See this short essay by retired economist and public policy specialist David Debertin. He discusses the clash between facts and closely held values, something that gets in way of rational public policy. In Nevada we are embarking on spending billions on solar energy, a program that will have no effect on climate change, that will impose crippling economic costs and that will endanger the reliable delivery of electricity. In November 2020, Nevadans will vote on whether to freeze this disastrous public policy into the state constitution.
David Debertin is a retired professor of economics. Here he speaks about the problems of implementing a rational public policy and about pressure on academics to come to predetermined conclusions, especially with respect to climate change. These remarks originally appeared on the members’ discussion group of the CO2 Coalition. Reprinted by permission.
Things I learned in Public Policy classes at Purdue University (plus a few of my own ideas since then) By David Debertin
I keep thinking about the continuing chatter in our group about how difficult and expensive it is to capture the attention of the public (including politicians) with respect to our conclusions with regard to climate change and atmospheric carbon dioxide. Many of you currently seem very frustrated by all of this. To a degree I am frustrated as well. And to a certain degree I understand your frustration, but I also see a lot of things that may not be as clearly outlined to some of you. This morning I want to share some of what I see with you. The outcome of all of this could be a less frustrating way for all of us to proceed.
Lesson number 1 from Purdue: For any public policy issue there is going to be disagreement with respect to how to proceed forward.
Lesson 2: As nearly everyone studying public policy knows, any issue has as its core a combination of facts and values. Facts are what everyone knows for sure with no disagreement and values are closely associated with core beliefs that frequently have roots in spirituality and what we would like to have happen in an idealized or perfect world.
Lesson 3: In addition to these two categories, there is a third category that often plays a pivotal role in public-policy decision making. This category the gang at Purdue would label “things people THINK are facts but are instead closely held values – values so closely held that people are convinced that they must somehow be factual.
Lesson 4: It is this obscure third category—things people THINK are facts but are in instead closely held values – that frequently drives public-policy decision making in one direction or the other. The role of the public policy educator generally is to provide educational support for helping the various players discover what is an actual fact versus a closely held value or belief. Players in the public policy arena are frequently going to be VERY reluctant and upset when ANYONE (including the purported unbiased policy educator) points out that one of the ideas that they think is known fact is indeed simply a closely held value.
Lesson 5: SOME public policy issues are so controversial that even an experienced public-policy educator needs to simply conclude that this is too hot to handle right now and the best role for the educator is to simply stay out of the discussions at least for the time being until cooler heads capable of debate prevail.
These 5 lessons all lead me directly into my own thoughts of the day. The idea popular with the public that there are some parts of science that are so settled that there is no longer any room for debate or further experiments is, in itself, anti-science. I had never heard of the concept until the politicians started using it. And politicians generally are not scientists of any sort. I have been trying to think if there are any examples of settled science in economics. There are things generally economists agree upon, but they would never call these things as somehow settled. There is always an opportunity to learn something new under certain conditions and situations. To claim that there is somehow settled science in climate science is just silly.
I had a 40-year career as an applied economist and in the process worked on all sorts of different issues where closely held values and beliefs often were an important part of the process. In my early days, as a grad student, I studied the question as to whether or not one could statistically show that public school teachers earning higher salaries and with smaller class sizes were able to produce students who scored better on standardized tests. I found that the general answer to that question was “No”. These results ended up in the state legislature and the teachers and their unions were not happy at all, as what the science revealed was that the whole concept of paying teachers more and reducing class sizes did not work as a mechanism for improving student outcomes. An arrow had been shot through the core of a closely held value. The teacher’s unions would like to believe that paying teachers more leads to improved student learning is “settled science” and that all legislators should agree.
I was a very fortunate academician because throughout my 40-year career my salary was paid as a combination of federal and state formula funds, and I did not need to go searching for money from groups who wanted the research done because they thought my findings would support a particular political agenda or provide data useful to advocate a specific position. I got promoted to associate professor with tenure 2 ½ years after my PhD and to full professor in another 3. By then had enough career flexibility that I could seek out issues that I knew would be controversial without losing my job or worrying about if I was going to be paid the following month. I could even study problems where my results might offend my department chair or dean without fear of (significant) retribution.
