July 16, 2007
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
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