The Questionable Authority

The “Rightful Place” of Science.

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In his Inaugural Address, President Obama announced that he will “restore science to its rightful place.” And scientists around the world wept for joy. The era of government meddling with science is over. All we need to do is fund embryonic stem cell research, take decisive action to curb global warming, protect more than three or four endangered species, reverse a couple of other little problems, and everything will be good. Right?

No.

Restoring science to its proper place in public policy does not mandate that we make any of those changes. In fact, it doesn’t require that we make any changes in our policies at all.

The language of science contains declaratives, and it’s rich with subjunctives, but it doesn’t have an imperative mood. Science can tell us what has happened, what is happening, and what is likely to happen in the future given different sets of conditions. But it does not tell us what we must – or even should – do.

In the recent past, the misuse of science has made it easy to forget about that. Most of the misuse of science came about because various politicians did not – do not – want to confront questions about what we should do. Lying about reality makes it much easier to do that. If nicotine is not addictive, there’s no reason to ask if we should regulate it. If carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas, and if the earth is not warming, there’s no reason to wonder if we should restrict our emissions. If the etiolated bladderwack is not actually endangered, we don’t need to worry about whether we need to set aside habitat for it. Obfuscating reality is the coward’s way of dealing with hard questions, and there have been a lot of cowards in power over the last few decades.

Restoring science to its proper place should mean nothing more nor less than this: we let science inform us about what has happened, what is happening, and what is likely to happen in the future given different sets of conditions. Where there is legitimate scientific debate, we take that into account. Where there is not, we do not pretend that there is.

And then we acknowledge the fact that deciding what to do requires us to make value judgements that fall beyond what science can tell us. Our knowledge that further development along a particular stream will probably result in the extinction of the least frumious bandersnatch does not in and of itself mandate that we halt all further development there. The decision to halt further development requires both the scientific knowledge of the biological issues and a moral decision that the continued existence of the bandersnatch outweighs the right of the property owners to do what they want with their own land. Our knowledge of the long-term effects of greenhouse gas emission does not require us to do anything to slow or stop our output. That decision requires us to weigh our own immediate convenience against whatever duty we might have (if any at all) to future generations.

Restoring science to its proper place is going to involve acknowledging what science is telling us, but it also requires us to understand what it can’t do. When (or if) we manage to do that – when we stop declaring that “science says x so we must do y” – we will have begun to restore science to its rightful place.

Comments

  1. #1 Craig Pennington
    January 30, 2009

    Well said. The problem with the past administration’s relationship with science wasn’t that it implemented specific policies that I felt were unjustified. It was that science results at odds with policy decisions were ignored or reports thereof were altered. An example you didn’t mention was the FDA/Plan B fiasco. They tried to dress-up their foot-dragging as science based, when it was quite clear that it was a policy decision.

    You are entirely correct. The proper place of science is to inform. I will be quoting you on this in the future:

    The language of science contains declaratives, and it’s rich with subjunctives, but it doesn’t have an imperative mood.

    Perfect.

  2. #2 ebohlman
    January 30, 2009

    The way I like to put it is that science is like a map. It can tell you how to get from point A to point B. It can tell you how long the trip will take. It can tell you that the trip will be easy, or it can tell you that the trip is essentially impossible. But it can’t tell you where you want to go; that has to come from somewhere else. As Hume demonstrated long ago, you cannot derive any meaningful notion of “what should be” purely from considerations of “what is.”

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