Last week I attended a conference on environmental regulation that reminded me how difficult it is to balance the demands of science with the demands of politics. Science gives us a set of standardized methods and tools to help us to understand the physical world. Using these methods and tools, we add to the body of knowledge is sometimes called “scientific fact.”
Within science there are gradations of facts. It is easy to say that that the high today was 75 degrees. It is harder to say that drinking Diet Coke is bad for you. Our abilities to measure physical phenomenon and determine causation evolve over time. Today we can measure in parts per billion whereas for decades we could only detect material in the parts per million range. We have used model organisms—viruses, plants and animals—as proxies for humans in scientific testing for years. However, we continue to refine our understanding of the accuracy of these tests over time. Are rats or frogs the better model for determining if a new chemical will have carcinogenic effect on humans? You don’t have to be a scientist — of rocketry or anything else — to understand that this gets messy fast. Add politics into the mix and the mess gets worse.
Politics has to account not just for facts, but values. What is our collective appetite for risk? Consider the case of a promising newly invented chemical. We have regulations to protect people from industrial toxins. Should we demand the new chemical have a zero percent chance of someone experiencing a negative health effect? Perhaps using this new chemical could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase crop yields for drought stricken farmers or create some other significant good. How do we weigh those costs and benefits?
Let us assume that we can agree on how to calculate the net benefits and thus the “safe” level of chemical exposure. Then we will need to agree on how to implement and enforce the regulation of those levels. Industry can be given positive or negative incentives to comply.
But what’s the definition of compliance? Do we test the levels once a year or more often? Do we take the average of those test points or do we focus on the peaks? How much of our government’s time and money should be spent on the enforcement of this regulation?
This post might seem like a tedious exercise in the obvious. However, I think political rhetoric obscures the relationship between fact and policy. Admit that no single policy is obviously correct but make the case that your arguments are stronger? No, more often we accuse opponents of our preferred policies of ignoring the facts.
Adam D’Luzansky lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.