Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Wed 24 Oct 07 13:54
Jon and Paulina - you're right, corporate interests, or at the very least economic interests, are what drives a lot of this nonsense. And for me, the libertarian arguments about inefficiency of government are just foils for the same thing. When you're dealing with tremendously invasive and/or transformative technologies, what does efficiency have to do with anything -- unless you have a highly sophisticated and educated public that has enough technical knowledge to be able to make risk v. benefit determinations for themselves? Here's a paragraph from p 166 of Intervention: "As the sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote in his landmark essay, Risk Society, 'We no longer pick the experts instead, the experts choose their victims,' based on the information they give us. What they know literally determines what we know. This fact is particularly poignant in the realm of science and technological risk, where the way in which we define expertise and how society rewards its experts determines how those experts define and assess risk for all of us."
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 24 Oct 07 13:56
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Wed 24 Oct 07 14:08
As for "we need the precautionary principle" ... I don't know, Paulina. I guess if my only choices were precautionary principle v. the power that be "having their way with the locals ... who are only asking reasonable questions," then I guess I'd probably go in that direction. But first of all, it would NEVER fly in the U.S. The power of innovation and the individual's right to sell his or her better mousetrap to the public is very much like the "rags to riches" idea in America -- deeply woven into our national mythology. Any perceived attempt to quash innovation in the name of precaution would get its ass handed to it in a bag. And second, I don't want to give up just yet. I truly don't think that it is impossible to instantiate better risk assessment methods into government policies. It may have to happen by self-possessed stakeholder groups going out and doing these assessment themselves, transparently, and publishing the hell out of them, to (a) pass sensible local laws using the results of those assessments, and (b) embarrass state and national governments (and international too, although many of them are smarter than we are about these things) into following suit. I honestly and perhaps naively believe that many of the kinds of outcomes like the one you describe are because people don't know there's another way -- that actually works.
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Wed 24 Oct 07 14:11
And yes, it is chilling. And so very unnecessary and wrong. GACK.
Paulina Borsook (loris) Wed 24 Oct 07 14:53
i share yr misgivings about the precautionary principle, and the US culture of innovation. but when it comes to chemical agents being used in living systems --- i dunno, seems like not a bad idea (you probably know how europe is much better in terms of monitoring chemicals in household use [cosmetics, toys, etc] than the US is) i am too close to this issue of course --- but the older i get, the more i am struck with how people are just stuck in their ways of believing and knowing. so, say, the old-line toxicologists who have no understanding of more ecological systems (i.e. chronic low-grade exposure to multiple pollutants has additive and multiplicative negative effects on all different aspects of the ecoysytem) simply think 'hey, there was no bhopal/cropdusting accident, so no prob!'. so as you said, there is no understanding of how things could be different. and yes, in a gallows=humor way, i have been enjoying how the santa cruz sentinel (local newspaper) clearly has a reporter on this story with the mission of making the dissidents look stewpid extremist and flakey --- and quote industry sources who say the chemicals are 'mostly safe'. one of them even said 'it;s about as safe as RAID". [no comment]. so yes, these were the experts, as you say, chosen to give their soi-disant expertise.
