of our listeners to Man or Astroman videos, this is a sort of Punk band, Peter. This is a little bit… But we’ll put it in the show notes, The Miracle of Genuine Pyrex. It’s the kind of scientist you’re talking about who solved the problem with the monster and things like this.
36:37 Peter Van Doren: You know, I have these little tried phrases I used in my classes and I still use in my lectures with undergraduates, and I talk about this. I always say, “I can’t give you answers, I can describe for you the choices you face,” and I think people want answers and people look to smart people for answers and that must go back a long time. And your science ’50s movies, that’s very interesting to describe the cultural status of the scientists in those.
37:11 Aaron Ross Powell: And I think it’s not just smartness because we all recognize that there are very smart people in all sorts of different fields, but that science is unbiased, so it’s unbiased form of smartness.
37:26 Peter Van Doren: It’s supposed to be.
37:27 Aaron Ross Powell: And so we can trust not just the facts they’re bringing us, but because they’re the kinds of people who are unbiased, their judgment calls…
37:34 Peter Van Doren: It’s supposed to be a discussion among smart people about the reproducibility of results. Science is not an endgame, it’s a process where we talk about, “I’ve tested this this way, and here’s what I found. What do you think?” And then a referee, another smart person says, “Have you thought about this and this and this and this?” And you go, “Oh yes.” And then for the ones you haven’t thought about, you try to fake it and get the article published. And that game is what science is about. But it’s supposed to be neutral. It’s not supposed to care about… It’s just into whatever results we find. And yet we are human beings and we have priors, and so many of the normative issues that we’ve been talking about today enter into the even scientist’s science even though technically it should not.
38:29 Trevor Burrus: I wanna ask about another thing that you wrote regarding the science, but even the way that the public policy issue is either ignored or turns into something different, and that’s CAFE standards which are… What does that stand for?
38:44 Peter Van Doren: Corporate average fuel economy.
38:46 Trevor Burrus: Okay, yes. Now, they came into being for reasons that had nothing to do with pollution, I’d say, per se, or greenhouse gas emissions.
38:54 Peter Van Doren: Came about in 1975 as a political solution to a political problem which was gas prices. So what do you do about gas prices? Well, you could say that consumers are smart, and if a product comes out there that… Whose extra cost will save them lots of daily expenditures on gasoline, they’ll buy it. Another… But American politics tends to say something called people are helpless, and then something, our corporations are in charge. So, we’re gonna make corporations make more fuel efficient cars.
39:29 Trevor Burrus: So they were saying that the consumer was not price-sensitive?
39:35 Peter Van Doren: Was not capable, was not capable of making decisions about…
39:41 Trevor Burrus: Long-term benefits over immediate costs.
39:42 Peter Van Doren: Correct.
39:43 Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
39:43 Peter Van Doren: And plus there was also the worry about Japanese imports. CAFE was also a protectionist device at the time. So it was a twofer. And that has all been lost in the current discussion, ‘cause CAFE still exists on the books and has been repurposed as a climate change, CO2 gas emission reduction device, which it was not ever intended for at all. So the current scrum is over the Obama Administration’s decision to mandate 54.5 miles per gallon as the fleet average, and then that the Trump… That ruling under Obama did have a mid-term revisit which happened to occur during the Trump Administration. They in turn have said, “We’re gonna freeze where we are now, and we’re not gonna go further like Obama wanted us to.” To justify that decision, they have to have a rule-making process, and then they’ve used the economics literature to then make some cost-benefit analysis to try to justify that this actually would be cost-beneficial for the country rather than what the Obama Administration said, which is, “Oh no, we have to keep going in order to maximize benefits relative to cost.”
41:04 Peter Van Doren: So it’s become a very arcane discussion that I won’t go into about whether the price of new cars and used cars would rise or not given this freeze. And if the prices did or didn’t do what people think they would do, would the total vehicle fleet of the United States grow or shrink? The Trump Administration has said… They said that the price of use… If we keep the standard the same, then the price of used cars would go down, and that in turn would allow them to be scrapped more, and that in turn would make the total vehicle fleet size of the US go down, and that in turn would reduce auto fatalities. So…
41:49 Trevor Burrus: This was like Cash for Clunkers too, some of the debate we have at Cash for Clunkers.
41:53 Peter Van Doren: So the big benefit kick out of the Trump Administration freeze in the cost-benefit analysis done for this rule is alleged to come from fewer auto fatalities. Some economists of more liberal stripe have taken on this cost-benefit analysis and said, “Oh goodness, the prices will go down for used cars, but they’ll go down for new cars as well. And then all the vehicle fleet reduction goes away, and then… ” So there’s this scrum in the [42:25] ____ article from the Washington Post that said, “Economists have said that this Trump econ analysis was bogus, and therefore we should not freeze CAFE.” You can’t use this cost-benefit analysis as a rationale.
