Positions, Science and Values

I’ve recently finished reading The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson. While there’s a lot more to it than what I’m going to talk about here, it did give me better words for describing why I find certain political positions (and ways of advocating for them) frustrating. Many people are holding a belief for values-based reasons but claim evidence (usually scientific) for why they do. This avoids discussing the real underlying issues and so nothing can be resolved.

An early point Henderson makes in The Geek Manifesto is blindingly obvious but seeing it written out is helpful. Values are different than science. Science can’t tell us what to do, only what the possible effects might be. However, evidence, especially “scientific evidence”, has a halo. If the “science says” something, then how can we argue against it? This halo is so strong that politicians, lobbyists, even a person individually will seek out scientific justification for a particular position. And we do this even if that scientific justification doesn’t really exist or we have to cherry pick the one study out of hundreds that “proves” our point. Henderson calls this looking for “policy-based evidence” rather than making “evidence-based policy”. I would extend this to using “position-based evidence” to support one’s beliefs.

His point isn’t that we shouldn’t make decisions unless we have proper scientific evidence. It’s that we should be honest when we are making a decision (or believing something) without or in contradiction to what scientific evidence tells us will happen. One of his examples is somewhat extreme but illuminating. Science might tell us that an early curfew would reduce crime. However, most of us probably value freedom of movement and limitations on government power more than we value the reduction in crime. If a politician proposed a curfew and supported it with a good review of scientific evidence, most of us would rightly say that the science doesn’t matter in this case.

But on other topics, politicians feel the need to find some evidence — whether it’s representative or fair is irrelevant — because the values-based reasons to support the policy aren’t as clear (or as widely shared). Using “science” makes the argument more convincing to disinterested people and avoids making trickier arguments about values that might interest them. I might just recommend you read the book (and I do!) but I think a few examples might be helpful.

The GM Debate

This is painfully common in the current GM food debate. I’ve touched on this before when talking about GM labeling being a poor proxy for other worries regarding our agricultural system. If you get into any kind of argument about GM foods, the litany of reasons why GM food is bad will include a large number that are problems with conventional agriculture (and even organic). Some worry about safety and long-term health effects will be thrown in (generally justified with cherry-picked evidence), but much of it is related to things like over-use of pesticides, monocultures, farmers being beholden to seed companies, people not really understanding how their food system works, etc. None of these are peculiar to transgenic technology and all pre-date adoption of transgenic crops. I’m not sure why the technology became a poster-demon for the green movement but today it serves as a convenient boogeyman for many other concerns about agriculture that are largely about values. Large monoculture fields growing commodity corn or soy primarily to feed animals or make biofuels doesn’t fit with our conception of a “family farm”. But facing the those challenges is a lot harder than getting GM foods pulled off the market — and the decisions we will have to make are a lot more contentious. Given how much I’ve written, I’ll not bore you with more here.

Organic Food Marketing

Another example is organic marketing and foods (and I’m going to write a bit more on this than the above). I personally eat a lot of organic food. My reason for doing so is that without further information about how conventional food is grown (pesticide use, attempts to reduce runoff, etc.), organic is the best proxy I have for finding food grown with “less impact”. I put that in quotes because it’s a really hard thing to judge — for example, current organic practices generally require more land to produce the same yields (for most crops — as always, there is variability). That said, I don’t sweat not buying organic either. It’s only an inadequate proxy after all. Eating less meat probably has a far greater impact. But that’s a lot of complexity in reasons that aren’t really going to be convincing in marketing materials. “It’s probably a little better (sometimes) than the conventionally grown alternative!” does not make a convincing advertisement. Instead, inadequacies in modern organic (see above about land use) are ignored and many activists and companies make claims that are far more about values than evidence.

It’s widely believed, for example, that organic food is literally more nutritious than conventionally grown food. The evidence for that is pretty uncertain. Some studies see a difference, many don’t and many that do see a difference show very small differences (or insignificant ones in the context of a full human diet). But many of us value the idea of eating more nutritiously. A claim that organic is more nutritious provides an easy way to support that value — even if just eating more vegetables (organically grown or not) would work just as well.

Another common idea is that organic foods are grown “without chemical pesticides or fertilizers”1. Of course organic methods do use chemical pesticides and fertilizers (copper fungicide, Bt sprays, manure and compost all are made of chemicals). Sometimes the common organically permitted pesticide is even more harmful than the conventional alternative. There are two main values being sold here. First, the idea that we can have agriculture and not impact the environment. Second, the idea that “chemicals” are dangerous and organic lets you avoid them.

For the first, human agriculture absolutely requires inputs. Our food crops are bred for yields and quality and often not good resistance to pests or tolerance of resource limitation. Thus, we fertilize them and apply pesticides to ward off pests and competitors — even organic farming must or suffer commercially infeasible yields. The second is implying that food that isn’t grown with organic is somehow dangerous to eat and yet there’s very little (broad, repeated) evidence that we’re getting dangerous levels of the pesticides used in conventional agriculture — the USDA measures produce every year and almost uniformly finds levels undetectable or well below regulatory limits (which are set well below levels where effects have been seen).

But let’s leave it at that. In general, I think organic agriculture has a lot going for it. But it’s currently being sold in a way that exaggerates its benefits while demonizing agriculture seen as being in opposition. Meanwhile, evidence and the scientific process is ignored or misused.

The Geek Manifesto is about a lot more than just this idea of evidence-based policy decisions. There are chapters applying it to education policy, health, law and order, environmentalism and more. Each showing how evidence is ignored or manipulated and how “the geeks” can change policy for the better. Most examples are directly taken from UK politics but most of it is very relevant to the United States (and at least in part most modern democracies) so don’t be put off by the UK-centrism. It’s got me thinking a lot about how to communicate ideas in a way that is actually effective and it’s well worth reading.

  1. If this phrase seems like a strawman and organic advocates wouldn’t literally say that, google the literal phrase “without chemical pesticides or fertilizers” (in quotes).

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