Wednesday, February 08, 2006

COLUMN -- Sound policy-making requires math literacy

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:32 AM |  

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

(Warning: This column contains math and science content that may not be suitable for some policy-makers and journalists. Reader discretion is advised.)

In his State of the Union address, President Bush proposed programs for helping students who struggle with math. That's certainly a worthy objective, but not strictly for the stated purpose of graduating more American scientists and engineers.

Government policy is increasingly justified by appeal to scientific and statistical analysis. Unfortunately, many policy-makers eschew the hard work required to understand scientific research and use statistics the way a drunk uses a street light — for support rather than illumination. Equally unfortunate, too few of us object.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I hosted "The Patriot Insider" radio program on WWTC, AM 1280. My guests were St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune and Hennepin County Commissioner Penny Steele. I asked Thune what scientific evidence convinced him that secondhand smoke posed a danger that necessitated a government-imposed smoking ban. Could he pluck from the "mountains of evidence" he leaned on for support just one study and generally explain how it illuminated the dangers of secondhand smoke?

"I'm not a scientist," Thune responded. "And I didn't do very well in that class about numbers, you know… ."

"Statistics?" prompted Steele.

"Yeah, that's it," Thune said. "I flunked it badly."

That notwithstanding, Thune concludes that government intervention is necessary to protect people from a danger that he cannot define. Lacking the skill and will to read past the executive summary of a research report, Thune has no choice but to make policy decisions based on the credibility of business cards rather than the content of research.

"We have to believe the experts," he said. "And when health experts say that secondhand smoke kills, I believe them."

I think** Thune "analyzes" economic data in a like manner; he leans for support on experts who say smoking bans cause no economic harm. He ignores that this research relies on aggregate tax data that necessarily hide the negative impact of smoking bans on neighborhood taverns and the businesses that serve them.

I don't intend to rehash the science and economics of smoking bans. A productive discussion among parties requires knowledge, which brings us back to the State of the Union address and the president's call for educational emphasis on science and math.

Of equal if not greater urgency than producing scientists and engineers who churn out data is graduating students who have sufficient skills to understand scientific research and protest policy based on unfounded conclusions, whether they are perpetuated by utopian policy-makers or practitioners of sky-is-falling journalism.

This little chunk of blue landed in a recent Pioneer Press column advocating more government involvement in health care — "about half of the people who file for bankruptcy do so because of illness or medical costs."

Now, that sounds pretty scary — unless one asks the obvious question, "Just how many people are we talking about?" The columnist, however, didn't ask that question. Hers was not the honest intent of illuminating the extent of medical bankruptcy. She was simply leaning on her statistic to support her intoxication with government-run health care.

Had the columnist taken the time to look at the data she was referencing, she would have found that medical bankruptcies affect about 2 million Americans a year, including both individuals who actually declare bankruptcy and their dependents. In a population of 298 million, 2 million equals about seven-tenths of 1 percent of the population.

"Seven-tenths of 1 percent" doesn't sound nearly as frightening as "half of all bankruptcies." However, might not a policy-maker who doesn't question the statement "half of all bankruptcies are for medical reasons" lean toward a policy more extensive than is warranted by the problem? Would not a wise policy-maker focus on easing the situation of the seven-tenths of 1 percent rather than inflicting government health care on the other 296 million of us?

More so than a lack of scientists and engineers, the bigger problem we face today is policy-makers drunk with power leaning on scientific testimony they do not understand to support unwarranted regulations and programs.

"Common sense" means making policy consistent with data, not ignoring it. Deferring to experts as an excuse for willful ignorance is unacceptable public leadership.

(**The qualifier "I think" was an editorial change made without my review. Thune stated his approach to economic data in so many words.)