Theories, get your lubberly theories here, any kind you want…

For those of you who don’t know, my job involves providing evidence to government about policy. I want to provide the most relevant evidence, so I find myself thinking more and more about the theories behind policies.

Now, being and ex-rocket scientist, I’m used to having one theory that fits comfortably into one equation, the rocket equation. It’s all thoroughly testable and it turns out to be not just valid, but inescapable, universally applicable, and the only theory that you need.* Thus theory plays a unifying role in rocket science – you can have a conference of rocket scientists from across the world and they’ll all speak a common language and build rockets that work in the same way and look very similar indeed.

Sadly, however, in the policy game we’re rarely talking about physics. Instead, we’re talking about social sciences, where theory has a very different role. There’s a myriad of theories that can be applied to any particular problem and no good way of choosing between those theories. Whatever your political stance, you can probably find theories that support your ideology, hence the theory that gets used to formulate or justify any particular policy question often seems to be chosen for the purposes of convenience.

For example, there’s the lovely theory of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. It’s a curve that looks like this:

The theory runs like this: as very poor people get richer, they consume more resources and their environmental impact increases. However, once people get to a particular level of wealth, their consumption patterns change, they can afford better technology, and their tastes change, resulting in decreasing environmental impacts. The canonical example is air pollution in London – over the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, London’s coal heating produced smogs that could kill thousands in a night. As Londoners became richer, they switched to cleaner gas and electric heating and smog became a thing of the past.

As you can imagine, this is a tremendously convenient theory for neoliberals. It suggests that the solution to environmental damage is more economic growth, then we’ll be able to buy a cleaner environment. To achieve more economic growth, we just need to get rid of those troublesome environmental laws that hinder growth, and we’ll achieve a clean environment through the magic of market forces. Thus it is a theory that is strongly pushed into the public debate. I’ve experienced one particular ACT researcher putting that theory forward at a climate change conference. He got piled on, but mostly from a ‘my theory is better than yours’ point of view, not a ‘your theory clashes with the evidence’ point of view. So in that experience, we had convenient group-think overriding evidence, and the winner in that debate was determined solely by numbers. That’s not a kind of debate that I want to be part of.

To the extent that it is testable, the Environmental Kuznets Curve seems to be mostly bollocks. For the latest example of evidence suggesting that it doesn’t apply, today sees the release of the NEF’s work on the greenhouse gas emissions of UK households. No surprise at all, as household income goes up, household emissions rise. No empirical support for the Kuznets Curve either.

The main empirical thinking on Kuznets Curves is that they are mostly a mirage, and examples where the curve seems valid, like London, have very little do with income and are driven by technological change. Londoners switched away from coal to gas and electricity because gas and electric heating were better than coal for many reasons. Londoners also got richer at the same time, but that didn’t drive the change.

So, why do people still raise arguments based on the Kuznets Curve? Fundamentally, theories in the social sciences don’t seem to be winnowed in the way that theories are in the physical sciences. In part, that’s down to difficulties in experimental testing of theoretical predictions, but for theories like the Kuznets Curve, we can apply qualitative empirical case-studies. So I don’t accept that difficulty as a justification. To me, at this stage, it looks more like two problems:

1) The acceptance in social science of the multiplicity of theory, of incomparable theory, even of mutually incomprehensible theory. This is good for promoting the employment of social scientists, but it isn’t good for social science as a tool for understanding the world.

2) The political benefits of a simple political debate, of drawing lines of right or wrong across a complicated world. It is politically acceptable to ignore empirical evidence and justify your policy on strictly moralistic grounds. This pretty much guarantees the failure of your policy, if the goal of your policy is to reduce re-offending. For example the military boot camps for young offenders. Overseas evidence shows that they don’t reduce re-offending. NZ evidence shows, hey! Guess what? Fifteen out of seventeen re-offended. Now, if I was being cynical, I’d suggest that the goal of the policy wasn’t to reduce re-offending, it was to demonstrate that the current Government is doing something about crime, the chain of reasoning being that this is something, therefore it must be done.

Anyway, I shall continue to plough away at this, providing evidence in areas that have more and more to do with social sciences, trying to work out how we can actually rid ourselves of social theory that is nothing more than politically convenient. Occasionally you’ll find me stopping to scratch my head and wonder if I should go back to rocket science. It made more sense.