Paulina Borsook (loris) Thu 25 Oct 07 21:12
something i have also been thinking about, is part of why wonderful sensible things like OTA dont triumph/arent heard is that people have emotional-quasi-religious bonds to their ideological positions. the 'dont complicate it with facts' response really means 'i feel strongly about this, and you havent given me a way to back down without losing face/allow me to sort of still feel like myself --- and not lose my identity if i change my position'. another variant of 'the best lack all conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity' thinking of the brown-moth situation, i am sure that if the calif secy of ag who brought this plague on us were confronted with reams of good scientific evidemce from everywhere --- he would ignore it/stay the course --- because he would mean public humiliation/admitting he was wrong. discussions of rational decision-making/ evidence-evaluation strike me as wonderfully idealistic, because no one ever wants to admit that his/her position has a faith-based component, even if wrapped in the language of rationality
Cupido, Ergo Sum (robertflink) Fri 26 Oct 07 05:58
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 26 Oct 07 10:38
> emotional-quasi-religious bonds to their ideological positions Had to see that again. Great definition of the True Believer problem in public policy.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 26 Oct 07 13:07
This is why it's important to have *transparent* deliberative processes that involve many stakeholders, and have a way to tie the deliberative process to the process for making decisions. If the Secretary of Agriculture's decision is informed by such a process, it might be a better decision, and he could be in the position of sharing responsibility. I'm sure stakeholders are in the process already - but the prominent voices are those of interest groups with commercial interests, so you don't get the broader kind of deliberative process we've been talking about, and it's usually not transparent. I think I mentioned this before, but I really like the process described in _The Charrette Handbook_ published by the National Charrette Institute. It's a stakeholder process, it's deliberative, and it's transparent. They're more focused on urban planning, but you could use the same kind of process to evaluate decisions about science and technology.
Paulina Borsook (loris) Fri 26 Oct 07 15:18
i meant 'emotional-quasi-religious' to also apply to people who believe in technoutopian cult of science: all technology is good and has no downside. a reflexive, unthinking stance as the anti-science attitude we are also familiar with. being the pessimist i am, i am sure the calf secy of ag has been kind of taken aback by the depth and strength of the opposition --- and i am sure he thot his (or his lackeys') decision to spray didnt warrant public, multi-stakeholder processes. i suspect this doesnt happen with most of the rest of what goes on his office; why should it be different with this decision?
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Fri 26 Oct 07 16:40
For the record, I am not in favor of reflexive, unthinking stances no matter what side they're on. No one who held such a stand would ever be invited to a stakeholder risk consultation that I was running. Sometimes you've got to lop off both ends of the bell curve if you're going to get anywhere. I think it's also safe to say that no state or national politician operating in today's environment of corporate yahooism will voluntarily undertake these kinds of processes. Locals maybe, but not the guys who really sling the big bucks. That's because as noted earlier they are virtually impossible to slant while they are underway (because all the relevant stakeholders are represented and also because they are transparent, as Jon also noted). This means that whomever makes the decision (politician, regulator) will have to contradict the results of a very public, unbiased analysis to decide in favor of cronies or corporate interests. The thing that we need not to underestimate is how far special interests will go to make sure that these kinds of unbiased assessments aren't used to make policy. When I was writing my risk paper for Rockefeller, I found an example in the appendices to 'Understanding Risk' that I'm going include in the next post. It's about the California Comparative Risk Project.
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Fri 26 Oct 07 16:54
From page 21: "Comparative risk projects start from the assumption that policy priorities for environmental problems should be determined by the magnitude of the risk each problem represents. When it began the process of determining these policy priorities in 1992, [the California Comparative Risk Project] acknowledged good science was important to ranking risks, but also realized that scientists deliberating amongst themselves wouldnt provide sufficient basis for setting policy priorities. "Direct citizen participation did not play a large role, but instead the project called for involvement of academics, industry, business, activists, residents and political interests to help design the process. Soon this group included critics of conventional risk analysis approaches. "The resulting process design included three technical committees for the areas of human health, the environment and social welfare, and another three committees that supplemented technical risk assessment with social and economic concerns including environmental justice, which addressed concerns about the inequitable distribution of risk to subpopulations. [Here is the paragraph that makes my hair curl. - DC] "Although the California state government eventually distanced itself from the CCRP report trade groups went directly to the press and the governors office, complaining that a new environmental risk assessment basically ignored science and ranked risk according to peoples values, opinion, fears and anxieties the process was instructive for many reasons. "It was particularly notable in using iteration and deliberation to help refine the problem, and brought together conventional forms of risk analysis with analysis and deliberation about social, economic, equity and other concerns. "It is also worth following what happens the next time a broad-based risk project is attempted in California, as the reports authors state that many hard-working participants were alienated by the fact that their concerns were painted as 'unscientific,' or because their hard work was shunted aside when it became a political football." This is the kind of political crap that makes me nuts, and drove me to write Intervention in the first place. Of course, it happened 15 years ago, which I hope is a material factor in how it turned out then v. how it might turn out today. There is a move afoot in many quarters, including the financial world, to accept that intangibles like reputation and brand and consumer perception are in fact economic factors, which lends more credence to these kinds of approaches. I wrote an NYT column about this a couple of months ago that, bit surprise to me, got picked up all over the world. (Here 'tis: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/09/business/09frame.html?_r=1&oref=slogin) And technologies have become exponentially more invasive (and/or we are exponentially better able to tell how invasive they actually are). So I for one certainly am not afraid to try something like this again (and in fact I am working on getting a project funded along these lines). Nevertheless, no one wants to spend months or years working on something only to have it become a political football instead of making a contribution to sane risk management. CCRP is definitely an object lesson as we try to move these kinds of processes into the mainstream. [and Jon, I would love a pointer to the charrette process if you can send one.]
