Scientists Beware

By Benson, Bruce L. | Freeman, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Scientists Beware


Benson, Bruce L., Freeman


Many political commentators lament the growing apathy among the voting-age population, but I do not believe apathy keeps many potential voters away from the polls. Many of us care a lot about what politicians are doing; we just don't trust any of them.

Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and hundreds of others like them elected to federal, state, and local offices have destroyed the credibility of politicians in general. And this political disease is contagious. I regret to say that it has spread to my profession. So many economists have been pulled into the political process as government employees or paid consultants to provide "expert" opinions on virtually every side of every political debate that economics has lost much of its credibility. In fact, there are almost as many economist jokes as lawyer jokes (check out netec.wustl.edu/JokEc.html).

Economics is, of course, a social science (or in some circles, a "soft science"), so our laboratory is the complex real world and it is relatively easy to find selective evidence in support of any political position. The physical sciences (or "hard sciences") are not immune from the political disease either, however. The policy process at the Environmental Protection Agency has made this abundantly clear. For instance, last year while invalidating part of a 1993 EPA report on secondhand tobacco smoke, a federal judge concluded that the "EPA publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun, . . . adjusted scientific procedure and scientific norms to validate the Agency's public conclusion, and aggressively utilized authority to disseminate findings to establish a de facto regulatory scheme. . . and to influence public opinion." In particular,

A policy document, which presumably would be written after the scientific analysis was carried out and reviewed by other experts, was written before the analysis was completed.

To provide scientific support for the EPA's predetermined conclusions, its scientists had to "cherry pick its data." The report contained a selective review of scientific literature that ignored both many relevant studies and criticisms of many that are cited. It also contained a statistical reanalysis of 11 U.S. studies, none of which provided support for the desired conclusions at standard levels of statistical confidence. By re-analyzing those studies together (using "meta-analysis") and abandoning the commonly accepted standard for statistical confidence (effectively doubling the chances of being wrong), the EPA was able to support the predetermined conclusion that evidence of a "substantial public health impact" exists.

The validity of the re-analysis cannot be assessed because the EPA report does not provide sufficient information about the studies and process, leading the judge to conclude that "The court is faced with the ugly possibility that EPA adopted a methodology for each chapter, without explanation, based on the outcome sought in the chapter." Furthermore, if the two most recent U.S. studies that were then available (one funded by the National Cancer Institute and one by the World Health Organization) had been included in the reanalysis, the results apparently would not have been statistically significant even at the lower level of confidence.

I could go on, but the point is that the EPA, supposedly an agency whose policies are based on valid scientific evidence, is willing to manipulate that evidence in pursuit of a political agenda. Indeed, despite this judicial decision and numerous studies contradicting the EPA's position, Administrator Carol Browner described the court decision as "disturbing" because "it is widely accepted" that the dangers alleged in the report are "very real." Apparently, wide acceptance of an idea is justification enough for a policy, whether the scientific evidence supports it or not! The possibility that the EPA's misleading report may have influenced this "wide acceptance" does not seem to matter either. …

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