In retrospect, this was a wonderful world. I realize nowadays that much of academia often rides on where the next research grant is coming from and this cannot do anything but bias what problems are being studied and what results are being reported. Even full professors in colleges of agriculture are increasingly being forced into this world in which a grant application is accepted based on likely outcomes of the research and what the granting agency wants the research to show when it is complete. This is scary stuff from a research objectivity perspective because it puts a professor in a position of needing a likely outcome before the grant is even funded. It is also the world that most climate scientists must somehow successfully navigate if they expect a paycheck to continue.
So, this grant paradigm in large measure drives climate science research funding. The notion that climate change is an existential threat and without research and big government expenditures aimed at climate change mitigation that the world as we know it will end in 12 years certainly drives climate change funding better than a contrarian position that says the world can probably get by if everyone just keeps doing what they have been doing and at the end of 12 years we can simply take a look to see if anything really bad happened.
Maybe some climate scientists indeed believe that the world will collapse if the global surface temperature increases by more than 2 degrees centigrade in a dozen years, but without research funding at stake, I find it difficult to believe that any serious climate scientist could come to that conclusion. But no problem, if politicians are now reciting this same “value masquerading as fact” there is no need for climate scientists to advocate anything except for more funding to study the adverse effects of man-made climate change.
The scarier the potential outcomes the greater the funding and the more federal funds available for startups claiming to have technology that somehow provides climate change mitigation. Scary outcomes if nothing is done right now drives research climate change funding forward. Photos of a starving polar bear on melting Ice are good—fat and happy polar bear photos are bad!
The things we at the CO2 coalition have going for us right now are:
1. An executive branch that is, shall I say, less than enthusiastic about spending federal dollars on expensive climate change mitigation strategies.
2. A public that by and large seems underwhelmed at the prospect of spending more tax dollars on climate change mitigation strategies but in particular drastically alter the way they live, eat and travel day-by-day simply because these steps may make a far leftist living in a coastal area happy that climate change is being “addressed”.
I am struck by how low climate change mitigation ranks as a public policy issue even among Democrat primary voters. Warren did everyone a favor by pointing out how really expensive her Medicare-for-All program would be. Without drastic tax increases on everyone there would be no federal dollars for climate change mitigation. Climate mitigation implies drastic tax increases and a drastic lifestyle changes. So now you hear little mention of the Green New Deal that would compete directly with Medicare-for-All funding. This is true even in the world of liberal democrats who generally say “the more the government runs stuff and tells the public what to do” the better.
But the CO2 Coalition also needs to keep in mind that a lot of the things the public now believes about climate change represent not facts but instead, classic “Purdue style” values that people only THINK are facts. Mere research such as a study that reveals this in some manner is not going to change many minds. Politicians generally have no problem dealing with voters that get facts and closely held values mixed up. In fact, politicians often build campaigns based on these closely held values. After all, “Everyone deserves to have free medical care!”
So, the basic problem remains for those who believe the earth as we know it will no longer exist in 12 years. The only evidence that will convince them otherwise is to wait 12 years. Generally, if the world still exists in 12 years there is a serious problem for those who claimed it would end. Regardless of the climate-change-mitigation strategies implemented (or not) within the public and private sector (via governmental funding or passing laws that force people to do things they otherwise would not have done, like forcing them to buy electric vehicles, quit eating meat, and putting solar panels on their roofs) all under the guise of “this is necessary in order to save the planet!”. If ANY climate change strategies were implemented during the 12 years, there are those who will claim that the only reason the planet still exists is that we were “bold enough” to take these steps.
In the past 3 years we have gotten to observe what impacts if any would happen if the federal government simply quit mandating things such as federal subsidies for electric vehicle. But the Democrats claim that it will be 12 years before the earth as we know it will collapse entirely if we continue on such a path and that three years of data proves nothing.
Then when 12 years comes and goes, some adjustments will need to be made in the arguments for climate change mitigation presumably now by claiming that the 12-year number for world’s end was not quite right, but in another 12 years surely the world will end if everyone does not get behind even more climate change mitigation via costly efforts in both the public and private sectors.