Saturday, July 31, 2010

What is the Honest Broker?

Ethon flew back from Boulder with long stopovers in Denver, and Lord help him O'Hare. He's been getting old and peckish, and has taken to flying commercial for long hauls. Except for the food (no liver, never), he doesn't complain much. So the Bird and Eli were sitting around discussing knowledge and the difference between Philosophy, Policy, Politics and Science, you know, Honest Broker stuff. Eli thought that it was really simple, Philosophy thinks about what should be, Science is discovering what is. Policy, well on the good side it reconciles the other two as best it can, and for that it needs to understand them on some level. Thus, Summaries for Policymakers, Politics is about getting elected.

A wonderful example of how bad science makes for bad policy and good politics, is the recent fiasco building sand berms to limit damage from the Gulf oil spill. This started as a bright idea of a local parish (read county) president in Louisiana and was quickly adopted by the state Governor, one Bobby Jindal. From the political side it had everything, an opportunity to appear to be acting, a wonderful club to bash opponents, particularly the Federal Government and President Obama and more. From the science side, not so much. The issues were clear early on, as summarized by Jeremy Remmers.

I admire Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and, gulp, Sen. David Vitter, for standing up against BP and the federal government in demanding what they consider is the right approach to protect the state’s coastline from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

It isn’t, a boatload of scientists agree.

The in-your-face approach by the two Republican leaders as well as a contingent of angry parish presidents in their quest to build even tiny portions of a 128-mile protective wall of sand berms has won the admiration of frantic residents and the platitudes of their chief fan club back in New York City, Fox News. . . .

Here’s the deal folks. Compared to what’s-her-name, Louisiana’s former governor during Katrina, Jindal is a driving force and unquestionably is trying to do what he thinks is best to protect his state’s fragile coastlines. The problem is what he’s proposing, and threatening to take action into his own hands, is more of a political hail Mary pass than an engineering fix. It’s pie-in-the-sky, throw other people’s money at the wall and hope something sticks.

The simple fact is this: What Jindal wants in what skeptical engineers call “The Great Wall of Louisiana” will be washed out with the first tropical storm blowing off the Gulf waters.

Jindal’s original plan was to construct 128 miles of sand berms with 102 million cubic yards of seabed dredged from the coastline floor to bolster the barrier islands and absorb oil before it reaches sensitive marshes. It would cost $950 million and take nine months to build. The oil slick arrived two weeks ago and no end on the horizon.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of the government’s supervision of BP’s obligation to clean up the mess, said he reluctantly approved the first of six berm sites at Scofield Island, west of the Mississippi River as a prototype.

“There are a lot of doubts whether this is a valid oil spill response technique, given the length of construction and so forth,” Allen said. He ordered BP to pick up the estimated $360 million cost of the revised 45-mile-long berm.

BP spokesman Mark Proegler said: “The company will not assume liability for unintended consequences.” Although the state signed contracts with a dredging firm, BP has yet to provide the funding.

What it comes down to (the berms were expensive) is could the resources be better used elsewhere even though the theatrics were great. This is the background to a useful exchange on InItForTheGold, which pretty well shows why scientists can never be Pielke's "Honest Broker" and why nobunny should ever trust a Pielke "Honest Broker" Eli expects that this attaches to Roger also.

Roger's view of Bermgate is
What if the goal of the action is not to keep oil offshore, but to demonstrate to the public that politicians are "doing something"? In the drought of 2002 the city of Denver spent $1 million on cloud seeding, which was more PR than policy. Politicians take symbolic action all the time.
Turns out there was excellent empirical evidence that seeding worked, and indeed it does at about the expected level, but what the heck, it "appears" to be an argument
In the sand berm case, the Honest Broker would present the options -- build berms, don't build berms, etc. and the range of consequences predicted to occur from relevant experts (which might include experts in beach processes as well as experts on public opinion). At that point it would be the job of politicians to decide what to do. Being an honest broker means clearly delineating advice from decision -- military intelligence long espouses this culture.
In the discussion, Michael Tobis asked some questions
Now, the expertise has somehow moved from people who understand coastal dynamics to people who know how to trick people into believing that gross wastes of public dollars are heroic.
The latter group may be "experts" of a sort, but calling them "honest brokers" is a bit of a stretch, no?

Of course, the scenario is ludicrous. Nobody told Bobby Jindal "this won't work worth a damn". Bobby may be a bit of a fool about matters of science but I don't see any reason to expect him to be dishonest in this way. And even if he were willing to be so, he would not want someone testifying to that effect.

