Friday, November 7, 2008

What Science Offers Politics

Can science help us make decisions?

While science does not tell us what we should do, it can help us gauge the impact of our choices by looking at existing data. But it can do so only if we understand how science works, and too few Americans do.

Sadly, author Michael Crichton is not one of them. After his death earlier this month,  the Wall Street Journal offered an excerpt of his speech("Aliens Cause Global Warming") about the "hoax" of global warming, the premise of one of his final books.

In it, Crichton fails to understand how science deals with uncertainty. To him, any admission of uncertainty is tantamount to "mere guesswork," and research filled with uncertainty, like the search for extraterrestrial life, is "unquestionably religion."

He may be a doctor, but he's no scientist.

The kind of "proof" he seeks isn't available to science at all. Proof is reserved for the rarefied world of mathematics, and the best we can ask for in science is evidence.

Is there evidence for global warming? Sure, but that's not the point. If he wanted to argue against the evidence, fine. He could say, for instance, that deep-sea temperature data isn't reliable, or we need to include additional data from such-and-such a source. But to say that because we can't prove a link between cause and effect is to misunderstand the nature of science. Toss it away, and we lose an invaluable tool.

This affects our world in important ways, every day. Here are a couple of rulings that affect what you can buy and the land you live on.

On December 21, 2004, the U.S.  Department of Health and Human Services recommended against allowing the import of prescription drugs from Canada because it  “could not be sure” that the imported drugs would be safe.

The next day, the Forest Service eliminated its policy for preparing Environmental Impact Statements, as well as the requirement for logging to protect all viable species in the National Forests, since such statements could not say "with certainty" what sort of harm would follow logging and development.

The above observations, from a brilliant  paper by Freudenberg, Gramling, and Davidson,  reflect opposing uses of scientific uncertainty for political ends. In the first case, uncertainty prohibited an action that couldn't be proven safe and on the other one that couldn't be proven unsafe.

Science doesn't offer proof. Neither does politics, and to ignore the science altogether is to suggest that politicians and interest groups can make decisions with certainty even when scientists cannot.

What science offers us is evidence, and it can help us answer questions like "If the earth were warming significantly, what would we see?" and "Given our current understanding, which stars in the sky are most likely to have planets in orbit, and which planets are best suited to retaining an atmosphere?" Science can tell us, "These drugs can be easily checked for safety, and these cannot. These drugs are easy to counterfeit and these are not." Science can tell us if you allow x amount of pollutant to a river, y fish are likely to survive.

Science won't decide what is right or wrong. But it can ensure that when we make our choices, we aren't doing it on the basis of "mere guesswork."

Why America Needs Al Franken

Only voters in Minnesota get to choose their senator, but the entire nation should be interested in the outcome.

Not because we need another Democratic senator, but because we need this one. Al Franken is surprisingly insightful and refreshingly direct, so much so that it'd be hard to believe if you haven't read either of his most recent two books.

He's no Michael Moore, swinging a blunt instrument so wildly that he damages anyone in the middle. Al Franken is funny, of course, but also wise.

In Lies, for instance, he lays out several sensible rules for truth-telling that any politician, on either side, would do well to adopt. Here are two:

1) Do your research well.
Ann Coulter complained that when Jesse Jackson gave an unwise speech on Christmas Day in 1994, on British TV, the New York Times did not report his raving about fascism in South Africa.

Her research method? A search of the Times archives for "Jesse Jackson and Fascism and South Africa" produces no documents."

"Well, yeah," say Franken. But searching for "Jesse Jackson and Christmas and Britain" finds the right article.

"Using Coulter's technique, I can prove no newspapaer has ever covered anything. For example I can prove the Washington Times did not cover the incident in which George H. W. Bush threw up on the Japanese prime minister. Searching for 'Bush and Japan and prime minister and lap and cookies and tossed' produces no documents."

2) Compare apples to apples.
In Sean Hannity's atrocious Let Freedom Ring, he includes an chart that should be extraordinary, except that this sort of thing is done all the time. I'll quote Franken:

New tanks requested in president's budget:
Reagan-Bush 1986: 840
Clinton-Gore 1996: 0

New tactical aircraft requested in president's budget:
Reagan-Bush 1986: 399
Clinton-Gore 1996: 34

New naval ships requested in president's budget:
Reagan-Bush 1986: 40
Clinton-Gore 1996: 6

This is a table created by a child for children.