* – Before anyone says “hey! what about relativity?”, I’ll just point out that there’s a relativitistic version of the rocket equation

8 thoughts on “Theories, get your lubberly theories here, any kind you want…”

  1. I think the point being that the rocket equation got us to the Moon, and social science didn’t. Of course, going to the Moon is pretty irrelevant to most of the problems in most people’s lives, which is why we haven’t been back.

    I also think the technical solution to on-demand Google Earth seems to be quadcopters.

    1. More relevantly, I just received email from an American alternative festival organising body describing how I could reduce my impact (should I attend their event) by Buying More Stuff:
      – EL wire
      – rechargeable batteries
      – solar cells
      – reusable containers
      – evapotrons
      and a new car.

      1. They didn’t suggest using your immense wealth to run your own local festival? Gosh, it’s almost as if there is some structural incentive to “claim the centrality of the growth issue for societal development”. Whatever the hell that means, I’m just quoting from an ecological economics paper that’s sitting on my desk.

        1. “centrality of the growth issue”

          Translation: “the growth issue is the most central issue for development of societies”. (I don’t know if I agree, but it does definitely seem to be an issue.) Verbing weirds language.


  2. Environmental Kuznets Curve

    That “Kuznets Curve” thing seems a pretty clear example of “correlation is not causation”. I’m willing to believe that richer economies have less direct pollution in their immediate environment than they used to, but this is largely because they’ve successfully outsourced it somewhere else. It’s not clear to me that this is a net win for the earth as a whole. And besides that, once you get a sufficient quantity of rich people they’re either (a) going to leave the polluted mess they created behind, or (b) try to do something about it. Typically leaving it behind and moving on is cheaper, and hence the “rational” choice. Until you run out of places to move on to. We seem to be here.

    One of the canonical distinguishing features of Science ™ is that there are theories, which contain criteria by which they can be proved invalid, and until a bunch of people have tried quite hard to prove them wrong they’re not even considered plausible. Social “Science” doesn’t always seem to play by these rules. I have no particular problem with there being a multiplicity of theories, but at the point that your pet theory conflicts with reality it ceases to be a viable theory. Sorry. Try again. Welcome to Science ™.


  3. Boot camps and evidence-based policy

    I think the boot-camp thing shows the limits of evidence based policy.

    On the one hand, you’ve got evidence suggesting that shouting at young criminals and making them run around simply turns out fitter crims who can run away from the police.

    But that has to be considered within a range of philosophical value judgements:
    – is simple retribution desired, justified or unacceptable?
    – is the aim of criminal justice to remove criminals from society, or to change them so they live in a socially tolerable fashion?
    – does the justice system act on behalf of victims of crime, or society as a whole?
    – is it morally acceptable to lock up recidivist criminals for ever increasing terms?
    – what’s ‘crime’ anyway?

    If you tend to the right on these settings, then even though the evidence might be against ‘bootcamps’, they remain a ‘good’ solution within your parameters of what criminal justice is for. (As in: the kids don’t like them, they do more crime when released – fine – they just get locked up for longer).

    Same applies for almost all policy questions. You can even apply it to esoteric things like: is C# a good language?

    1. Re: Boot camps and evidence-based policy

      Well, Paula Bennett said the purpose of the boot camps is:
      “This is about getting tough on crime. It’s an option for around 40 of the most serious and recidivist young offenders who are on their last chance with the Youth Court, and who’s offending sees them heading for the adult court system. It is the most intensive intervention available to the Youth Court, aimed at helping them get their lives back on track.

      These camps draw on the experience and skills of the NZ Defence Force, who traditionally have succeeded in turning around the lives of young people through developing self discipline. These sorts of programmes will provide offenders with clear boundaries, and teach them about self-discipline, personal responsibility and community values.”

      How do you measure whether these young offenders turn their lives around? I’d suggest the re-offending rate is the best measure. So considering specifically the Government’s own goals for this policy, it isn’t looking good.

      And it’s self-evidence that C# is an abomination.

      1. Re: Boot camps and evidence-based policy

        Reoffending rate goes up because previously disorganised hoodlums now have military training. Awesome…NOT.

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