So Roger, what are you saying? It seems to me you are casting about rather urgently for some way to defend your taxonomy. I asked you, rather, to explain how the taxonomy would be useful under certain relevant scenarios.

Your response is silly, and does not actually help. What should somebody who saw the fiasco coming actually do to dissuade the government from being stupid and wasteful? Where would the Honest Broker come from in this situation, and what options other than "for *'s sake don't do this stupid thing" would they realistically have on offer?
Michael is unrealistically polite. As we saw above Jindal WAS told by experts that the berms would not work, and most likely would cause more harm than good, but he pressed forward. So the question is what is the "Honest Broker" honest about?
See, we really don't understand this Honest Broker thing.

What sort of a job has the Honest Broker got? Who pays him or her? What behaviors are rewarded and how? Who asks for his or her Brokerage?
And, as Eli has said before, what about using the Honest Broker as a restaurant guide in a strange city. If bunnies read the Honest Broker they find that the choices for locating the good carrots are rather peculiar
Certainly, the out of town visitor asking for restaurant advice example, which was the most fully fleshed out in the book, was far from compelling.

The four roles worked out to

1) indifferent to the point of rudeness
2) nutritionist
3) somebody whose uncle has a taco joint and
4) google.

Seriously, you don't act like that when a visitor asks for dining advice, do you?
But Hank Robert's nailed it
Michael, those are good questions.
The 'honest broker' isn't -- ever -- someone who knows reliable information about sand berms.

The 'honest broker' job -- really, perhaps covertly -- is the one RPJr switches to talking about when he reveals the little man behind the curtain: help the politician appear to be doing something long enough to get the headline and win the election.

The 'honest broker' is a political public relations role, not something a scientist would do at all.

Why? Because the opportunity just expanded:
So we see that the "Honest Broker" is the PR guy behind the curtain, feeding quotes to Andy Revkin. And Andy, of course, guileless soul, prints them. And so it goes.


Deech56 said...

And who decides whether the broker is honest? Why the broker, of course. And we know he's right because he's honest.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

I don't know what an honest broker is, but he dresses like a used car salesman.

pointer said...

I'm wondering whether this from Roger sounds as daft to anyone else as it does to me:

"If you say, the approaching tornado compels us to go to the basement, then this statement is correct only if we have an agreed upon set of shared values (to live)!"

Are there any sane people who would agree to a set of values that involve not living?

Hank Roberts said...

I mentioned this elsewhere, but commend it for serious thought:

This whole area -- which has already overthrown (in theory) the "selfish rational person" notion on which most economics has been based -- actually cuts both ways.

I think scientists get burned by being insufficiently cynical about human nature, while economists are provably far too cynical about human nature.

People who assume everyone is primarily selfish see the world very differently, expect cheating and self-dealing, and act that way because they see everyone else doing it.

People who do science don't generally think that way and are blindsided by those who do.

"Although cooperation is advantageous for both parties, economic theory is clear that every rational agent will defect in a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma. In this experiment, the defection rates of economics students were 60.4%, compared with 38.8% for non-economics students.
... the longer the participants had been trained in economics, the more they expected other people to be dishonest and therefore, probably, to defect. This fits together with the further observation that, whereas the progress of non-economics education is correlated with an increase in cooperative behaviour, the same pattern is not observed among economics students.... let me turn to some remarks on the kind of evidence offered by these experiments.
In reaction to the moral accusations lingering around this experimental evidence, many scholars began producing counterevidence. For example,.... more practicing economists than political scientists or sociologists declare their real income and pay their professional associations membership fees accordingly ...."

Seriously, if you're not familiar with this whole area of research, read a bit, and think about how much it contributes to explaining those whose whole view of the world predisposes them to assuming everyone's out for number one, where number one is _not_ the ecosystem, the community, or the planet.

Remember, our corporate law _requires_ corporations to behave as "rational" economic actors, selfishly, maximizing shareholder return.

There are some attempts being made to come up with alternative corporate charters that include doing good along with doing well.

There are some ethical systems that teach cooperation.

There are a lot of people who think cooperation is for suckers.

Deech56 said...

Hank wrote, "People who assume everyone is primarily selfish see the world very differently, expect cheating and self-dealing, and act that way because they see everyone else doing it."

