Summer in Brabant


On the pressures of policy-relevant climate science

Without any “evidence of fraud, malfeasance or deliberate deception or manipulation,” or any promotion of inaccurate views, how can bias enter a scientific assessment? In their new book, Discerning Experts, Michael Oppenheimer, Naomi Oreskes, Dale Jamieson, et al explore the pattern of underestimation of the true consequences of climate change.

Climate change’s impacts are uncertain; predictions about climate change are difficult to make. Taking an ethnographic approach, Discerning Experts shows how those difficulties, coupled with the nature of the public discourse, and the pressures that come when research is going to be discussed and used in policy, have tilted climate assessment optimistic and cautious.

In a summary of their book, Oreskes et al explain three reasons for the tilt:

“The combination of … three factors—the push for univocality, the belief that conservatism is socially and politically protective, and the reluctance to make estimates at all when the available data are contradictory—can lead to ‘least common denominator’ results—minimalist conclusions that are weak or incomplete.”

These tendencies, according to the authors, pertain to the applied research context. The academic context is different: “The reward structure of academic life leans toward criticism and dissent; the demands of assessment push toward agreement.” Link to a summary essay in Scientific American. Link to the book.

  • In an interview, Michael Oppenheimer elaborates on other elements that skew the assessments: the selection of authors, the presentation of the resulting information, and others. Link.
  • In a review of the book, Gary Yohe reflects on his own experience working on major climate assessments, such the IPCC’s. Link.
  • A David Roberts post from 2018 finds another case of overly cautious climate science: models of the economic effects of climate change may be much more moderate than models of the physical effects. To remedy this, “We need models that negatively weigh uncertainty, properly account for tipping points, incorporate more robust and current technology cost data, better differentiate sectors outside electricity, rigorously price energy efficiency, and include the social and health benefits of decarbonization.” Link.
  • Tangentially related: carbon tax or green investment? It’s worth considering not just all possible policy options but also their optimal interactions. A paper by Julie Rozenberg, Adrien Vogt-Schilb, and Stephane Hallegatte concludes, “Optimal carbon price minimizes the discounted social cost of the transition to clean capital, but imposes immediate private costs that disproportionately affect the current owners of polluting capital, in particular in the form of stranded assets.” Link to a summary which contains a link to the unpaywalled paper.

New Researchers: MANAGERIAL SWAY

Policy implications of Notice-and-Comment Rulemaking in the US

PhD candidate at NYU’s Politics Department STEVEN RASHIN studies how private interest groups shape domestic policymaking in the United States. In a paper published earlier this year, he compiles a dataset consisting of 47,000 comments to the Securities and Exchange Commission and tests their influence over government bureaucrats using a novel measure of efficacy.

From the paper’s introduction:

“Comments on regulations change the implementation of public policy by providing policymakers with information they did not have before. The more industry-specific language and data a commenter provides the policymaking bureaucrat, the more likely the agency is to adjust the language of a final rule pursuant to the commenter’s suggestions. Further, comments that concentrate their arguments on only a few topics tend to alter rules more than those that mention many. The marginal effect of commenting is lower for members of the public than for organized interests. Holding constant the technical complexity of a comment, agencies are more likely to adopt organized interests’ comments into the final rule over those from the general public.”

Link to the paper, and to Rashin’s website.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way:


  • New on the Phenomenal World: Cosmo Grant on crates, boxes, and the difficulties of building unbiased predictive algorithms. Link to the post, and link to an interactive visualization of its key concepts, produced in collaboration with Emily Chu.
  • We were grateful for Robin Sloan‘s kind words about the JFI Letter. Check out his wide-ranging newsletter for literature, history, art, and language, packaged with a good dose of humor. Link.
  • Four new studies confirm the importance of school spending in raising test scores of low income students. In Texas, researchers Daniel Kreisman and Matthew Steinberg find that “A 10% increase in expenditures yields a 0.1 s.d. increase in reading scores and a near 0.08 increase in math.” Link. In Wisconsin, E. Jason Baron finds that just 5% in increased spending results in a “25% reduction in the dropout rate, an increase in test scores of approximately 30% of a standard deviation, and a 15% increase in postsecondary enrollment.” Link. Finally, two papers from the Annenberg Institute find that spending “corresponds to positive achievement effects in districts with a high proportion of impoverished students.” Link and link. See also coverage of all four studies on Chalkbeat.
  • “We study the long-term impact of climate change on economic activity across countries. Using a panel data set of 174 countries over the years 1960 to 2014, we find that per-capita real output growth is adversely affected by persistent changes in the temperature above or below its historical norm.” New research from Matthew Kahn, Kamiar Mohaddes, Ryan Ng, M. Hashem Pesaran, Mehdi Raissi, and Jui-Chung Yang. Link. ht Sidhya
  • At 3P, J. Meeks reflects on recent proposals for a domestic workers bill of rights, which include the formation of a sector-specific wage board: “While domestic workers stand to gain tremendously from organizing, their working conditions often make organizing impractical. For that reason, the bill does not rely on the bargaining power of domestic workers to improve their working conditions.” Link.
  • “The stock market is a measure of the expectations of future profits of companies that are listed in the exchange. It is only coincidental when it provides information about the health of the economy.” Dean Baker advises policymakers to adopt more holistic measures of economic well being. Link.
  • Over half a million Spanish citizens eligible for government sponsored electricity subsidies were denied the benefit, due to a flawed algorithm in the allocation software. At Algorithm Watch, Nicolas Kayser-Bril reports on the ongoing legal battle to rectify disbursements. Link.
  • “If we live in a time when G is either low or horribly skewed, why not focus on R?” Drawing on Piketty’s formulation, Mark Blyth introduces his new project, “R for everyone,” at McMaster University’s summer school conference. Link to the lecture, and link to the full list of conference presentations.
  • Forgiving debt from child support payments “reduced parent employment barriers and improved credit scores, housing status, feelings of control over finances, and parent child bonds.” Heather Hahn and Daniel Kuehn report on the San Francisco child support debt relief pilot. Link to their overview of the findings, and link to the full report.
  • “Unionism in the United States is contagious; it spills out of coal mines and steel mills into other establishments in the neighborhood, like hospitals and supermarkets.” From 2006, an NBER working paper in which Thomas Holmes geographically links unionized health care establishments to the coal mines of the 1950s. Link.
  • 82% of economists questioned in an online randomized controlled experiment agreed that “in evaluating a statement, one should only pay attention to its content.” The same experiment, conducted by Ha-Joon Chang and Mohsen Javdani, finds that “changing source attributions from mainstream to less-/non-mainstream significantly reduces economists’ reported agreement with statements.” Link.
  • “Did the Prussian three-class franchise, which politically over-represented the economic elite, affect policymaking? Combining MP-level political orientation, derived from all roll call votes in the Prussian parliament (1867–1903), with constituency characteristics, we analyze how local vote inequality, determined by tax payments, affected policymaking during Prussia’s period of rapid industrialization. Contrary to the predominant view that the franchise system produced a conservative parliament, higher vote inequality is associated with more liberal voting, especially in regions with large-scale industry. We argue that industrialists preferred self-serving liberal policies and were able to coordinate on suitable MPs when vote inequality was high.” By Sascha O. Becker and Erik Hornung. Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

Subscribe to Phenomenal World Sources, a weekly digest of recommended readings across the social sciences. See the full Sources archive.