In the name of science

While I often complain in long posts about the way political arguments are dressed up as science, Virginia Postrel has articulated it very succinctly:

Scientists have gotten way too fond of invoking their authority to claim that "science" dictates their preferred policy solutions and claiming that any disagreement constitutes an attack on science. But, even assuming that scientists agree on the facts, science can only tell us something about the state of the world. It cannot tell us what policy is the best to adopt. Scientists' preferences are not "science." You cannot go from an "is" (science) to an "ought" (policy). Social science, particularly economics, can tell you something about the likely tradeoffs (hence some of my frustrations at Aspen). But it can't tell you which tradeoffs to make.
How utterly true!

Unfortunately, many people who get into these debates tend to lose sight of the "oughts" and get caught up in debating the minutiae of scientific facts (more likely, summaries and pronouncements based on disputable facts). Many of these scientific claims are only beyond their understanding and training, but their access to them is pretty much limited by what is made commonly available in ordinary media sources. So, they're not even debating what "is" -- as they're not competent to decide. I'm not sure scientists are either, as I have seen far too many scientific positions revised and reversed. (Studying Paleontology in the early 1970s, I was taught that we were still in the Ice Age.) Nothing is constant. Debating science is an exercise in futility, and because there is so much theory involved, one might as well debate the unknown.

Injecting science into politics causes a lot of people to become distracted and lose sight of basic principles. Science and politics are both contaminated, resulting in hybridized pseudoscientific nonsense like the "Precautionary Principle" -- which is used to justify the subordination of the economy not to the free market (or even economists or politicians), but to the whims of environmentalists (an ill-defined group of often highly political people who like to call themselves scientists).

posted by Eric on 07.16.07 at 09:32 AM


Well, no. Just because scientists generally go from bogus "is"s to bogus "ought"s doesn't invalidate the process--just their reasoning. If you can't get from "is" to "ought", then all morality is arbitrary, something I'd hope you'd disagree with. For further information, read some Ayn Rand.

Aaron   ·  July 16, 2007 9:43 AM

I don't think all morality is arbitrary, but I do think science has been used in the manufacture of arbitrary new morality (especially though not exclusively in the context of anthropogenic global warming):

Eric Scheie   ·  July 16, 2007 10:27 AM

Aaron, the biggest problem with going from "is" to "ought" is that they are going from "expert" to "citizen".

When you're talking "ought", the scientist is just one voice among many, as are you and I. Their preferences are no more valid than anybody else's. But here, they are attempting to bring some of that "expert" over in to "citizen", to give themsleves a sort of super-vote that you and I don't get.

And it's about time people start calling shenanigans.

tim maguire   ·  July 16, 2007 10:56 AM


let me add an example from this morning:

M. Simon   ·  July 16, 2007 1:17 PM

A quote from M. Simon's post:

As of this writing, it is unclear what advanced statistical software package was used to fit the Laffer Curve to the data; the smart money seems to be on MS Paint.


Eric Scheie   ·  July 17, 2007 9:48 AM

"...but I do think science has been used in the manufacture of arbitrary new morality."

Well, then for god's sake, man, say that instead of agreeing with Postrel on utter nonsense. Look -- and "Godwin" be damned -- it is an obviously necessary moral step from observing that Nazis were killing Jews to the conclusion that they ought not do that.

The Is/Ought dichotomy is horribly dangerous rubbish, and it is very alarming how many otherwise rational people buy it.

Billy Beck   ·  July 17, 2007 10:49 AM

The Nazis' killing of the Jews is not open to dispute.

In that sense, "is" denotes an undeniable fact. When the facts are in dispute, though, "is" not only cannot dictate "ought," it cannot be said to inform "ought." Whether "is" should inform morality also depends on whether morality is implicated. I don't believe in collective morality where it comes to anthropogenic global warming.

The word "ought" is extremely problematic, because it is not defined. Should what I "ought" to do be dependent on what is the best result for me, or for the greatest number of people? While I favor the former, many would disagree, and I don't see easy answers staring me in the face. Rightly or wrongly, politics is how the practical "oughts" tend to be decided.

Eric Scheie   ·  July 17, 2007 11:39 AM

There is a clear distinction between a scientific expectation and a policy.

Since this is the topic du jour, let's take anthropogenic global warming (AGW). In principle, one can very well take the point of view that it represents a threat to the planet, and yet decide that it is not important to do anything about it. In fact, that is what Lomborg does: He accepts the threat, but asserts that it is less of a threat than other things.

Neal J. King   ·  July 17, 2007 2:29 PM

"When the facts are in dispute, though, 'is not only cannot dictate ought'..."

My point is prior to that, Eric. Look at what Postrel said: "You cannot go from an 'is' (science) to an 'ought' (policy)." What she said is not qualified with a dispute over facts: she just says it, categorically. The Is/Ought Dichotomy is far, far too often stated just exactly that flatly, and it's just not true.

This is an important point, worth making.

Billy Beck   ·  July 17, 2007 5:35 PM

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