2015-12-31

OTA

I wrote this piece at the tail end of 2015 (literally), but I think that given what has happened over the past year, it's particularly apt.  It was pointed out, multiple times, on the reality-based media that the two political poles had shifted so far apart that they couldn't even agree on the basic facts of an issue.

The polarization is almost completely unilateral, by the way.   

So this is the event that I see as the tipping point for how we got here.  Certainly lifting the fairness doctrine didn't help, but killing the OTA gave congress to chose its own experts on important issues.  There was no longer a trusted arbiter of truth, and here we are two decades later.

I loved Cosmos.  It is the only television show aired within the past five years that I have suffered through commercials to watch as it aired.  (I tend to record OTA TV, cut out the commercials and transcode it before watching, but that's another blog post).

I bring it up, in this case, because of episode 7, which follows Dr.
Claire Patterson's quest to determine the age of the Earth by measuring the proportion of uranium that had radioactively decayed to lead found in zircon particles.

Patterson ran into problems due, ultimately, to environmental lead contamination, caused primarily by burning leaded gasoline.

This was all scientifically proven, using ice core samples, and over the opposition of a powerful industry and their mouthpiece Dr. Robert A. Kehoe.  Leaded gasoline was phased out in the US in the mid-1970s as a result.

It is a wonderful, well-told story, and it is a very compelling example of how industry uses it's own experts to cast doubt on scientific findings that would have unfortunate policy implications for said industry.

So what's OTA, and why is it the title of this blog post?

The OTA is (was) the Office of Technology Assessment, a non-partisan congressional agency tasked with assembling reports to inform congresspeople on technical issues, that represent the best understanding of scientists and experts in the the reports' relevant fields.

In other words, they examine a given issue thoroughly, and provide a report for decision makers that represents the best understanding of the facts of the issue.

So they are a bullshit filter.  OTA began issuing reports in 1974, which is too late for it to have been a player in the leaded gasoline debate.

But its creation can be seen as a response to this debate, a desire of policy makers to use a common set of facts as a foundation for future policy decisions.   As the saying goes: everyone is entitled to their own opinions, not their own facts; and this agency is a reflection of that.

That is, until twenty years ago when Newt Gingrich essentially killed the agency.

Since then, rational debate of serious scientific issues has been impossible as Republicans (primarily, and pretty much exclusively) outright deny the scientific, factual, consensus viewpoints on a number of issues, chief among them, climate change.

I think it was Al Frankin who wrote something to the effect of "You can't compromise on pizza toppings if one side denies the very existence of pizza and wants to order burning tires for dinner."   This is the nature of policy debates in the US for the past two decades.

So what I would have liked to have seen in The Clean Room episode of Cosmos was some mention of the OTA, its role in assisting policy makers in answering policy-related questions.  For example, imagine what the AIDS debate would have looked like in 1987 without reports about insect transmission of AIDS (not really possible in any realistic scenario).

Imagine how ebola scare of 2014 would have played out in the US if there were an agency tasked with providing officials with a realistic assessment of the true dangers to public health.

Sadly, now the damage done is terminal.  The Republican party, especially the teabagger wing, would simply boycott the panel and declare the resulting research partisan, and therefore invalid.   So reviving the agency won't have a meaningful effect on real policy concerns until the broader trend towards anti-intellectualism in flyover country is reversed.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.