Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Preference for Ignorance

A lot of people see environmental issues as something that either can be, or should be, easily resolved if only more attention was paid to the facts -- particularly those facts established by science. Indeed, environmentalism as an ideology is predicated on the veracity of its science: we know this is happening, we know because the science tells us this, and, thus, we must act in this prescribed way to "fix" it.

However, the problem arises as to what it is we really know, how and what the "science" is, and is not, able to tell us. As this discussion by Kling illustrates, in many areas of policy concern our presumed "facts" are not incontrovertible as they stem from observational studies that 'often result in incorrect attributions of causal relationships'.

Most often observed data are found to have a statistically significant correlation with another variable. The inference that there is, therefore, some causal relationship between those variables is then subject to the ideological premises of the researcher(s) which may, or may not, have any basis in scientific "fact".

Most often, because of the nature of scientific inquiry, relationships are based on theories, conjecture and/or guess work, each adjective being a less desirable descriptor of "acceptable" scientific procedure. One person's "theory" is another guestimate, one person's hunch another's hypothesis for verification. And that is the point. In laboratory science, hypotheses can be tested and refuted by experimentation. In the real world of public policy, experimentation with live bodies is rarely as simple -- hence our use of observational studies in the first place.

The solution? To examine observational studies not only for their study protocols but also for their assumptions and ideological premises. But it also is incumbent on more researchers to become aware of, and to state clearly, what their ideology is and what are the resultant premises under which their research findings should be viewed.