The Value of Information

Aug. 21, 2008

Reading Wendy’s rather gloomy assessment of the abuse of science in regulatory decisionmaking – which is to say, in political decisions – and Rena’s more upbeat reply, I find myself asking why we are so tied to science in the first place. If the science is so subject to bias and abuse, why are we relying on it as the basis for policy? Shouldn’t we find alternative, rational grounds for action?


The short answer, of course, is that science discovered the environmental problems in the first place. Science revealed the carcinogenic effects of pesticides and chemicals, and we rely on new, cutting-edge science to tell us whether pesticides and chemicals are endocrine disrupters and whether to worry about nanotechnology. And since science was fundamental to the founding of the field, it made of sense to follow the science as it told us more and more about the nature, extent, degree, and relative certainty of the harm. Thus the relatively simple measures of harm, such as “causes cancer in man or animal” in the 1958 Delaney Clause, have been replaced by more subtle measures, such as “unreasonable risk” or “reasonable certainty of no harm,” which require a far more complex analysis using multiple factors. The multiplicity and complexity of these factors, together with aggressive private advocacy and often hostile courts, has lead to a regulatory system that depends on the production of large volumes of time-consuming scientific information that is extremely expensive and time-consuming to obtain and yet remains subject to seemingly endless dispute as to its validity and meaning.


But is it really true that a foundation built of science requires that the rest of the house be built out of science? Just because science is essential to a basic awareness and understanding of the problem, is it necessarily the only rational ground for determining a response? I think that the answer is No.


All decisionmaking, public and private, must consider the marginal value of additional information. One must always weigh the value of making a decision now against the (predicted) value of new information in improving the decision. The benefits of making a decision now are of two kinds: achieving one’s goals more quickly (in the case of environmental, safety, and health regulation, saving more lives), and being able to move on to other important tasks (saving more lives). The benefits of additional information are increased certainty about the basic correctness of the decision (is this chemical really a carcinogen?) and improving the accuracy of the decision (fine-tuning the balance of economic development and environmental protection).


For environmental regulation, the much-maligned (in the U.S.) Precautionary Principle answers this question directly. The formulation in the Rio Declaration, “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation,” says that we should not await definitive knowledge to take sensible action. The Precautionary Principle makes the normative, policy judgment that more information is not worth it, once a “serious or irreversible” harm has been identified with sufficient specificity that it can be considered a “threat” which can be “prevented.” As a general principle or rule of thumb – which is all that the Precautionary Principle is – one would be hard pressed to do better than this. It reminds us that, in environmental regulation, science may be the foundation, but it is not the whole house.

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