Saturday, July 28, 2012

If a Study Isn't Published....

Dean Baker describes a NYT reporter's reaction to the use of an unpublished study on the possible health risks of fracking as a basis for forming public policy:
From his blogpost, it sounds like Revkin gave Hill a really serious grilling about the ethics of allowing her unpublished study to influence debate on a major national issue. (Don't you wish reporters would just once give the same sort of grilling to Jamie Dimon or some other corporate honcho?)
There is something to be said for distinguishing published studies from unpublished studies, and peer reviewed studies from those that have not been submitted for peer review. But let's not forget, many publications exist to push an agenda, and lots of junk gets through peer review - you still have to be careful. When you're looking at unpublished research, it's more than fair to explore why it's not published and whether it's likely to be published. There are plenty of examples of people grabbing an unpublished concept based upon data that turns out to be erroneous or incomplete and... end up embarrassing themselves. (Again, that can also happen with published, peer reviewed studies - it's just that on the whole it's less likely.)

But that last sentence hints at another problem. Much of our nation's public policy is driven by assumption and ideology, not data. Politicians (and newspaper columnists) will at times express skepticism of science, with that skepticism at times more driven by ideology than by concern for the merits of a study, and may be quick to point out that a particular study is (or may be) incomplete, flawed, inaccurate.... But when it comes to making an actual decision, all too often we get assumption-based legislation driven not by any sort of study or analysis, but because the politician believes it will help him get reelected, or it's what lobbyists and special interests want.1
1. Arguably, that's a subset of things that a politician believes will help him get reelected, but let's not forget those who position themselves to profit once they leave office, and perhaps before.

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