Credo, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Fri 26 Oct 07 19:30
>peoples values, opinion, fears and anxieties< One of the reasons politicians operate as they do is that they must deal with the public as is where is. Ignoring the publics fears, ignorance, anxieties, etc., can be down right hazardous to politico and party. Placing the matter in an unbiased, balanced, scientific, rational, etc., etc, body that issues binding decisions may be what is best for the nation or the world but it is not rule by the people. It is rule of the people by an elite, however well intended and disposed. We all seem to forget that rule by the people doesn't mean good rule in all instances. "The people" can be down right stupid but that's comes with the benefits democracy gives us.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 27 Oct 07 09:33
If you have a democratic intention, you look for ways to make people smarter so that you can open up the process as much as possible and involve those who are interested in any debate that will lead to a decision that affects us all. And that's really hard. It's much easier to have an elite make all the decisions. Chairman Mao said that the best way to rule the people is to keep their bellies full and their minds empty. We suppose that the "democratic nations" are run differently, but there are powerful individuals and organizations who would agree with Mao, partly because they realize how hard it is to make decisions democratically (and you know that, too, if you've ever tried to get large group consensus), and partly because they have interests to protect, that might be jeopardized by truly democratic processes. Practically speaking, pure democracy doesn't work, which is why we have represesntative democracy. Democracy doesn't scale very well, and where you have a lot of cultural diversity, it's hard to create a democratic conversation where everybody's on the same page. My friends in the "extreme democracy" conversations didn't like to hear me say this stuff, because they, at least some of them, would like to move toward more of a purely-democratic model. I just don't see it working. But I do think we can work toward a process that's more democratic. If you look at our definition of extreme democracy (http://www.extremedemocracy.com/about.html), you'll see that Mitch Ratcliffe and I were exploring how broader and better participation could be mediated by social technology. I think the best case for better governance combines effective use of those technologies, more groups having more face to face gatherings for active and real conversation, and better frameworks for citizen input to the political process. We have a pretty good basic structure, the U.S. form of representative democracy that combines the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government as the apparatus for governance and decision. Over time, especially in the broadcast era, I think we lost the sense of partnership between that system and the people it's supposed to represent: it's troubling that so many think of "the government" as something apart, even hostile to their interests. Sorry, Denise, if I hijacked your interview with my own soapbox... but I thought this was relevant. One idea that's been floating around is about "open source government"; I think that's an interesting and compelling concept. Open source is all about the kind of transparency we've been talking about as a desirable part of governance in general and risk analysis in particular.
Paulina Borsook (loris) Sat 27 Oct 07 12:55
yeah, well, and me being a pessimist by nature, and a raving misanthrope/anti-group person as well, i always worry about NIMBY/design by committee/mob-rule --- when participatpory decision-making is on the table.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 27 Oct 07 15:28
It's tough to decide who should be making the decisions. I've been in discussions about democracy where it was always about how to make the conversation happen, and never about how to get to the decisions that real governance would require. I don't have the answers, myself, just a lot of questions. Denise has the answers. *8^)
Paulina Borsook (loris) Sat 27 Oct 07 17:35
denise probably does have the answers. me, i always worry about the issue of character: how many people have the mature capacity to say 'i was wrong and you were right'? to be able to be fair/judicious, as opposed to needing to be right/to win? very few, imho...
