ON DECEMBER 21, 2004, a U.S. federal task force issuced its final report on proposals to allow U.S. citizens to import prescription drugs from Canada. Because the task force "could not be sure" that the imported drugs would be safe, its members recommended that that the practice remain illegal.
The next day, a different federal agency, the Forest Service, decided it could not be sure that logging would be bad for the environment. It therefore eliminated the requirements for preparing Environmental Impact Statements in Forest Plans and for protecting "viable" species from destruction through logging.
These back-to-back announcements illustrate the imporatance of an often-overlooked fact: many "scientific" agency decisions are made on the basis not of solid scientific findings but of pervasive scientific uncertainty. On one day, officials decide that uncertainty means importing drugs would be risky; the next, other officials decide that uncertainty means logging would be safe. So it does with thousands of such decisions every year. Despite many calls for more science, the key factor influencing outcomes often has to do with what an agency decides when there's no real way to know whether something is truly safe or not.
This "uncertainty space" creates rich opportunities for gaming the system. If organized industrial interests can slow the regulatory machinery until "scientific answers" become definitive, and if scientific answers are almost never definitive, then action may be thwarted for decades--even in the face of what can eventually become overwhelming scientific evidence. It should come as no surprise the "Scientific Certainty Argumentation Method"--SCAM for short.
This use of scientific uncertainty has gone largely ignored in the mass media and in civics textbooks. The usual worry has instead to do with "agency capture"--described in congressional report from the 1930s as the tendency for governmental bodies to "become the servants rather than the governors" of the industries they regulate. But if an industry's goal is simply to avoid regulations, there may be no real need to capture the watchdog (the agency) or to keep it in captivity or servitude. The need is merely to keep the watchdog from biting, barking, or enforcing its regulations. That's what the SCAM does so effectively.
The power of the SCAM comes from the fact that science deals in probabilities, meaning that the scientific evidence available for policy decisions, like scientific evidence in general, is likely to be ambiguous or incomplete. Science can only come upwith three answers: yes, no, and maybe. A "yes" involves clear support for a given hypothesis; a "no" involves a clear rejection; and a "maybe" involves an indeterminate answer, where available evidence doesn't permit a clear-cut acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis in question. In the vast majority of all scientific studies, the final answer is maybe--which is why so many studies conclude that "further research is required."
One straightforward implication is that policy outcomes often have less to do with what is known than with how the agency deals with what is not known. Although the common expectation is that agencies will make decisions on the basis of "scientifically proven facts," the reality is that such decisions almost always depend on evidence that is in the category of "maybe," being inherently ambiguous. In the vast majority of cases, scientists are simply unable to reach unambiguous conclusions.
Interest groups and their allies are happy to step into this vacuum. Some of them are better at it than others. In particular, organized industries and interest groups have become adept at ensuring that potentially damaging technologies and substances--rather than bystanders and the environment--will be treated as innocent until proven guilty.
In fact, SCAMs may actually exert as much leverage on policy...