Why ‘science’ alone isn’t enough for setting environmental policy
The Environmental Protection Agency announced new, stiffer smog rules on Thursday that will reduce the allowable level of ozone in the air.
Business leaders and state officials point out that many regions of the country still cannot meet federal standards set in 2008, or even back in 1997. The tighter smog regulations, they assert, will likely have job- and growth-killing effects. This has, however, fallen on deaf ears.
The EPA maintains that its new standard is necessary to protect public health, which includes preventing asthma and even death. It insists the new rules are based purely on science, untainted by economic considerations. That’s poppycock.
Supporters and opponents of the new standard have accused each other of using bad science, or politicizing science, to make their arguments. Yet they are all “scientizing policy,” as I show in a new study for the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.
Science is vital — but rarely sufficient for making policy decisions. There are two key reasons. First, though scientific information is essential for understanding matters of fact, it can’t be the sole basis for making policy decisions about what should be. Second, when predicting health risks, scientists can never have complete information, so bureaucrats must make assumptions and judgments when they interpret scientific information to set rules.
Yet the Clean Air Act does not recognize this. The law requires the EPA to revisit the smog standard every five years, and then base its decision of whether to revise it on science alone. No other considerations — including economic impact — may be taken into account.
The law says science is the only factor that can legally be considered in setting a standard. Thus the temptation to “scientize” policy by putting a spin on scientific results to advance policy goals, if even subconsciously, is almost inescapable.
Though some judgment is necessary to translate scientific evidence into policy prescriptions, current procedures for doing so are not transparent. They have led to distortions and false precision in the presentation of scientific information. The practices blur the line between science and policy and contribute to the scientization of policy.
Policymakers and the public are often unaware of the influence of hidden policy choices, or that alternative, equally plausible assumptions predict very different risk outcomes.
The environmental agency presents its new ozone standard as if it were a magic number — exactly meeting the statutory requirement “requisite to protect public health” with an “adequate margin of safety,” but going no further. It provides precise-sounding predictions of the health benefits to be achieved. Its pronouncements, however, don’t acknowledge the considerable uncertainty about the actual risk involved, or the agency’s reliance on biased inferences and assumptions for handling that uncertainty.
The EPA claims, for example, that its new standard would prevent up to 660 deaths annually and thousands of cases of asthma and bronchitis. However, Tony Cox, a mathematics professor at the University of Colorado and editor-in-chief of Risk Analysis: An International Journal, examined the agency’s ozone data and risk assessment carefully. He concluded in an EPA filing that further reductions in ozone levels would make no difference to public health. “Past reductions in ozone,” Cox noted, “have had no detectable causal impact on improving public health.”
We can all agree that politicians should not politicize science by distorting what scientific studies conclude. But we should also be wary when scientists and unelected officials attempt to exert influence on policy decisions by selectively presenting, or even distorting, scientific findings — which leads to the scientization of policy.
The Clean Air Act’s pretense that science alone can determine the ideal ozone standard virtually guarantees the scientization of policy. It effectively forces those involved in regulatory decisions to hide rather than reveal scientific uncertainty, and to dismiss and denigrate dissenting views. Key policy choices, disguised as science, rest with technical staff, while policymakers charged with making hard decisions avoid responsibility by claiming their hands were tied by the science.
This has evolved into an adversarial process characterized by harsh rhetoric in which each party claims that science supports its preferred policy outcome and questions opponents’ credibility and motives rather than a constructive discussion regarding very real tradeoffs. We won’t know the real reasons why the EPA chose to revise the already stringent standard of 75 parts of ozone per billion parts of air (or 0.0000075 percent) or why it chose 70 parts per billion as opposed to 65 ppb or something in between.
Communities across the nation that will have to sacrifice to implement the new standard deserve better.