Risk: Reason and Reality

Does Society Need a Science Court to Help Establish "The Facts"?

            It’s interesting that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was not only a U.S Senator and U.N. Ambassador, but a sociologist. Interesting, because Moynihan is usually credited with the pithy sounding observation that “You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts”, which any entry-level sociologist ought to understand is a really dumb thing to say. If the facts about cognition are clear about anything, they are clear on this one fact…that there are no true facts, just our selective perceptions of the evidence, informed by feelings and instincts and experiences and subconscious mental shortcuts and values and worldviews, all of which help explain why such established “facts” as evolution and anthropogenic climate change and the safety of vaccines are hardly established facts at all to so many.

            Reasoning is not pure and objective, but ‘motivated’, principally by the deep animal imperative of survival. We see the facts, particularly the facts about risk, not merely for what they are but how we feel about them. As a result of this subjective and emotion-based risk perception system, we sometimes worry more than the evidence warrants, and sometimes we worry more than the evidence warns. We get risk wrong, and those errors create risks all by themselves. 

     So how can a democratic society get risk right? We can’t make people perfectly objective, and their feelings and values must have a voice in the debate. Might one approach be to start with an objective analysis of the evidence, and then have a separate debate about how we feel about that evidence? Wouldn’t that help us make more informed evidence-based choices, which ostensibly would mean smarter choices that would keep us safer?

     Take genetically modified food. The scientific facts about the safety of GM food get badly distorted in what is essentially a values debate. Each side has its own opinion, and therefore it’s own view of the facts. Wouldn’t it be great if instead we could first objectively consider the hard scientific evidence, and then, separately, have the values debate about how some people don’t like big rich powerful companies like Monsanto, or corporate large scale agriculture, or the ways that human-made technology, for all its benefits, has also harmed the natural world.

            This is not as naïve as it sounds. There is actually a proven model for doing precisely that. It’s an organization called the Health Effects Institute, created in 1980 by the EPA and automobile manufacturers to establish a trusted independent arbiter of the facts regarding the health effects of air pollution, facts those two sides were warring over and getting nowhere except deeper into expensive and time-consuming legal battles. Each side put up 50% of the money to create an independent organization - neither side has control - to analyze research already done or do original research when needed, creating HEI as, in effect, a science court empowered to rule on “the facts”.

            A roster of HEI sponsors reads like the invitation list to what could turn into a really nasty dinner party; Exxon and the EPA, the American Petroleum Institute  and the Renewable Energy Foundation of China, vehicle makers and the environmentally active William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. But HEI works precisely because, unlike most independent think tanks and academic institutions and national science academies, the competing parties have declared a truce in pursuit of the truth, purposefully empowering a trusted independent referee of the facts. HEI is their creation, to provide neutral, reliable high quality research, and everybody agrees that the HEI view of the evidence will be accepted as fact. Once that evidence is established, there are still plenty of battles over what society should do. But those are clearly battles about values and emotions and worldviews. “The facts”, as Moynihan meant them, have been established.

     You and I have benefited significantly from HEI’s work. By establishing what the evidence tells us about the health effects of air pollution, their respected research has informed numerous state and federal rules that have made the air we breath cleaner and safer. Now HEI is considering a role as a referee on the scientific evidence about fracking, an issue with huge stakes for air quality and climate change.

     Now imagine if something like HEI, a publicly accepted and trusted ‘science court’, served as the independent neutral referee on vaccines, or GMOs, or any of the other contentious issues where facts are twisted and distorted and used as weapons in a larger war that’s really about feelings and values. Imagine an organization, created by stakeholders with conflicting values, who jointly accept that society would be healthier and safer if a neutral arbiter, with no stake in the issue and supported by all the competing parties, can first establish what the body of evidence indicates, and then everybody can go to war over what they think society should do about that evidence.

     In the end, of course, each side would still have their own facts, cherry picking and distorting the evidence to their ends. That’s human nature. But with the finding from the ‘science court’ in hand, policy makers would have their own facts, THE facts as Moynihan meant them, and the regulations and programs based on those facts would be more evidence-based and have a stronger foundation against political and legal challenges. That’s just what HEI has achieved with air pollution.

     The need for an independent science court has never been greater. More and more in these polarized times we tend to see the facts the way our friends do. And the threats we face in our global technological world continue to grow more and more complex, and further beyond the capacities of a risk perception system based more on feelings and gut intuition than facts and careful objective reason. The risk of getting risk wrong has never been greater. Across a broad range of issues, an HEI-like science referee could help objectively establish what the evidence tells us about so many issues, and that can help us make more informed and intelligent choices about the best ways to keep ourselves safe.



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