For the first part of this, if you substitute the word "sinful" for "selfish" you get a bit of Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin's idea of original sin (not so much of a stretch). The difference is that they (unlike economics professors) offered the Biblical idea of repentance (literally, turn back) and salvation.

I think we need to recognize our basic selfishness, but strive to do the unselfish things and act in mutual self-interest.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

The thing is that while there are no honest brokers, there are honest methods, and a broker can be considered honest to the point he/she follows those methods. The scientific method, probabilistic risk assessment, portfolio balancing--these are all proven methods that yeild a reproducible and reliable result. This is precisely why politicians hate them. No dramatic rescue.

Also, I think George Washington had a more realistic view of human nature than Ayn Rand or Friedrich Hayek--namely that people act in concert with their perceived interest. The key to producing altruistic action is to get them to perceive common interests.

Martin said...

People who assume everyone is primarily selfish see the world very differently, expect cheating and self-dealing, and act that way because they see everyone else doing it.

Yep, and develop a blind spot for the possibility that something else might be driving other people... so if a scientist holds the value judgement that responsible policy is policy informed by science -- a view pretty universally held by scientists, and guaranteed to be held by those bothering to contribute to the IPCC process -- then that must be proof of "corruption".

Russell said...

If Louisiana is ever threatened with sandstorms, look to Jindal to ward them off with trenches filled with boiling oil

Russell said...

At risk of being accused of being an honest broker, I should add that Saddam Hussein tried sand berms _and_ trenches filled with burning oil.

Anonymous said...

"Being an honest broker means clearly delineating advice from decision"

I actually believe that Pielke has a point up to (and no further) than this: the scientist provides advice on the science - eg, best estimates of the impacts, and the costs, of a decision - but a politician does have to juggle a number of different issues and stakeholders, and the best real-life option may not always be the optimal option as calculated by the scientist.

Where Pielke jumps the shark (on the sand berm example) is to suggest that because the politician wants to be seen as "doing something" that the scientist should shrug, say, "okey-dokey", and go back to the lab.

No! A _real_ Honest Broker would say, "if you want to build your berms, I'm not going to stop you, but I _am_ going to go tell the public exactly how much your berms are worth. So don't expect much benefit from 'doing something' with that option."

The key is that a scientist's responsibility does not end at informing the policymaker, but rather extends to informing the public. And yes, this does blur the line sometimes between scientist and advocate, but it is an important role nonetheless.


Neven said...

I find the whole Honest Broker-thing very confusing. But maybe that's the point.

David B. Benson said...

broker ---
1. One that acts as an agent for others, as in negotiating contracts, purchases, or sales in return for a fee or commission.

I fear RPJr has seriously misused this word.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Concern about "scientific authoritarianism" is actually rather humorous given how little influence scientists really have on the decision-making process in the US and most other democracies.

Anonymous said...

Scaredy Mouse says "what the hey?". MT and Jeremy are being too nice to Governor Jindal.

Google Earth East Galveston Bay Texas and look at the dredge built berms there. They were built in the relatively quiet waters of a shallow bay and still had to be armored with rock. Those 5 miles or so of berm took almost a year to build (these berms hold in silt being used to create marshes). They were built of clay, not sand. Sand doesn't stand up.

Louisiana's barrier islands are like icebergs. Most of their mass is below the water line. Their subsurface profile is a mile or more in width. No dredge is going to build 45 miles of that in a few months or even a few years. More like a few decades. Even 45 miles of temporary barrier in 9 months is beyond the capacity of several dredges working simultaneously. I'm sure no one was telling Jindal that this could realistically be done. The Times Picayune should FOIA the dredge contracts to see what was promised Jindal.

Regardless: Dr. P's definition of an honest broker seems to exclude anyone who has the correct answers. I don't think we need any "yes" men advising our politicians on today's climate change reality. Doesn't history show that the downfall of great societies often lies in climate change combined with really bad advice to political leaders as in "we just need to make a lot more blood sacrifices in order to bring back the rains" (as stated by an unknown honest broker to an unknown Mayan leader sometime during the reign of 20 rabbet or so).

Peer Reviewed Science is The Honest Broker. The idea that politicians aren't smart enough to discuss climate change with scientists directly is absurd. Many are more than smart enough to ask questions, listen, read and then make informed decisions.

This sounds like Dr. P and Dr. Curry simply aren't happy with the IPCC summaries for political leaders and can't bring themselves to live with it (I think Dr. C believes 2 degrees C is a better number for CO2 doubling - good gravy, get over it). They need to zip up their man suits and redouble their research efforts.

