Bringing values back to policy debates

There is wide and increasing support for the notion that we are living in a time of ‘post-truth politics,’ particularly in the US and the UK, where decision makers are ‘tired of experts,’ are wielding ‘alternative facts,’ and ‘pants on fire’ is no longer a shocking description of truth claims that emerge from our federal governments.  Indeed, many of us in environmental studies have found it deeply troubling to witness such rejection of the general consensus around what is happening to the world’s climate (and why) and the central, essential role of state-governed environmental protections.  More broadly, it is troubling, if not downright panic-inspiring, to witness contempt and dismissal for environmental knowledge and the institutions that facilitate its creation, dissemination, and implementation. Recent, but far from unique examples, come from this month’s events at the US Environmental Protection Agency, where the Administrator has expressed

“Values” cc permission via flickr.

skepticism that human activity is the primary contributor to climate change.  Then, despite numerous historic and contemporary studies showing how environmental hazards are experienced disproportionately in the US (and globally) by vulnerable communities (for examples from across the US, see, Bullard, 2000; Pulido, 2000; Krieg and Faber, 2004), the very existence of the Office of Environmental Justice has been threatened with defunding.

But as the scientific and research communities rally together through listservs, conferences, and demonstrations in defense of knowledge as the preeminent policy input, it seems an opportune moment to reconsider the modernist promise of evidence-based policy and speaking truth to power.  Increasingly, analysts and scholars question the linear model of policy science (for example, see Beck, 2011), a model that hyperbolizes the uni-directionality of the science-policy interface. In other words, that knowledge is created in a social vacuum and then informs policy in an objective way.  Indeed, new and ‘better’ knowledge can contribute to policy improvements, but rarely can it catalyze policy changes alone.  Is this the moment for a more forceful assertion of facts, a ‘truth bomb’ to obliterate policies that are based on political expediency?  Or is it the moment to understand policy-relevant knowledge as necessarily (not accidentally nor sub-optimally) co-produced with values (for more on coproduction, see, Jasanoff (Ed.), 2004)?

This does not give carte blanche to political leaders to fashion and promote claims that disregard science and public well-being. Neither, however, does it mean that in some ideal world, policy making would become fundamentally, a research exercise.  The coproduction of knowledge and values, rather, underlines the importance expanding, not restricting democratic engagement, through improved public engagement with science, citizen participation in decision-making, and most importantly, deliberation, whereby people can assert their own perspectives and interests, but also develop the capacity and willingness to consider others’ perspectives and perhaps even change their minds.  Deliberation and increased communication and democratic engagement seem less and less feasible as divisive and inflammatory discourses become increasingly the norm.  But as the challenge grows, so does the importance of developing deliberative norms, both personally and professionally.

We need facts and knowledge to make ‘good’ policy decisions.  But we also need an explicit recognition of the centrality of values.  For some, the shift from evidence-based to more deliberative, value-based approaches ‘cheapens’ policy debates, and creates an ‘anything goes’ kind of scenario – debates lose traction because everyone is entitled to their opinion.  Indeed, challenging someone’s facts seems more grounded and less personal than challenging their values in a society that venerates the individual and individual freedoms.  But if values are undermined as a policy luxury, and peripheral to good decision-making, then debates will always remain partial, and insufficiently substantiated.

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