On Science Denialism

[F]luoride is a natural mineral that, in the weak concentrations used in public drinking-water systems, hardens tooth enamel and prevents tooth decay—a cheap and safe way to improve dental health for everyone, rich or poor, conscientious brushers or not. That’s the scientific and medical consensus.

To which some people in Portland, echoing anti-fluoridation activists around the world, reply: We don’t believe you.

We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative.

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What Are “Local” Foods?

The local food movement is arguably the most dynamic segment of the food system, contributing to the challenge to define it. Turning to a dictionary, Webster defines the term local as, “characterized by or relating to position in space: having a definite spatial form or location.” In a recent US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service report, Low and co-authors, suggest that localness may vary by the audience, purpose and data of the food system dimension where local is applied (Low et al., 2015).

Although geography is typically one of the key factors considered in local food systems, policy and program initiatives implicate a connection to a myriad of other aspects as well. According to the 2008 [farm bill], local foods are defined as any foods produced within a radius of 400 miles or in the state where the food was produced as local foods, but this mix of transportation, distance, and jurisdictional criteria hints to the complexity of characterizing local foods (Low et al., 2015; Martinez et al., 2010). As one example of the implications of this complexity, Martinez et al. (2010) showed evidence that geographic proximity considerations have led to some controversy as to whether State-funded branding programs, which are aimed at promoting or identifying state-produced agricultural products, are part of the local food system. More recently, the [farm bill] of 2014 did not provide a definition of local foods, perhaps because arriving at agreement on a definition defied consensus.

So what other criteria—stated or simply assumed—may be underlying the term local foods … ? The growing set of consumer research and community development literature sheds some light on a broader characterization that suggests sustainable production practices, smaller businesses, more producer-oriented governance, and shorter supply chains which may all be implicit assumptions held by those supporting, investing in and consuming local foods.


From a new paper (ungated) in Choices by Dawn Thilmany McFadden.

The Policy Relevance of Agricultural Economists

The latest issue of the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics has an article by Maurice Doyon titled “Can Agricultural Economists Improve their Policy Relevance?

The article is a summary of Doyon’s presidential address to the 2014 meetings of the Canadian Agricultural Economics Society. In his address, Doyon posits that in order to improve their policy relevance, agricultural economists need to take seriously some of the criticisms which have been directed at economics in general, and some of his recommendations are that:

  • We should be more transparent by showing all of our robustness checks,
  • We should incorporate insights from other behavioral sciences, and
  • We should learn to write for a broader audience.

I don’t disagree with any of those recommendations, but my view is that the many young (i.e., younger than 40 or so) agricultural economists are already doing those things. Indeed,

  • Many of us have followed the lead of other applied microeconomists (e.g., labor and development economists in particular) in presenting results that are as transparent as possible and including as many robustness checks as we can imagine in our work,
  • Many (though not all) of us now have a healthy appreciation for the insights generated by behavioral economists, and
  • Quite a few of us are involved in the popularization of what we do, whether by blogging, writing popular press pieces, or by being actively engaged in social media.

I am not saying Doyon’s remarks miss the mark–many agricultural economists would greatly benefit from following his recommendations–but if I had been the one making those remarks, I would have gone a step further, and my overwhelming recommendation would have been this: In order to enhance their policy relevance, agricultural economists have to do two things: (i) Answer bigger questions, and (ii) Take causal identification seriously. Continue reading