How to Think: Public Policy edition.

One of the running strands of this blog is the notion that the public’s interest in science is at least as much in the ways scientists think as it is in the particular discoveries that emerge over time. Not that the latter are unimportant — far from it: they are rather the currency with which science buys and holds the attention of the culture that supports it.

But to take a recent example, the uncovering of a fossil animal intermediate between a fish and a land-living creature was the fact that got Neil Shubin’sYour Inner Fish off and rolling. But the real story Shubin told, excellently (despite this snark), was the process by which Shubin and others put themselves in a position to anticipate and appreciate the significance of that fossil.

It’s that old chestnut: “The King died; the Queen died…” is a list of facts. “The King died; the Queen died of grief…” is a story. The story to be told by science writing is one that allows its reader to enter into the means of discovery, ideally in ways that such a reader can use, even if she or he never confronts a limbed fish.

More specifically, I’ve emphasized a couple of attributes of science that need to get more play in our broader culture — empiricism (rigorous observation and experiment) and abstraction, by which I usually mean some kind of quantitative analysis.

Then along comes my younger brother, Leo. He’s a senior civil servant for a California county, running a huge budget. On the side he teaches a course in public policy at a local college.

This year, a student’s question prompted him to put what he hoped his class had learned into capsule form — and in a few words it captures what I’ve been trying to say in too many more, lo these many months. He wants his students to impose as much discipline as possible on what they think we know. It should not be limited to those few fortunate enough to learn from him. Here’s his valedictory to this year’s class:

1. When people are talking about public policy issues, always remember the question—what is the underlying problem or opportunity they are proposing to address? How are people modeling the problem in their minds (often unstated)– – as to what are the problem’s causes and what could various interventions hope to achieve? Once you state the underlying assumptions out loud, do they make sense; are they reasonable? So often we jump to a particular solution and advocate it without stepping back to think whether there might be other ways to address the same issue

2. Quantify wherever possible so that you think about how big the problem really is and how much difference you can expect from the different approaches people may take. If you have no way of measuring the problem, you are unlikely to be able to prove to people tackling it is worth the effort, and no way of judging the success of any pilot programs you might have a chance to implement.

3. Clarify the trade-offs between doing nothing and the various alternatives. Whether a public policy approach is worth doing can’t be answered without comparing it to something else. You need clear criteria and to compare approaches against each other as to how well they meet your criteria. Just advocating a course of action by itself is not convincing unless you can compare the outcomes to doing nothing or other alternatives.

Amen and Amen. Here endeth the lesson.

Image: Edward Hopper, “The El Station,” 1908. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Explore posts in the same categories: good books, numbers, Policy, Politics, science writing, Sharp thinking, Uncategorized

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One Comment on “How to Think: Public Policy edition.”


  1. No wonder the Bushists hate public policy as a discipline.


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