Saturday, January 28, 2017

Facts, Alternative Facts, Evidence, and Marching for Science


Scientists planning their own march in Washington (CNN Politics)

"There are certain things that we accept as facts with no alternatives," according to the site. "The Earth is becoming warmer due to human action. The diversity of life arose by evolution. ... An American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world."

While I could not agree more with this, one thing that concerns me especially since this last election is the extreme emphasis given to isolated facts vs critical thinking and evidence.  Ideological agendas thrive on isolated facts. The real danger as economist Thomas Sowell points out in some of his writings is when an American government invokes the name and prestige of science to override other people's choices.

Take for example the following "facts" we often hear from activists in the agriculture space.:

1)  Over the last two decades we have seen increased plantings of "GMO" crops resistant to roundup as well as weeds resistant to roundup herbicide. 

2) GMOs have lead to increased use of chemicals in agriculture and that increases risks to health and the environment.

3) Industrial scale farms get subsidies from government to grow mostly monocrops of corn and soybeans which are primary ingredients going into cheap unhealthy foods at the same time we are seeing an obesity epidemic

 And this fact from the article above:

4) The Earth is becoming warmer due to human action.

One could take these "facts" and then lobby for policies to address all of these concerns including increased regulation, carbon taxes, changing farm subsidies, labeling laws, or taxing foods. In every case we are pushing an agenda to override the choices of millions in the name of science, based on "facts".  But there is a big difference between facts and evidence that supports one policy or another. When we consider each of these facts in the proper context, when we begin to think critically instead of ideologically, science based policy becomes something different.  For instance, we know that roundup (or glyphosate) has largely replaced other chemicals much more toxic and persistent in the environment (USDA, 2000). We also know that monoculture and its implications for genetic diversity and sustainability  are quite different than what popular stigmas imply. And finally, the links between farm subsidies, commodity crops and obesity are very very frail when we look at the actual impact these policies have on food prices or even the potential for things like soda taxes. But what about climate change?  If we are going to make progress here we have to accept that it does not make one a climate change denier to understand that our response to climate change also has to be based on facts and evidence held to the same level of rigor and scrutiny as the science supporting its existence.

 Economics teaches us that the world is complicated. There are numerous facts and details to consider when trying to solve a problem. While it is certainly bad for governments to deny the truthfulness of established facts based on sound science, we must also understand how to make sense of them. Economics provides a theory for deciding which facts are central and which are periphreal.* To quote Paul Heyne, Boettke, and David Prychiko in their text the economic way of thinking (10th ed) "we can observe facts but it takes a theory to explain causes. It takes theory to weed out the irrelevant facts from the relevant ones".

As I stated before economics can put science, good or bad, into a context relevant to the things we really care about.

So while I support a march for science and appreciate the driving concerns around politicians efforts to muzzle science, at the end of the day lets emphasize critical thinking and sound theory over isolated facts and talking points. While the "facts" stated in the article may have no alternatives, there are numerous alternatives with regard to the policies so called purveyors of truth may have in mind to address them. These policies imply numerous margins and tradeoffs to be considered. Only critical thinking, evidence, and sound theory can help us find the best path among many for addressing these issues. Economics provides mathematically precise theories and empirically sound methods that together provide a rigorous policy analysis framework for addressing these problems. 

Isolated facts grounded in the truth of science but devoid of critical thinking about causal relationships and policy tradeoffs can be just as dangerous and little better than alternative facts that deny the truth of science.

It's probably also true that the truth of science can risk losing ground to alternative facts if not properly communicated. We know this when it comes to alternative facts about biotechnology that currently drive the snake oil marketing practices of many food companies and lobbying for related policies.

From what I can tell the March for Science is nonpartisan and its more about freedom of speech and science communication than taking a stance on one policy vs another, so I don't think they are attempting to recruit activists for one policy vs another. But the march for science could present an awesome opportunity for science communication about many of the issues in agriculture related to biotechnology, genomics, technology, and modern production practices that so often come under the radar of activists, politicians, and the media. Or, at least the chance to segway into conversation.

See also:

Diversity in Agricultural Production

Modern Sustainable Agriculture -  Video with Annotated Bibliography

Genetically Engineered Crops: Has Adoption Reduced Pesticide Use? Agricultural Outlook ERS/USDA Aug 2000

*taken from Alan Stockman, Introduction to Marcoeconomics. 2nd Edition.

Left vs Right vs Propensity to Regulate

Fat Tails, the Precautionary Principle and GMOS