Where to start? First of all, in 1996 we didn't need any new tanks. The end of the Cold War had reduced the likelihood of an enormous tank battle across the plains of Central Europe to below zero. How many tanks do you think were requested in the Bush-Cheney budget? Let's make a new chart, keeping Reagan but also comparing the final Clinton-Gore defense budget with the first Bush-Cheney budget.


New tanks requested in president's budget:
Reagan-Bush 1986: 840
Clinton-Gore 2001: 0
Bush-Cheney 2002: 0

New tactical aircraft requested in president's budget:
Reagan-Bush 1986: 399
Clinton-Gore 2001: 52
Bush-Cheney 2002: 58

New naval ships requested in president's budget:
Reagan-Bush 1986: 40
Clinton-Gore 2001: 6
Bush-Cheney 2002: 5

Got it, kids? The contrast could not be more stark. Bush-Cheney ordered 11 percent more tactical aircraft than Clinton-Gore, but Clinton-Gore ordered 20 percent more ships than Bush-Cheney.

Did you know that in 1986 we were still fighting the Cold War? In current dollars, we spent $273 billion on defense in 1986 and $266 billion in 1996. Yes, that's 2 percent less, but then again, the Soviet Union no longer existed. The Clinton budget in 1996 was larger than the outgoing budget of the first Bush administration - a budget developed by then DOD Secretary Dick Cheney.

Quickly, let's compare the budgets of Lincoln and Reagan.


New horses requested in president's budget:
Lincoln 1864: 188,718
Reagan 1984: 3

Why did Reagan gut our military?

It's more than just funny: it's smart, persuasive, and clear. Couldn't we use more Senators like that?

Will Obama Gut Defense?

That's the headline to a grossly misleading column by Bret Stephens, in the Wall Street Journal.

He's taken the old Republican premise that Clinton slashed military spending and therefore left us trembling and vulnerable. But while his rant isn't useful, his chart is.

Note that for the last 30 years, defense spending has been about 5% of GDP. It was up to about 6% under Reagan and down to 4% under Clinton, but there hasn't been a lot of variation since the end of the Vietnam War.

What has changed is the planet. There isn't a Soviet Union anymore, which matters a great deal. Yes, there are still enemies to defeat, but none with two million tanks threatening to overrun Europe. That's how many there were in East Germany alone at the height of the Cold War, not to mention the significant buildup in warheads, tactical field nukes, and ground forces.

We still need planes, and ours should be the best in the world. And we need precision missiles and enough troops to flatten the Taliban. But there's a fundamental difference between today's world and the one of the Cold War, and shouldn't our budget reflect it?

Even if you bought the dubious premise that as an economy grows, it needs to continue spending a proportional percentage on defense (once a country is twice as rich, does it need twice as many warheads to be safe?), you can believe Stephens' own chart: we're still spending quite a bit on defense, and that hasn't changed in 30 years.

Who Benefits from the Electoral College?

Is the Presidential election fair?

In the Electoral College, there are two distortions to the “one-person, one-vote” principle.

The best known is that small states still get 3 votes (one for each congressman and senator).

Less known but also significant is that voter registration varies significantly. The population size of New Jersey is roughly the same as that in North Carolina, but in New Jersey, a lot fewer people can vote. So each voter there has proportionally less weight.

The chart below shows in increasing order the states that benefit most from the Electoral College system, with Florida getting the worst deal and Wyoming getting the best.

Conservatives often reject calls to eliminate the Electoral College with the reasoning that it would increase the importance of California and New York. It would, but not nearly as much as for Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia.

State E.C. votes voters for 1 E.C. vote (‘000’s)

Florida                     27                   480

Pennsylvania            21                   456

Texas                      34                   452

North Carolina          15                   445

Michigan                  17                   438

Georgia                   15                    437

Ohio                         20                   434

Virginia                     13                    433

Illinois                      28                    429

New York                  31                   428

Tennessee                11                    426

Washington              11                   425

Wisconsin                10                    420

Arizona                   10                    419

California                 55                    410

Alaska                      3                    180

North Dakota             3                   166

Vermont                   3                    166

D.C.                       3                    148

Wyoming                 3                   134

This means that voters in Florida should be most upset about the Electoral College, as they have the least voice per-voter. While Californian's shouldn't be particularly happy, either, there are fifteen other states ahead of them in line to complain.

It also means that Democrats and Republicans shouldn't see elimination of the Electoral College as a partisan issue. Affected states cover a broad geographic and political range, so that enacting direct elections by popular vote wouldn't favor any candidate... except the one best liked by the voters.