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Science as a cover for politics, values

February 17, 2011

Today’s NY Times has a great example of a strategy often used by politicians to distract from the distinctly political, values-based nature of their decisions: using science as a cover for political decisions. The issue reported on today in the times, is the value of a human life. More specifically, it’s the value of a human life as used in complicated the cost-benefit analyses conducted by regulatory agencies that set policies for a wide range of areas.

In short, under the Obama Administration, the Times reports, that number has been going up significantly. There is nothing objective about this. Cost-benefit analysis may be technical, quantitative, and complicated, but it inevitably involves making choices about squishy, moral issues. The question of how to value a human life (not to mention whether or how to use cost-benefit analysis) is fraught.

But what caught my interest in the article was the reaction from government officials interviewed by the reporter:

“This administration utilizes the best available science in assessing the benefits and costs of any potential regulation, drawing on widely accepted methodologies that have been in use for years,” Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the rule-making process, said in an e-mail.

In other words, they are hiding behind the technical, science-based methods to legitimate their values-based decisions. The article points out that determining the value of a human life for regulatory purposes is awkward. Put the number too low and you are pandering to big business at the expense of human life. Put it too high, and you are strangling American competitiveness by increasing the cost of doing business.

It would be great to see the Administration taking an open, straightforward approach to this. They could just come out and make a very reasonable argument that, based on their values, they feel that human life should be more important than it was under Bush. Instead, they’ve disowned the decision entirely, hiding behind a scientific-seeming method.

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