Hank Roberts said...

This is quite good; I tried a few excerpts at MT's but kept getting error messages about URL length being excessive, perhaps hitting the 4096 character limit. It's about _presentation_ as well as roles.

This puts Pielke in context as one of many writers over decades addressing ideas about what scientists should and should not do in policy issues, and discusses the "stases" -- steps -- through which issues are resolved. (Pielke's trying to put a barrier between steps, in effect--but the issue pulls people from one step to the next)

Down toward the end:

... The stases exert an irresistible upward pull on the discourse surrounding a particular issue because the answer to a question at one stasis generates a question at the one above it (see the secondhand smoke example ....)
.... in debates over global warming. If scientists state that humans are in fact causing climate change, the upward pull of the stases insures that policymakers “hear” scientists saying that this enormous impact on the earth is so obviously bad (value) that it should be avoided (action), even if the scientists are careful not to use value or action language.
Contrary to Pielke’s argument, then, the issue of global warming is settled at the stasis of cause/effect because the conclusions we draw from it are functionally inevitable given our democracy’s long history and practice with the stases of argumentation.

"... IPCC authors are aware that basing their conclusions on computer models may open them up to further criticisms of their Mertonian mandate in public policy debates. The cause/effect stasis of the models is not their only difficulty. Since models take assumptions as input in addition to observations, their output is conditioned by scientists’ best judgments about the nature of the relationship between the past, present, and future. In addition, modeling exercises primarily arise in response to public calls for scientific advice, such as the IPCC’s mandate, quoted above, which includes “projected impacts” in the body’s commission. So, models are invoked in response to the very questions of value and action that are supposed [by Pielke] to remain outside traditional scientific work....
... the authors write that current levels of greenhouse gases “far exceed” pre-industrial norms as judged from ice cores (2007a, p. 2) and describe as “very likely” an increase in “hot extremes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation” (p. 15). While these word choices may seem inflammatory, that rhetorical implicature is due to the upward pull of the stases; there are no value judgments stated in a term such as “hot extremes”; we as readers, rather, immediately link such a phrase to our value structures by the equation “hot extremes = bad.” In fact, these phrases appear to be an attempt on the authors’ part to use more scientific, descriptive language rather than the value-laden terms “drought” and “flood.”

Did this strategy work? Perhaps with some audiences, but many readers perceived the Working Group I SPM’s authors to be arguing at the policy stases of value and action, even though they had taken linguistic pains to avoid this ethical stance. ...

William T said...

Another interesting parallel is FUD - as in "Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt" - a tactic commonly used by dominant businesses when threatened by an upstart. THe issue there is that customers may be attracted by the better features of the new product. So the dominant player releases some information (or mis-information) that attempts to undermine the credibility of the upstart ("wouldn't want to close off your options by choosing them, would you now..."). And it's generally successful - many customers are "scared off" from making a change, even though a rational analysis of the situation may suggest it would be in their best interest.

It seems to me that much of what passes for the "honest broker" role is actually creating (or at least enabling) FUD. And it is working very well. Decision-making is frozen because there is so much confusion about all the various "options", "costs" vs "benefits", "uncertainties", etc

Anonymous said...

This is OT, but following up on some important work/sleuthing that DC is doing. Posted this at DC's place; sorry to pick on Eli, but I for one am a very frustrated bunny.


Excellent expose of Wegman et al., and of McIntyre on the most recent thread.

I am still dumbfounded that we all seem to think that GMU is going to move on this on its own or that a journalist is serendipitously going to stumble on your series and actually run with it.

One complaint against Wegman and Said may have been filed according to someone posting here, but what is needed is a formal complaint from one or more persons.

I really do not understand the reluctance of Rabett and others to follow though on this (it is my understanding that those of us in Canada probably cannot lodge a complaint, no?) , and make efforts to ensure that this story gets traction in the media. What am I missing?

PS: I know of a journalists in Canada who may consider running an expose on the antics/politicking McIntyre and CA. Not a National paper, but maybe a start?"


Anonymous said...

Hank refers to the "VLS" (not an astronomical facility but rather Very Large Sociopath) synthetic actors known as publicly traded corporations, mentioning it would be useful to lower legal barriers to more socially integrated behaviors. Is there actually any legal reason why explicitly stated altruism cannot be codified in corporate bylaws?

Hank Roberts said...

Freight Broker Training said...

Great informative blog. What are these Honest Broker all about still I find it confusing? Take care!