This Isn’t A March For Science — This Is About Economic And Political Policy

  • Date: 17/04/17
  • Tim Worstall, Forbes

The complaint which is driving the ‘March for Science’ isn’t about an attack on science at all. Far from it, it’s one group of scientists not understanding that the policy they advocate is, by the scientific experts in the policy, considered to be a bad one which should be replaced. 

Image result for March for Science cartoon

“Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” ― Michael Crichton

One of those who organises the Union of Concerned Scientists has penned an explanation of the March for Science to take place next weekend. And it’s entirely obvious that what he’s actually irate about isn’t science at all, it’s the political and economic policies being put in place as a result of science that irks him.

The two are not the same thing, not the same thing at all:

“So, why are they grabbing placards now? Because an unprecedented attack on science, scientists and evidence-based policymaking is underway in the US federal government.”

An attack upon science or the scientific method would be worthy of a march of course. But that really just isn’t what is being complained about:

“Nowhere is the attack more ferocious than on the issue of global warming, where the Trump administration has taken a wrecking ball to the modest but important policies put in place by President Obama.”

Ah, no, that’s not a complaint about science at all is it? That’s a complaint about political and economic policy. I am, for example, boringly mainstream concerning climate science. That warming climate is happening, we’re causing it and we should do something. And then I become equally boringly mainstream with what we should do about it–have a carbon tax. As Nick Stern, James Hanson, Greg Mankiw, William Nordaus, John Quiggin, Richard Tol, Marty Weizman, Sir Partha Dasgupta and just about every economist who has studied the matter agrees.

And the thing is, as the Stern Review itself, all 1,200 pages of meaty goodness of it, explains, because the carbon tax is the efficient method of dealing with this then the other methods, say, regulatory action like that from Obama, is not something we should do. For, if we deal with this problem the efficient way then we will either be able to solve more of it for the costs we’re willing to bear or, alternatively, solve it entirely at least cost. Using regulation, that less efficient method, means that either we’ll solve less of it because we’ll be so aghast at the cost, or we’ll be poorer once we have solved it.

That is, good economic policy tells us that the political action to deal with climate change should not be what Obama has been doing. Reversing those regulations is not thus an attack on science it’s an attack on bad policy. And do please note that this is true whatever we think of climate science itself. The truth of emissions causing warming has no influence at all upon the best method of reducing emissions and thus warming.

“My organisation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, with its more than 500,000 members and supporters, has joined with allies from the climate, environmental justice and labour movements to help organise both the March for Science and the People’s Climate March.”

Again, that’s not about science. That’s about economic and political policies.

There’s a much deeper point here too. Let’s say that we really do want to be ruled by science. Personally, I don’t think so, the people who tried scientific socialism didn’t give that sort of thing a good name really. But let’s say that we do want to be. OK, so, each scientist is an expert in their really rather small part of the overall endeavour. I know someone, in fact have funded some of her work, who is the world’s great expert on the extraction of rare earth metals from the wastes of bauxite processing. Excellent–that doesn’t mean that she’s therefore who I would turn to on how competition policy should be crafted so as to ensure rare earth supply for the US military, just to mention something that is doing the rounds at present. Similarly I’m absolutely delighted to take the world of that guy measuring atmospheric CO2 in Hawaii. That doesn’t mean that he’s going to be expert in how to change human behaviour in order to get that number going down again.

For we’ve another scientific specialty which deals with those sorts of things–economics. That’s what it is about, the allocation of scarce resources so as to meet humans wants and desires. And thus if we want to change the way that humans are allocating resources then that’s the science we’re going to have to use. It’s worth noting that pretty much all economists are against those uses of regulation to control emissions. Not because they don’t believe or trust the climate scientists. But because the economists have their own expertise. Not in climate science of course–but in what you need to do to get humans to change their behaviour.

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