Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sunday Roundup: Uncertainty, Science, and Public Policy

There are two interesting essays on the evolution/ID debate in today's newspapers.  Nobody is going to be persuaded one way or the other by either article, but perhaps they can bring much-needed perspective to the debate.  Christians can't afford to oppose evolution, by Richard Colling, published in the Chicago Tribune, attempts to bridge the gap in understanding between both sides.  Borrowing from the style of George Lakoff, the author presents the objections each side had to the other's viewpoint.  In God and Darwin We Trust, by Dan Neil, in the LA Times, presents the view of the debate as described by inhabitants of Patagonia.  There, religion is taught in public schools, but students do not have to attend.  There is not much controversy there:
Perhaps landscape is destiny. Here in postcard Patagonia, the distinction between Nature and God seems so manufactured and irrelevant, so easily transcended by people of goodwill. The Patagonians actually seem a little bewildered that the most advanced nation on the planet cannot manage this low hurtle of imagination.
Hot on Parkinson's Tail, also in the LA Times, describes the current thinking about the possible relationship between exposure to pesticides, and Parkinson disease.  
Now, with Parkinson's, this medical detective work has edged closer to proving the case than with almost any other human ailment. In most patients, scientists say, Parkinson's is a disease with environmental origins.

Scientists are "definitely there, beyond a doubt, in showing that environmental toxicants have to be involved" in some cases of Parkinson's disease, said Freya Kamel, an epidemiologist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who has documented a high rate of neurological problems in farmers who use pesticides.

"It's not one nasty thing that is causing this disease. I think it's exposure to a combination of many environmental chemicals over a lifetime. We just don't know what those chemicals are yet, but we certainly have our suspicions."
Climate talks - hoops and hot air, by Richard Black, posted at BBC News, is a nice display of British humor:
November 2005: the Kyoto Protocol has been in force for six years, emissions of greenhouse gases are falling fast, and all governments accept the message of urgency coming from mainstream climate science.

With the Kyoto targets already achieved, the Montreal summit will focus on the next round of commitments for developed and developing countries alike.

Richer states are preparing to pledge cuts of 30% by 2020, as a step towards their declared aim of 90% reductions by 2050; while developing nations have agreed an initial target of 5%.

There is consensus across the board that every citizen of the planet should be entitled, in the long term, to the same allowance for emitting greenhouse gases.

The only potential problem Montreal delegates may face is the number of flying pigs migrating north-eastwards from Lake Ontario.
He is talking about the prospects for progress at the 11th round of international talks on the Kyoto Protocol, taking place in Montreal.  
One of the burning questions of the moment is what constitutes dangerous climate change?

All countries present, even the Kyoto naysayers, have a duty under the Framework Convention to stabilise greenhouse gases at levels which do not cause "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".

But what "dangerous" means has not been defined [...]
All four articles have something in common: they all deal with the boundary between certainty and uncertainty.  Furthermore, they all address questions of how the general public deals with uncertainty in science, as applied to public policy.  Figuring out how best to handle uncertainty would be a good topic for a long blog post.  It would be difficult to write, "hard work," in the words of a recent President.  Fortunately, much of the hard work has already been done.  The UK's Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has written what they call a POST note on the subject: Handling Uncertainty in Scientific Advice.

The POST note was written at the request of Parliament, in the aftermath of their investigation into the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis:
The Phillips Inquiry into BSE recommended a shift in the relationship between scientific advice and policy-making.  Increased emphasis has since been placed on the explicit and systematic handling of scientific uncertainties by advisers, officials, ministers and parliamentarians.
For those of us who follow science and public policy, and who cringe every time a politician opens his or her mouth about something that has to do with science, this is a refreshing thing to read.  What a concept!  Acknowledge openly the fact that there is uncertainty in all matters scientific, and deal with it.  Another breath of fresh air:
Scientific uncertainties may be underplayed or overplayed for political advantage.
Yes.  Exactly so.  And let's quit doing that already.  That is one place where the POST note falls short.  They refer to guidelines for the communication of risk assessments to policy makers, but they do not address the more troublesome matter of policy makers communicating risk assessments to their constituents:
OST’s Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (the Code) in 2001 provided explicit instructions on the reporting of uncertainty and divergent opinions. The Code recommends that scientific advice to decision makers should make clear the sources and extent of uncertainty.  This includes the assumptions on which judgments are based as well as alternative scenarios and interpretations of the data.
What is needed is an open acknowledgment of the fact that it can be politically expedient to overplay or underplay risk assessments.  When this is done, it is a form of deception, also known as lying.  What also is needed here is for people to learn to recognize this form of deception.  And not put up with it.

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