Humility In Policymaking: The Case For Sustainable Transport – OpEd


We need to make genuine progress towards a more sustainable mobility future. This can only be achieved through policies that induce a more holistic solution overall – one that is cognizant of the potential blind spot and how it may lead to unintended consequences. It is increasingly necessary that that we recognize the partiality of scientific knowledge and accommodate the inevitable facts of uncertainty when dealing with policies relating to technologies. For the transition to evidence-based policymaking demands transparency and integrity; lest, we end up with policy-based evidence making that are counterproductive in our sustainability journey. It is time that intellectual honesty and humility enters a new phase of policy relevant guidance as we enable mobility transition through evidence-based politics. 

The virtue of science lies not in being right all the time – every single time – but rather, in its ability to self-correct, as it progressively approximates truth over time. It is an enterprise that would ideally thrive in a culture that recognizes that there is a possibility that we might be wrong, and a mindset that is open to learning from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Recognizing the importance of intellectual humility in our pursuit of scientific progress ought to encourage a method of thinking that is actively curious about our blind spots, and a greater willingness to consider views that are not aligned with our own, no matter how polarizing and how opposing those views are.

This is timely given the recent doubts being raised over many classic scientific findings; in some cases this is due to the ongoing replication crisis that has failed to provide strong evidences in support of previously held conclusions when subjected to more rigorous testing methods. But in others, it may simply be due to deliberate attempts at misinformation and misrepresentation of scientific findings in an effort to diminish the contribution of science in policy conversations. With scientists publicly admitting when their conclusions are no longer valid, and openly altering their positions when more robust evidences are availed, it serves to add credibility to the scientific institution especially in trying times like now with the blurring of lines between facts and alternative facts.    

The complexity of science, and the inherent uncertainties surrounding scientific claims, further strengthens the need for scientists to be intellectually humble – i.e. having an open mind towards conflicting data, demonstrating willingness to admit when our findings have been proven wrong, and being less dogmatic by favoring the use of the more robust scientific knowledge even if it disagrees with our own. However, the self-correcting scientific system often takes time – the truth may see light eventually, but errors can still persist for decades. Yet, scientific knowledge is often needed to inform present day decision making – whether to provide directions on the next steps in our scientific pursuits, or to guide the formulation of an appropriate policy action. Therefore, intellectual humility, as a method of thinking, must not be left strictly within the confines of the scientific realms, but instead the approach has to be integral to the decision making process as well. While the concept may have been inspired within the social sciences, in reality the method is equally applicable to all fields that are informed by science.

This is particularly relevant in the field of policymaking where decisions can have significant effects on society as a whole and in which strong partisan forces often seek to influence policy direction in one way or the other. When science is used to inform policies, which subsequently leads to regulations, intellectual and policy humility becomes even more important to ensure our collective and sustained progress, and the interests of the public are better protected. Intellectual overconfidence in policymaking, characterized by a know-it-all and know-it-best mindset, can lead to an overly-prescriptive solution, which may or may not work in reality. And add to that the influences of moneyed partisan groups, science becomes more susceptible to misuse and abuse.  

Policy-based evidence making: a history of techno-centrism 

Consider, for example, our troubled journey towards a more sustainable mobility future. Often, the technologies picked by regulators have a tendency to follow what is commonly referred to in literature as the hype cycles, which tends to fluctuate with time and public sentiments. The existence of such cycle, in and of itself, reflects our overconfidence in a particular technological solution – we invariably overestimate its short-term benefit, while underestimating its longer-term unintended effects. Sure enough, over time, through the scientific self-correction mechanism, the truth eventually sees light – we ditch one technology and move on to the next. But the cycle then repeats itself as we continue to force technologies to be winners and losers, often rather prematurely.

Take the American experience as an example. In 1993, President Clinton initiated a Partnership for New Generation of Vehicles with the aims of producing highly efficient, 80 miles-per-gallon, family sedan cars by 2004. The initiative was later terminated by President Bush in 2002 and was subsequently replaced with a hydrogen fuel initiative. However, the interest in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles began to wane from 2007 onwards followed by a renewed interest in electric vehicles during the time of President Obama.

Now, by no means is this unique to the U.S. While the discussion may appear to be more prominently featured in U.S. politics, perhaps more so under the current administration, the reality is that it is also not that different across the Atlantic.

