A final set of recommendations … today Ron Bailey of Reason is testifying before a Congressional hearing on “The Impact of Science on Public Policy”. His testimony is available at the Reason magazine website, and indicates some general tendencies that I have found in my wanderings through energy and environmental public policy:
What are the lessons to be learned from this record of badly exaggerated predictions of environmental disaster? First, scientists, even well meaning ones, don’t know as much as they think they do. They generally go wrong because they ignore or misunderstand how human beings interact with the natural world and with other people, that is, they are largely ignorant of economics. This ignorance constantly leads them astray because as biologists and ecologists, they tend to think that human beings are merely more clever herds of deer. When deer run out of their sustenance, they die. When human beings begin to run out, they turn their brains and their social institutions to producing more. Science can tell us what may be problems, but it can’t tell us what to do about them. Solutions depend on a deep understanding of human values, politics, and economics. Scientists are no more qualified to pronounce on those topics than their non-scientific confreres and fellow citizens.
Policy makers must be very cautious about rushing to adopt policies to respond to alleged environmental crises. As physicist Edward Teller reminded us: “Highly speculative theories of worldwide destruction—even of the end of life on Earth—used as a call for a particular kind of political action serve neither the good reputation of science nor dispassionate political thought.”
I hope that I have also made it clear that it is very important to hold people to account for their past predictive failures. Also, have patience, the scientific process and peer review will eventually point us to the truth. Finally, it should be clear that environmentalist advocates keep making the same mistake over and over: they constantly underestimate the power of technology and science, and underestimate the power of markets to solve emerging problems.
Arnold Kling also has a post linking this, and adding a phrase redolent of words that have spewed in frustration out of my mouth more than a few times:
they ignore substitution and technological change
OK, when I’ve said them, they’ve had some other adjectives and things involved, but you get the point … which is that humans are unique in our adaptability and our conscious application of our highly-developed creativity to derive novel solutions to complex problems, including resource scarcity. Ecological, biological, and climate models that fail to incorporate this human dynamism fail to have any predictive power.