42:41 Peter Van Doren: I actually agree with the economic critique. They really didn’t… [chuckle] The assumptions done to get the Trump cost-benefit thing to work really are probably, look pretty bogus to me. And so, the econ critique is correct, but I still think no, therefore, should come out of it, because CAFE is crazy. A CO2 tax is… Well, CAFE’s estimated to be six times more expensive per unit CO2 reduction.
43:11 Trevor Burrus: Than just a straight up tax or cap, yeah.
43:12 Peter Van Doren: Right. So that’s the big econ cost-benefit therefore. So they’ve confined their analysis to this little scrum and it looks like the liberal economists are saying that the conservative economists are wrong, and I think they are correct in that. But the big picture is, CAFE is not a very cost-effective policy at all for dealing with CO2 emissions if in fact that’s something you think we need to deal with.
43:38 Trevor Burrus: It’s kind of interesting ‘cause going back to the theme of the talk where you’re trying to… Obviously, we do measure the value of lives when you do regulatory policy. It’s inevitable. People think it’s very distasteful, but it would be crazy to not do that. And obviously, deaths matter a lot. And so we’re talking about preferences of whatever, so we could say preferences for cars, with big cars, Hummers, things like this, but there could be auto fatalities. And then there’s of course scientists who come in and say, “If the global warming happens, then we’ll have fatalities from fires and things like this.” And it’s all this sort of war about cost-benefit analysis over something that doesn’t actually do much about the thing that they’re talking about.
44:21 Peter Van Doren: Correct, correct. That’s my… Again, there’s scrums and meta-scrums and then big questions, and if you really wanna invoke science as an answer, doing it within the CAFE context of, “Our study is better than your study.” Yeah, but the big point is, none of this makes sense from a scientific point of view. That’s at least my view as an outsider.
44:44 Aaron Ross Powell: And that’s an interesting point about the way that science enters into this stuff because it doesn’t… We don’t tend to use scientific findings as a, “Okay, let’s take a big step back and say this is our overall goal, and this is what the data now tells us about whether what we’re doing is getting us towards that goal,” or, “Here’s a better way to approach that goal faster, cheaper, whatever else.” It’s never that big step back. It’s instead… Or not never, but most of the time. It’s instead, we have these pre-existing frameworks, CAFE standards or the Clean Air Act, that have political constituencies, so people who are invested in continuing them, or people who simply are invested in them, in the sense that they built their whole career around understanding these things, litigating these things, arguing about these things. And so…
45:38 Peter Van Doren: My third house was paid for with CAFE litigation.
45:43 Aaron Ross Powell: They don’t think outside of it.
45:45 Peter Van Doren: Yeah, correct.
45:46 Aaron Ross Powell: They’re not really capable…
45:47 Trevor Burrus: Peter was joking, by the way. He only has seven houses. [chuckle] He does not have three houses.
45:54 Aaron Ross Powell: So then the science, whatever the science tells us gets squeezed into those small frameworks instead of enabling the big step back, which also because the science, that squeezing of it requires massaging and interpreting and picking and choosing instead of taking the whole picture, it politicizes it even further because it gives even more opportunities for legitimate critiques of, “Oh, you’re cherry-picking, or that’s not really what it said.”
46:24 Peter Van Doren: There is this intense debate now within the auto transportation gas mileage econ community, and yes, there is one, about scrappage rates, about whether the auto fleet will or will not get bigger or smaller because of CAFE decisions. And I am hitting my head as I read these things, and my colleague Jeff Myron says, “Peter, that’s not the important question. [chuckle] The… ” Which is what Aaron’s saying. So, how did we allow science to get confined? To confine us to this weird little box that everyone has forgotten the origins of which was the gas crisis in the ’70s?
47:05 Aaron Ross Powell: All this said then, if we are to be good voters, good citizens, maybe good policy makers, legislators, whatever, how should we approach using science in our policymaking? We’ve got this new evidence that says something. How do we connect these new facts to the values, or at least not get into all of the problems that we’ve talked about for the last 50 minutes?
47:33 Peter Van Doren: In my view, what science can do is inform your own preferences, whether it’s vaccines, whether it’s private goods. How should I live my life? What kind of food should I eat? What’s the evidence for the health effects of this or that or the other thing? So, scientific advancements can inform one’s preferences about how to live one’s life. And when it involves private goods, if the science is correct, and then you use that science to change your own behavior, you yourself will receive the benefits. When it comes to policy and public goods, collective decisions, you start with the same process, but changing your own preferences about what you think policy should be is just the start of the process.
48:32 Peter Van Doren: The science then informs all seven billion other human beings on the planet about the same question. And then we collectively have to make decisions either within localities, states, countries, or the whole world, and all the problems of collective choice that this podcast and others at CATO and CATO’s work talks about come into play, which is aggregating individual preferences into collective choices is difficult and subject to all sorts of anomalies and weirdness that there’s also science on that called public choice theory. So, private goods, science, you can get benefits right away by changing your own life. For collective goods, science doesn’t eliminate any of the hassles or choices or values in making collective choices that we already had. It just can inform our preferences to be different.
49:37 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit at our r/freethoughtspodcast. You can follow us on Twitter @FreeThoughtsPod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.