The biofuels excitement that began in the mid-2000 in Europe had peaked around the year 2008. But the interest began to wither thereafter with the emergence of scientific reports documenting the risks that biofuels pose to global land usefood accessibility and global habitat loss. Similarly, in the 1990s, the EU began a phase of intense dieselization with the introduction of various technical and fiscal policies to induce developments and uptakes of diesel passenger cars, given that it was the preferred technology back then. This eventually led to significant gains in diesel market share of new passenger cars sold – reaching up to 70% in France and Spain, with an average of about 55% in the EU. Today, post the diesel-gate NOx emissions scandal, we are seeing an ongoing demonization of diesel technologies leading to policy reversals. In fact, for the first time since 2009, the sale of gasoline cars in Europe has overtaken diesel. As a result, it was recently reported that the CO2 emission performances of new cars sold in 2017 had increased. Although this has never been seen before since records began in 2010, the unintended effect of reversing dieselization in Europe is really not that surprising to many industry practitioners – it just goes to demonstrate that policy decisions are not inconsequential, and in many cases it can have trade-offs that are detrimental to our sustainability journey.

One might very well argue that this is in fact intellectual humility being practiced in policymaking – i.e. the substitution of one technological solution with another, when proven ineffective, transcending personal dogmas. Perhaps this is the case. But the realization that we may have made a mistake in our technology selection happens too often and too late, when we have already invested precious R&D resources in our troubled race against time. The reality is that the flip-flopping between technologies is counter-productive in our overall journey towards a more sustainable future, especially given the urgent need for effective actions against the climate effects of the transport sector.

Evidence-based policymaking: there is no technology silver bullet

Perhaps, the intellectually more humble approach would have been to admit from the very beginning that we don’t know which technology will end up being more effective in providing a holistic solution – because the reality is, we really don’t. The overall effectiveness of a technology in mitigating the climate effects of the transport sector, whether it is advanced vehicle powertrain options or novel alternative fuels, will critically depend on how the fuel is produced, or on the energy that is used to power the vehicles. If we are honest with ourselves, we will come to realize that these are not intrinsic properties of the technologies, but rather they are external variables that affect the overall life cycle emissions of the transport sector. And these variables will change with time, and the effects will be different in different parts of the world – to put it simply, there is just no technology silver bullet, no matter how much we would like it to be. Thus, wouldn’t it be more sensible to remain technology agnostic in our pursuit of a sustainable transport future? And with the possibility of being mistaken, why do we risk forcing technologies to be winners and losers, when we can instead focus on incentivizing the desirable outcomes by mandating an overall life cycle emission reduction, regardless of the technology.

If there is a lesson in history that we can all learn from, it would most likely be that of the Montreal Protocol, which has been dubbed by the late Kofi Annan, and former UN Secretary General, as the single most successful international agreement to date. The Montreal Protocol was principally concerned about the depleting ozone layers caused by halocarbon substances. And today, after more than 30 years of ratifying the protocol, scientists have reported signs of our ozone layers gradually healing. Given that the science at that time was highly uncertain, the negotiators developed a flexible instrument that allowed for more pollutants to be added to the list, while allowing controls to be increased or decreased as the science became clearer. While there is no single factor that led to its success, the effectiveness of the protocol lies in the fact that it was designed to address the root cause of the problem, and it did so by targeting the responsible pollutants (i.e. CFCs, HCFCs and halons) instead of mandating a solution. This provided a stable framework for companies to direct long term research and innovation efforts, and at the same time develop plans for transitioning to an alternative non-polluting substance. 

A similar mechanism has to be adopted to mitigate our impacts on the global climate – one that puts the focus back on the pollutants and away from the technology. The sustainability challenges that the transport sector face today is somewhat exacerbated by our overconfidence in a particular technology – we end-up forcing technologies to be winners and losers based on insufficient evidences to meet conflicting environmental and political agendas. Past experiences seem to suggest that policies have a tendency to follow, rather than lead, public opinions. Undeniably, regulators have some really tough choices to make amidst political and scientific uncertainties. But the progress in sustainability science demands transparency. And transparency comes with an openness to be confronted by objective facts that may disagree with our intellectual overconfidence.

Humility in policymaking is a recognition that there are possible unknown blind spots that can lead to a policy failure, either through the manifestation of unintended consequences or one that simply leads to a failure in achieving the intended outcomes. Perhaps it is time that we revisit our “know-it-all” and “know-it-best” policy approach and instead adopt an intellectually more humble policy mindset. Being intellectually humble is a virtue worth striving for – not just within the scientific realms, but also for policymaking – particularly as we endeavor for science to enter a new phase of improved policy relevance.

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