Cupido, Ergo Denego (robertflink) Sat 27 Oct 07 20:10
Another issue is that the people who are very good at identifying the problem may be mediocre at determining the solution and even incompetent at implementation. I understand that MBA programs of yore had team problem-solving where the students would come up with the answer and state "all that remains is the implementation". The inference was that some sort of minions would easily carry out the brilliant solutions of the scholars. Wide implementation of a mediocre solution to part of the problem may be more effective than an elegant solution to the "real" problem that only a few can understand or appreciate.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 28 Oct 07 07:39
Getting back to the book, there's a chapter on cost vs benefit. There are significant costs involved in developing products like transgenics; how well to companies assess the real benefit of those products. Are they looking at factors beyond their own ROI? There's also costs associated with risk assessment - how many government dollars should we expect to spend evaluating risk? How do we quantify the return on *that* investment?
Paulina Borsook (loris) Sun 28 Oct 07 09:56
not having read the book --- but i cant see how companies, unless they have a commitment sustainaibilty, care about any risks/ consequences unless lawsuits might be involved. it's not in their charter and it's not worth the $ they might have to spend. i have some money invested in a fund called 'portfolio 21' --- out of portland. it;s an intl fund screened for environmental issues. the fund mgrs in this yr's prospectus were very honest: we screen for enviro stuff, but global capitalism is inherently not sustaimable and is a race to the bottom. i found their honesty wonderful --- and i think they spoke truth.
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Sun 28 Oct 07 10:15
Just catching up, so I'll respond to some posts/ideas separately. In #89, Jon said, "Over time, especially in the broadcast era, I think we lost the sense of partnership between that system and the people it's supposed to represent: it's troubling that so many think of 'the government' as something apart, even hostile to their interests." Equally interesting to me is what we're losing as the broadcast era dies -- at least, the mass-media type broadcasting that I grew up with. Social media, which I really think of as more anti-social media, often enables a kind of soapbox-ism masquerading as conversation: zingers and positioning as debate, from government as well as the opposition. I don't know that I have the answers, but I know *that* isn't helpful. And what I know about these kinds of processes is that they are in fact conversations where biases and positions are not discouraged, but are actually the reason that each individual is at the table. The important part is that they are willing to change their opinion based on others' questions and evidence. It's an investment in the outcome -- just not in my own outcome.
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Sun 28 Oct 07 11:06
In # 93, Robert said, "Another issue is that the people who are very good at identifying the problem may be mediocre at determining the solution and even incompetent at implementation." Yes. That's why I was saying earlier that I wasn't sure how you do the handoff from the recommendation at the conclusion of a risk assessment. There has to be both will and skill on the regulatory/legislative side to take these deliberated decisions and implement them. If these kinds of assessments are adopted by governments, I hope that part of the adoption process would include making sure that decisions are delivered into a welcoming and respectful environment. That said, none of the issues that we've raised here so far are new. Risk is one of the most prodigiously studied topics in the world, with extensive literatures in several different disciplines. Every aspect that we've discussed has been addressed. But it takes a long time for good ideas to fight their way out of academic journals and into practice, in no small part because knowledge tends to stay in its silos and it takes time and effort to break it out. And once a new idea is in practice, it takes a while for its limitations to show themselves, and then it's a whole other process to convince practitioners those limitations are serious enough that it's time to try something new. Part of my goal with 'Intervention' is to try to hasten that process, to raise awareness that solutions do exist if we have the willingness to move beyond the limitations of theory and practice, loosen our grip on our existing notions and try something new.
