Can Science Rule?

by on July 27, 2009 · 10 comments

The Obama administration has been greeted with enthusiasm by scientists who see the potential for “research-based policy.” Reason, not ideology, will govern. The New Scientist, among other zines, headlines “Let Science Rule: the Rational Way to Run Societies.” (May 28, p. 40-43) This is part of a larger theme: Behavioral economics is taking off.

One commonly offered example of policy fixes that are crying out for a research-based approach is sex education. Abstinence-only sex education programs are well-taxpayer–funded at the federal, state, and international level. And they don’t work, either for HIV prevention or pregnancy prevention. What advocates of abstinence perhaps forgot is that the social context in which abstinence was preached with some success to upper-middle-class Victorian young ladies (not the young men, even the Victorians had more sense than that) were perpetually accompanied by adult chaperones. (The result was horrendous… the innocent young ladies would ultimately be infected with venereal diseases by their husbands, and they and their babies would suffer and often die without ever being told what was wrong or how it could have been prevented–bringing us to an important chapter in U.S. free speech history, as the “birth controllers” and other advocates like Katharine Hepburn’s mother fought for an end to the silence). Done. Criminal law also could reap substantial benefits from a research-based approach. I have written elsewhere about the problems of ignoring deterrence research in copyright.

But it gets harder. The key problem: There is research, and then there is research. Much of it is done by advocates or just people who are careless with their assumptions. Some of these people might not even be aware of the extent to which they are advocates.

Examples: One is the EU FLOSS Report, which I was reading the other day. Some interesting data, but the authors are so busy making the case for open source they neglect key questions. Such as, just for example, how do you measure the contribution to GDP of volunteer labor? Can one simultaneously express concern (as the FLOSS report does) about the EU’s low levels of investment in software, and delight that open source reduces the amount that firms must spend in software research or on software? If one wishes to make the cheery prediction that increasing the take-up of open source software within Europe will close their innovation gap with the United States, shouldn’t one consider that perhaps the United States might simultaneously increase it’s take-up rate if it appears to be a good idea? Just why does the United States seem to be more innovative than Europe anyway?

And so on. On the problem of result-oriented studies, New Scientist quotes Laurence Moore of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom: “They’re almost designed to show that the idea is a good idea … Rigorous evaluations are perceived as threatening rather than supportive of better policy.”

Sound studies that run contrary to popular ideas are often simply ignored. Abstinence policy is one example. But the problem is not confined to conservatives. Another example is Head Start. This is the classic 1960’s early childhood research-based triumph. Except the only study showing lasting results from Head Start was an study designed by the originator of the program. Later studies continue to cite the original study, and to cite studies citing the original study, and so on. The results showing long term gains have never been replicated. This problem, too, is recognized: “Assessing social policies using randomised controlled trials did start to take off in the US from the 1960s to 1980s. But the practice has declined, partly because policy makers became disenchanted when the trials did not endorse their brainwaves, according to Sheila Bird, a statistician at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit in Cambridge, UK.”

This raises the question of why politicians and many other policymakers stick with such determination to their agendas even in the face of contrary evidence. Another way of asking the same thing: What *is* ideology and what does it do for us? I offer some thoughts. Are people just dumb? Is it ego? People must “save face” and are unwilling to back down from a position once taken publicly?

Some of our willingness to go with general principles is a good thing. A vast amount of human experience gets summed up and expressed in the form of ideology. The United States Constitution is an ideological document. Yet it is also based on human experience with hundreds of years of monarchy, condensed into few words. One does not, and ought not, lightly set such things aside. Example: There is a not-well-enough-known Supreme Court case, Buchanan v. Worley. At issue was the constitutionality of racial segregation laws. The supporters of the laws were filed many research reports from highly progressive social scientists, purporting to prove that segregation was good for people. Quite rightly, the Supreme Court dismissed the research and favored the principle of equality in the eyes of the law. Segregation statutes were unconstitutional. Without the Court’s willingness to declare them so, the United States could have developed a full-blown apartheid system along the lines of South Africa.

Certainly it would be good to scrutinize the human experiences that go into our ideologies and rules of thumb carefully. But this cannot always be done. I do not wish to be a gulag guinea pig.

Also, there are general, as well as particular lessons to be drawn from research-based policy. One general lesson appears to be that many bright ideas fail. The excellent book Seeing Like A State elaborates on this theme. But there is another. Why is it the need for research-based policy so pressing and not, say, just for example, research-based ideas for small business or how to cook a good hard-boiled egg? Why is the need usually in the public sector, not the private sector? When research is needed in the private sector, such as medicine—why is it taken up readily, egos set aside, while the public sector has been so stubborn?

This is not merely an accident. In the private sector, failure often has natural and severe consequence for those who support or act on a bad idea. In government, failure often has no consequences except embarrassment for those who act on or support a bad idea. Research will continue to be ignored without accountability. Which brings us back to ideology; a gentle rule of thumb favoring action through the private sector, not the public sector, may be more research-based than some would like to think after all.

My original post is here at convergence

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