Politics & Policy

Vox, Overrated

Sometimes politics has to take a backseat to science.

In 1897, at the urging of an amateur mathematician, the Indiana house of representatives unanimously passed a measure that redefined the calculation of the value of pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Fortunately, the bill died in the state senate.

This anecdote will likely elicit a sardonic chuckle from anyone who passed geometry in high school, but politicians increasingly find themselves having to understand subtle and complex scientific and technological phenomena. President-Elect Barack Obama’s choice of former senator and intellectual lightweight Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services makes it unlikely that science, rather than politics and ideology, will guide critical choices at agencies like the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Food and Drug Administration.

The foundation for unwisdom in what should be science-based policymaking is already in place: A recent report from the National Research Council endorsed the inclusion of non-expert members of the public in environmental decision-making, suggesting that it could improve the quality and increase the legitimacy of decisions by federal agencies.

But while the public should try to understand government policy, it is less useful for the public to formulate policy. This is particularly true when complex issues of science and technology are involved. Science is not democratic. The citizenry does not get to vote on whether a whale is a mammal or a fish, or on the temperature at which water boils; legislatures cannot repeal the laws of nature.

The model for direct citizen involvement in public policy is Denmark, where non-experts are invited to bring to citizens’-consensus conferences “a basic ‘common sense’ derived from worries, visions, general view and actual everyday experience as their basis for asking a number of essential questions concerned with the given subject.” There, this approach has been applied to a broad spectrum of scientific and technological issues, including food irradiation, gene-splicing techniques applied to agriculture and animals, setting limits on chemicals in the environment, fishing policy, and human-genome mapping. Danish populism has led to the adoption of excessively precautionary, harmful regulation of many products and technologies.

The Danish approach has spread to other places. Britons had their say in 2003, for example, on whether they wanted gene-spliced crops in their fields and their food. At vast expense the British government-sponsored a series of public discussions around the country, and also used more conventional methods such as focus groups. Local authorities held scores of additional public meetings on the subject.

It was a disaster. Mark Henderson, science correspondent for the Times (London), offered this view of the U.K.’s half-million-pound initiative: “The exercise has been farce from start to finish. I’m not sure I want the man in the street to set Britain’s science, technology and agriculture policy. One of the six meetings . . . spent much of its time discussing whether the SARS virus might come from [gene-spliced] cotton in China. It’s more likely to have come from outer space.” Henderson went on to say that the meetings were dominated by anti-technology zealots, the only faction that was well enough organized and cared enough to attend. This comports with reports that activists orchestrated as many as 79 percent of the 37,000 questionnaire responses.

The urge not only to sample but to respond to public opinion in inappropriate ways flourishes here as well. The U.S. National Science Foundation, whose primary mission is to support laboratory research across many disciplines, funded a series of “citizens’ technology forums,” at which previously uninformed, ordinary Americans came together to solve a thorny question of technology policy. According to the NSF’s abstract of the project, carried out by researchers at North Carolina State University under a 2002 grant, participants were to “receive information about that issue from a range of content-area experts, experts on social implications of science and technology, and representatives of special interest groups”; this is supposed to enable them to reach consensus “and ultimately generate recommendations.”

The project, first funded to support two panels and expanded in 2003, called for eight more panels of 15 citizens each (who were supposed to be “representative of the local population”). Their deliberations were to be overseen by a research team “composed of faculty in rhetoric of science, group decision-making, and political science,” who were charged to test both “an innovative measure of democratic deliberation” and “also political science theory, by investigating relationships between gender, ethnicity, lower socioeconomic status and increases in efficacy and trust in regulators.”

The NSF’s left hand seems not to know what the right hand is doing. A study of the public’s comprehension of science by the foundation several years ago found that fewer than one in four people know what a molecule is, and only about half understand that the earth circles the sun once a year. The realization that there is widespread scientific illiteracy is not new: In 1994, cosmologist Carl Sagan expressed concern about the trend toward an American society in which, “clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.”


And in The March of Unreason, British polymath Dick Taverne (a.k.a. Lord Taverne of Pimlico) posited that “in the practice of medicine, popular approaches to farming and food, policies to reduce hunger and disease and many other practical issues, there is an undercurrent of irrationality that threatens science-dependent progress and even the civilized basis of our democracy.” This irrationality emanates, he believes, from a “new kind of fundamentalism” that has infiltrated many activist campaigns — an undiscriminating Back-to-Nature fervor that views science and technology as the enemy and as a manifestation of an exploitative, rapacious and reductionist attitude toward nature.

Getting policy recommendations on obscure and complex technical questions from groups of non-experts (recruited by NSF in newspaper ads) is sort of like going from your cardiologist’s office to a diner, explaining to the waitress the therapeutic options for your chest pain, and asking her whether you should have the angioplasty or just take medication. (It might help, of course, if there were specialists in the rhetoric of science and in group decision-making lunching at a nearby table.)

If democracy must eventually take public opinion into account, good government must also discount popular errors and prejudices. Democratic (capital “D,” meaning the party) legislators have been notoriously poor at this, pandering instead to public fear of and misunderstanding of technology.

It wasn’t always thus with politicians, however. George Washington was trained as a surveyor, and he was a supremely scientific farmer. He weaned his plantation from the stultifying, soil-depleting tobacco economy. He pursued innovative methods of crop rotation, fertilization, and breeding using the best information available. He also invented a remarkably efficient device, lately reconstructed at Mount Vernon, for separating the useful parts of grain from chaff.

Thomas Jefferson, too, was an innovator in many fields, including natural history and botany; he opined, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is, to add a useful plant to its culture.” A few decades later, Pres. Abraham Lincoln established the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote “the development of a correct knowledge of recent improvements in agriculture [and] the introduction of new products.” He specifically endorsed “valuable tests in chemical science now in progress in the laboratory.”

A contemporary of Washington and Jefferson, the 18th-century Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke emphasized the government’s responsibility, observing that in republics, “Your Representative owes you, not only his industry, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

In other words, political leaders should lead. Now there’s a novel idea.

 – Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, was at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Food & Drug Administration from 1977-1994. Barron’s selected his most recent book,”The Frankenfood Myth,” one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.



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