Federal regulatory policies, whether made by Congress or Executive branch agencies, benefit from the contributions of physical, biological and social scientists. But these contributions are not without controversy because science can inform, but not resolve, policy questions. Policymakers politicize science when they interfere with science, such as by telling scientists what “answers” they are supposed to obtain. Scientists are susceptible to the opposite temptation; they scientize policy when they interfere with policymaking, such as by telling policymakers what policies “science” supports.
In the news this week are examples of two signal efforts to scientize policy.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the “world’s largest general scientific society in the world” and publisher of the magazine Science, has launched what it calls an initiative to recognize climate change risks. This initiative is profoundly anti-scientific and policy-driven; it seeks to scientize climate policies worldwide. This is self-evident at least two ways.
First, AAAS has published a multimedia report titled What We Know that dismisses the scientific method in favor of an appeal to authority–most notably, its own. This approach is targeted at policymakers who wish to avoid having to make difficult choices that inevitably make some constituents better off and others worse off.
Second, the way the report characterizes science is heavily influenced by the policy preferences of the 13 scientists who wrote it and the AAAS leadership. Whereas science is a messy, incremental process of developing and testing theories by empirically testing falsifiable hypotheses, readers of the report could reasonably infer that climate science has none of these features. The report acknowledges no credible dissenters, and cites only science that is compatible with the sponsors’ and authors’ policy views.
The Campaign to End Obesity and its Action Fund
The public policy goal of the Campaign to End Obesity and its affiliated foundation, the Campaign to End Obesity Action Fund, is clearly stated in its name. It does not aim to reduce obesity, or to inform people of the risks associated with it. Rather, it seeks to end obesity in America. This goal is inherently radical, for it could only be achieved through comprehensive governmental coercion. This goal also is anti-scientific, for it presumes conclusions about science that cannot be informed by science.
Consistent with these policy views, the Action Fund lists proposed and enacted legislation that, in the view of its leaders, advance the cause of ending obesity:
- Fit For LIFE Act (H.R. 2795)
- FIT Kids Act (H.R.1057/ S.576 )
- The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (Public Law 111–296)
- Healthy Kids Outdoors Act (H.R.3353/S.1802)
- Healthy Lifestyles and Prevention (HELP) America Act (S.174)
- Safe and Complete Streets Act of 2011(H.R. 1780)
- Safe Routes to School Act (S. 800)
- Senate resolution affirming the importance of exercise and physical activity (S.RES.97)
- The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111–148)
What’s different is that the Action Fund also has sent out a broadcast email to economists seeking their endorsement of a proposal to amend the congressional budgeting process to “require long-term estimates that better identify the benefits of health care prevention programs.” (This “Economist Statement” is not posted on the Action Fund’s website but on the website of Donna Anderson, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.)
Congressional Budget Office Scoring: Economist Statement
The undersigned economists support reforming the Congressional Budget Act to require long-term estimates that better identify the benefits of health care prevention programs.
We believe the current practice of the Congressional Budget Office to produce budget estimates in three-, five-, seven-, or ten-year increments is incapable of capturing both the costs and the benefits of programs extending beyond the budget window.
This dynamic is particularly harmful to efforts to improve the overall health of the American population through federal prevention programs. The benefits of prevention programs often take years or decades to materialize, but they can have a powerful impact on population health and the cost of federal health care programs. Finite budget windows, even windows extending out ten years, generally fail to capture these benefits.
To address this challenge, we support reforming the Budget Act to allow for long-term analysis of prevention policies to ensure that such policies are more accurately judged on both their costs and benefits.
Some of these statements are factual. For example, it is true that current CBO practice does not ” both the costs and the benefits of programs extending beyond the budget window.” Indeed, CBO generally captures none of a bill’s benefits and costs. That’s because CBO’s job is to estimate the effects of proposed legislation on federal revenues and expenditures, which are neither benefits nor costs, but transfers.
But other statements are strictly matters of opinion. For example, it is hardly self-evident that the law’s focus on revenues and expenditures is “particularly harmful to efforts to improve the overall health of the American population.” There is no reason a priori to believe that these benefits are larger than, say, the benefits of environmental protection, elementary and secondary education, or national security. Under the Congressional Budget Act, the benefits (and costs) of none of these programs are estimated.
What the Campaign to End Obesity Action Fund is trying to do is build a list of economists who happen to share the same policy views about obesity, then persuade Congress to defer to their expertise as economists. Like AAAS’ report, it is an appeal to authority. Whereas AAAS wants policymakers to defer to its own authority, the Campaign to End Obesity Action Fund wants to enlist the authority of economists in support of its preferred public policies. Both are clear examples of attempts to scientize policy.
Actually, the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, Pub. L. 93-344.