Cogito, Ergo Spero (robertflink) Sun 28 Oct 07 18:47
>Part of my goal with 'Intervention' is to try to hasten that process, to raise awareness that solutions do exist if we have the willingness to move beyond the limitations of theory and practice, loosen our grip on our existing notions and try something new.< A laudable but tall education order among other tall orders. Our existing notions may be similar to elements of the environment that are at risk. "The installed base" may be considered to consist of our investment in current thinking as well as the expertise and physical plant associated with things as they are. To contain or reduce the risk to some valued aspect of life, e.g. the environment, we will probably have to put some of our ways of thinking and living at risk. Can we easily write off such "investments"? Another model could be the idea that society has some very bad habits and kicking them is at least as hard as kicking an addiction as an individual. Are there any examples in history of a culture making a radical shift in some important sensibility? If so, there were probably some stages that include such things as denial, anger, blaming others, tantrums, etc..
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Sun 28 Oct 07 19:21
Yes, I think the beginning of the environmental movement, starting with 'Silent Spring,' is a pretty good example. I think some of us are still going through the stages you list. <rueful grin>
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Sun 28 Oct 07 19:49
Jon asked earlier about cost benefit analysis. I'm actually trying (desperately) to finish a column on the topic for a magazine, even as I type this, and so I'm kind of up to my eyeballs in it at the moment. You asked "how well" companies assess the real benefits of transgenics. As far as I can tell, they do no formal assessment of this at all. They do not, as far as I know, look at factors beyond basic return on investment -- except for liability. One of the most remarkable quotes ever in the universe on this topic came from Monsanto's PR chief, Phil Angell, who said this to Michael Pollan in an NYT magazine piece back in 1998: "Monsanto should not have to vouch for the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much as of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job." Of course, the part he doesn't say is that a Monsanto lawyer was hired by the FDA to write the regulations for transgenic foods back in the early 1990s. As for how many government dollars we should expect to spend evaluating risk ... that's not the whole story and also I don't know that I'd put the question quite that way. Right now the government doesn't spend much money at all evaluating risk per se (and I'm talking about transgenics here; I don't have data on anything else). Agencies spend their money basically processing forms that contain the data companies provide them. There isn't any money allocated for regulatory scientists to do their own risk assessments. They're plugging corporate data into existing risk models -- not peer reviewed data, mind you, but whatever the companies are willing to share that isn't "proprietary." So in addition to beefing up the agencies so they actually have some personnel on hand to run some of their own tests and challenge some existing safety and risk assumptions, I think there's another issue here. That has to do with research money. Right now, virtually all of the taxpayer money that's allocated to research -- to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc -- is for discovery. If there's any money allocated to risk research at all, it's a single-digit percentage of the entire budget. One of the people who's spoken very eloquently about this is Dave Rejeski at the Wilson Center in DC. In 2006, his group there published a terrific white paper about the desperate need for a nanotech risk research agenda. It's called "Nanotechnology: A Research Strategy for Addressing Risk," and it's published through the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies funded by Pew via the Wilson Center. The question of how we quantify the return on such investments is what's holding back a lot of important work. As I mentioned earlier, some of the benefits are intangibles that have to do with public trust in government and industry, company reputation, valuations on intellectual property and questions of scientific uncertainty. But some of them are quite quantifiable, in ways that economists generally don't care to bother with today. For example, government economists don't quantify what really happens in the economy when the cost and benefit of a given regulation is estimated. They estimate only the first order effects the amount of money that the polluting industries will have to spend to clean up the mess they've made. They don't include the benefit of spending that money -- that it will employ people and produce revenue for other firms and can have an overall positive effect on the economy. It's called the Porter Hypothesis, for Michael Porter from Harvard. He says that expenditures for cleaning up often can yield productivity gains that more than compensate for the cost of complying with a new regulation. So I think that using cost benefit analysis as the primary foundation for regulation is a practice whose time has passed. It's a terrific tool and great when it's used appropriately. But nowadays governments and industry use it as a weapon to get their own way in the policy world, and it's becoming a liability. Sorry for this very long answer, but it's a complicated question.
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