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Philosophical Debates about Regulating Risks: Roles for Empirical Research

Philosophical Debates about Regulating Risks: Roles for Empirical Research. Kevin C. Elliott Department of Philosophy University of South Carolina. Overview. Quick introduction to some philosophical debates about risk regulation Four arguments: Ethical Tu Quoque Conflicts of Interest

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Philosophical Debates about Regulating Risks: Roles for Empirical Research

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  1. Philosophical Debates about Regulating Risks: Roles for Empirical Research Kevin C. Elliott Department of Philosophy University of South Carolina

  2. Overview • Quick introduction to some philosophical debates about risk regulation • Four arguments: • Ethical • Tu Quoque • Conflicts of Interest • Socially Robust Knowledge • Roles for empirical research in the ethical argument

  3. Introduction to Debates • The debate on which I want to focus involves the relative role of the public versus experts in regulating risks • Cass Sunstein: “If the public demand for regulation is likely to be distorted by unjustified fear, a major role should be given to more insulated officials who are in a better position to judge whether risks are real…. [I]t is entirely appropriate to create institutions that will have a degree of insulation. Democratic governments should respond to people’s values, not to their blunders.” (Laws of Fear, p. 126) • U.S. National Research Council: “Involving the spectrum of interested and affected parties in deliberation can make the process leading to risk characterization more democratic, legitimate, and informative for decision participants. It has this potential in several ways: improving problem formulation, providing more knowledge, determining appropriate uses for controversial analytic techniques, clarifying views, and making decisions more acceptable.” (UR, p. 79)

  4. Introduction to Debates • Sunstein envisions a system of risk regulation that focuses on analyses by experts, including cost-benefit analysis based on the public’s revealed and expressed preferences • The NRC envisions a system of risk regulation based on analytic-deliberative processes of risk characterization that include experts and the public, involving mechanisms such as public hearings, citizen advisory committees and task forces, alternative dispute resolution, citizens’ juries and citizens’ panels, surveys, focus groups, and interactive technology-based approaches • While I will be focusing on this debate about the proper role of experts and the public in regulating risks, other important philosophical issues involve the characteristics of ethically appropriate deliberation, including the merits of hypothetical versus actual deliberation

  5. Four Arguments (1) Ethical • Shrader-Frechette: “If my ox is in danger of being gored, I have the right to help determine how to protect it, even if I may be wrong” • Difficult issues: • Paternalism: should government really respect the public’s errors? • Does the public need to be directly involved to satisfy these rights? • Should we accept public risk perceptions only grudgingly (and try to improve them), or should we regard those perceptions as legitimate?

  6. Four Arguments (2) Tu Quoque—the risk perceptions of experts are not beyond reproach • Experts vary in their risk perceptions, and factors such as gender, institutional affiliation, attitudes toward the risky activity, and political ideology appear to play a role • Kahneman and Tversky found that, under certain conditions, experts display the same heuristics and biases as laypeople • Psychological research suggests that the calculative reasoning that Sunstein ascribes to experts does not protect them from biasing effects like defense motivation • Experts often have to rely on subjective probability estimates, but case studies of nuclear risk assessments have illustrated overconfidence and very poor calibration for these estimates

  7. Four Arguments (3) Conflicts of Interest—the public has legitimate reason to be concerned about the effects of financial conflicts of interest on many experts in biomedical and public-health research • A meta-analysis of eleven different studies that compared industry-funded biomedical research with independent research revealed that the industry-sponsored research was found to be more likely to favor industry in every one of the studies; in fact, industry-funded research projects were almost four times more likely than independent studies to yield results favorable to industry • There has been less systematic research of this sort regarding public-health risks, but consider one review of studies on the endocrine-disrupting effects of bisphenol A: 94 out of 104 government-funded studies reported significant biological effects of bisphenol A, whereas 0 out of 11 industry-funded studies reported significant effects at the same dose levels; industry is also known for pursuing the “doubt is our product” strategy

  8. Four Arguments for the Public (4) Socially Robust Knowledge—because risk assessments often stretch scientific knowledge to its limits, it is often valuable to have multiple stakeholders evaluate the results and share their unique perspectives • Brian Wynne provided a classic analysis of risks from the radioactive contamination of British sheep following Chernobyl; experts failed to account for details of sheep behavior and soil type that were well known to farmers • In another famous case, Alan Irwin showed how a workers union challenged an expert safety evaluation of the herbicide 2,4,5-T by the British government; the union argued that laboratory findings did not adequately reflect the real-world conditions under which 2,4,5-T is used

  9. Roles for Empirical Research • The ethical argument • Debates about the legitimacy of public perceptions of risk are influenced by the question: “Why do experts and the public disagree?” • Sunstein says it’s often because members of the public estimate probabilities poorly, relative to experts • Others (e.g., Slovic) suggest that the public has a “rival rationality” that incorporates a range of considerations besides probabilities in risk perceptions • Sjoberg suggests that a central factor may be different attitudes toward the risky activity or entity • Other possibilities to consider (see Sjoberg 2002): self-selection, socialization in professional training, perceived control, general political ideology, professional role

  10. Roles for Empirical Research • It would be helpful to provide further testing of Sunstein’s hypothesis that much of the difference between expert and public risk perceptions can be attributed to errors made by the public: • “An interesting way to test my claims would be to see whether people are able to generate statistically accurate judgments about certain risks. When specifically asked about the number of expected deaths from various sources, do people make roughly the same judgments that experts do? If so, then it might indeed be that when ordinary people diverge from experts [in their perceptions of risk], it is because of the qualitative factors. But if ordinary people err in estimating the number of lives at risk, and if their perceptions of risk severity are correlated with their estimates, then their errors might well explain the divergences.” (Sunstein 2002, p. 64)

  11. Roles for Empirical Research • As I understand it, existing evidence is ambiguous regarding the extent to which errors by the public are responsible for the differences between their risk perceptions and those of experts: • Some evidence indicates that members of the public may indeed systematically overestimate low-probability risks and underestimate high-probability risks • But, an early study by Slovic (1980) found only low to moderate correlations between the public’s risk perceptions and their estimates of fatalities—in fact, they ranked nuclear power as highly risky but fairly unlikely to cause fatalities • Two ideas for further testing of Sunstein’s hypothesis: (1) Delphi questions that elicit both perceptions of risk and estimates of the probability of specific harms, such as fatalities (2) Tracking changes in the risk perceptions of experts and the public during deliberative exercises, and attempting to determine the reasons for those changes

  12. Conclusions • Philosophers are interested in how best to make risk regulation decisions, including how to integrate perspectives from experts and the public • One element of these debates is the ethical argument that the public has rights to participate in decisions about risk regulation • An important question related to the ethical argument is whether public risk perceptions should be accepted only grudgingly or whether they should be regarded as “legitimate” in various senses • In answering this question, empirical research that clarifies the causes of expert/public disagreements (especially the extent to which the public makes errors about the probabilities of hazards) would be helpful

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