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