Quack Policy: Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism

The title of this post is the title of a book by Jamie Whyte, a New Zealander who once taught philosophy at Cambridge and now works as a management consultant. The book, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, is a fine piece of work indeed, and you can download a copy here. It has chapters on the price of alcohol, on passive smoking, on measuring happiness, on scientific authority, and on global warming. Each of them would make a good post-subject for me, but I’ll deal today only with the book’s summary. All these chapters are excellent reading.

I’ll start with an irritation that I have wanted to express for some time about the way in which science is presented by the media. A common introduction to a news item goes ‘Science has shown…’ Another goes ‘Scientists have now proved…’ Two elements of these phrases annoy me. The first is the notion that there is a single ‘science’  that speaks with one voice, and that all scientists say the same thing. The second is the notion that science is involved in proving things or showing things conclusively.

Proofs are for mathematics, not science, which goes about its business through testing hypotheses against observations and evidence. No scientific paper, at the time of its release, does more than suggest something. It may do it confidently, and it may later be shown to have been spot on and important. But I can’t think instantly of a single paper that had instant acclaim and really did ‘show’ that something important was the case. (A more knowledgeable reader is bound to give me a counter example.)

So I would like the ABC, the newspapers and the radio people to agree to use introductions like ‘A group of scientists at the University of Melbourne has suggested…’ Yes, I know it’s longer. But it’s accurate. I’m happy to lead in-house seminars about the virtue of their doing so, and without a fee.

I got that off my chest because Whyte has a similar feeling, and his book gives lots of examples of the misuse of science as some kind of authority. The introduction to the book sets it out: ‘a much higher degree of scepticism about ‘scientific evidence’ is desirable, not just among policymakers, but also among the general public and those who promote state regulation in the media. Empirical evidence must of course have an important role in policy formation, but there needs to be much greater awareness of its limitations.’ That’s not Whyte, incidentally, but Richard Wellings, the Deputy Director of the IEA. Here is Whyte:

‘Politicians and lobbyists who promote new regulations and taxes typically claim to have science on their side. Scientific evidence shows that the actions they wish to discourage are harmful and that government intervention would reduce this harm. Yet much ‘evidence-based policy’ is grounded on poor scientific reasoning and even worse economics. Recent examples of flawed evidence-based policy include the proposal to introduce a minimum alcohol price, the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and attempts to increase gross national happiness. A frequent error is to ignore the costs resulting from the policy…

‘To estimate the external cost of carbon emissions, for example, we would need to know the subjective preferences of people around the world, and somehow weigh them against each other. We would also need to make assumptions about the preferences of people living many decades in the future. The predictions of theories that have not been tested, and are not entailed by well-known facts, do not warrant high levels of certainty. Those who insist on this are not ‘anti-science’, as they are often claimed to be. On the contrary, it is those who are willing to be convinced in the absence of predictive success who display an unscientific cast of mind. High levels of scientific doubt are often concealed as a result of ‘noble-cause corruption’.

‘Scientists may exaggerate levels of confidence in their findings if [doing so] promotes actions they happen to support. This problem is particularly acute in fields that have long been policy battlegrounds, such as climate, health and education. Many scientists entered such fields because they were already committed to a particular policy agenda. Scientists are also interested parties. They stand to gain from policy taking one direction rather than another and will be tempted to support the personally profitable policy direction. Public policy can create demand for their skills and hence drive up the rewards accruing to them. Scientists are natural supporters of policies that draw on their expertise and [are] thus inclined to overstate the credibility and importance of their ideas.

‘Expert practitioners in one field may be quite ignorant of other fields, knowing little about either their theory or methods. ‘Expertise slippage’ is the tendency to defer to experts on matters which fall outside their area of expertise. Climate scientists, for example, are experts on hardly any of the issues that determine which climate polices are best. They have no special knowledge of how businesses will respond to taxes or the relative welfare costs of reduced growth. Paternalist policies promoted by experts and politicians show contempt for the actual preferences of the general public. People are forced to live according to values that they reject. For example, supporters of ‘happiness policy’ believe the state should coerce people to act against their preferences in ways that policymakers think will increase their wellbeing.

Do those few paragraphs whet your appetite? Go to the site and read more. It’s good stuff. I’ll return to Whyte’s book in a little while. I have some citizen duty to perform first.


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  • dlb says:

    I would love to see the above paragraphs aired on the ABC’s radio programme “Ockham’s Razor”. I dare say it would be to the chagrin of the programme’s host.

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