Policy Proxy Hazards

The beginning of a five-part series on GMOs in the Boulder Daily Camera does a nice job of making clear one of the problems with complex problems in the public sphere, namely that very specific terms get burdened with ills not necessarily associated with the core meaning of the term.  Thus, as pointed out in this article, GMOs are a stand-in for mega-agriculture despite the fact that here in Boulder County, use of GMOs is made by small-acreage farmers and the use of GMOs has a smaller environmental impact than “organic” farming. Call this misrepresentation of a term a policy proxy: something that is used publicly as a substitute for some broader set of concerns.

Another policy proxy is fracking, as we’ve discussed many times. Fracking opponents are not usually concerned specifically about fracking but instead are complaining about dense industrial-scale oil development in residential areas or environmental impacts from oil and gas development to the need to reduce our carbon output. Arguably things like anti-vaxxing, creation science, and global warming attract similar concerns really directed at an opaque medical establishment, religion, and party identification.

Scientific proxies are useful so long as they are understood to be proxies.  A simple one is the use of a barometer in the 19th century to measure elevation: you are measuring air pressure and using the decrease of that with elevation to estimate elevation. Proxies fail when other issues interfere with the relationship you hope to exploit: for instance, a barometer also records storm systems and failure to account for that will not give you proper elevations (something familiar to those of us who have used altimeters when hiking).

Policy proxies are arguably even more hazardous. Take the GMO case in the Daily Camera article.We’ve been conditioned over the past several decades to accept “organic” produce as “better” produce and that organic farming means less harmful chemicals are used. GMOs are viewed as anti-organic, thus opposing GMOs is a policy proxy for wanting fewer harmful chemicals to be used. The problem is that these associations are weak. Some synthetic herbicides are less damaging than some organic ones; GMOs can allow for even less use of herbicides than in organic agriculture. So it is possible that accepting the simple policy proxy when opposing GMOs that people are actually advocating for a greater use of herbicides with a greater environmental impact.

Or consider fracking. In opposing fracking, advocates might be assuming that they are reducing the environmental impact of oil and gas development. But if fracked gas deposits replace strip-mined coal (as has been happening the past few years), is fracking really the environmental disaster?

Let’s face it: policy proxies are for mental lightweights and the peripherally involved.  They encourage tossing babies out with bathwater. They are designed to inflame opinions and they make it easy to make clever placards and impassioned speeches. In some cases they will align with good public policy, but in many cases they will impede it. So GG urges folks to oppose what really concerns them and not to fall into the trap of opposing things that seem to represent the bad stuff they don’t want. It can be possible to find alternate solutions once you abandon the simple proxies. GMOs can be bad if their use increases carbon output or increases pesticide applications or requires more damaging pesticides or compromise seed ownership for neighboring forms, but they can be good if they work the other way.  Fracking can be good if well pad locations are regulated, wellheads and casings and feeder lines are checked, and oil companies are liable for environmental impacts and the fossil fuels produced replace dirtier fuels; it can be bad if it enables bad practices.

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  1. Gagging Science | The Grumpy Geophysicist - September 10, 2017

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