In Praise of Science

I want to preface this by saying that I love science and scientists. My second choice for undergrad after the media studies/economics program I ended up in was physics. You know how some parents are hockey parents, pushing their kid to be the next Crosby? Well I’m going to be a quantum physics dad. My kid will have a mobile with little Schrodinger’s cats on it and all crafts will involve superstring. I’ll wind up yelling “you’ll never be another Feynman with that attitude.” Okay, admittedly that just got weird, but you get the point. Brent = wannabe scientist (like many economists! Badoom-ching).

On to the real question: what sort of role should science play in public policy? Most citizens, politicians, and policymakers would probably say “an important one.” After all, that’s really the only answer you can give. “What role should science play in public policy?” “None, I prefer dice.” See? That doesn’t really work. Sure enough, 70% of Americans think that scientists contribute “a lot” to society’s wellbeing, behind military personnel and teachers, but ahead of religious leaders and journalists. Unfortunately, people’s actions tell a different story. Despite the fact that 84% of scientists surveyed by Pew consider the case for anthropogenic climate change to be strong, only about half of Americans surveyed feel the same way.

There’s a tendency among the left to view climate change deniers as Bible-thumpers who reject science in all its forms. While the rejection of climate change science typically comes from the right, the left is just as guilty of rejecting proper science in the name of politics or gut feelings. The anti-vaccine movement has no basis in anything even remotely science-related. Obama has rejected the advice of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, for clean energy R&D in favour of the extremely hopeful idea that we already have all of the necessary know-how for a full green energy revolution. There really isn’t much actual clinical evidence that GMOs do any harm at all, but many on the left still find the idea of GMOs distasteful and unpleasant (full disclosure: I have negative feelings about GMOs, but I’m trying to get over my non-scientific bias). People like the idea of scientists, but no one–of any political stripe–defers to them. So basically, the findings of people who spend their entire lives researching a topic are seen as no better than any given person’s opinion.

The big question then, is how should policymakers treat science? Well, I’m sure a lot of policymakers take the gut feeling approach, but we can, and should, do better. So many public policy courses emphasize that policymaking “is an art, not a science,” and I respect that statement. As a policymaker, you will never have perfect information about anything. Ever. But that doesn’t mean accepting factual relativism; just because you don’t have all the information doesn’t mean you should discount scientific consensus. One opinion isn’t just as good as another, because some of those opinions are grounded in significant evidence, while some are grounded in feelings and politics. Don’t ever forget that the truth is out there. We might not know that truth yet, but there are people devoting their lives to finding the answers to fundamental questions about life, the universe, and everything.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Andrew Gemmell says:

    The beauty of this is that it encapsulates so clearly the fundamental problem at hand. “Life, the universe, and everything”, as constantly unfolding and transforming, is cornucopic… Infinite in a way the is beyond rigorous empirical grasp. The suggestion that a quantum physic-al understanding of superstrings can have a bearing on public policy needs elaborating.

    Beyond that, however, the winds of scientific dogma shift as much as those in public policy, and often policy shapes science more strongly than the vice-versa… The implication of a primal alliance with science, as above, might actually be a rhetorical stance underlining a supposed, and logically incomplete, empirical objectivity brought into the moral realm… An assertion of authority, within the Habermasian agora of “the giving of reasons,” on behalf of “the scientists” and “science”.

    And so to suggest a basic primacy of what you here call science becomes an abstraction and a fallacy. Science is, in an important and fundamental way, created and formed by policy (in terms of legislation, funding, and promotion), and so to ask ourselves “What role should science play in public policy?” might be restated as “What do discussions in science policy tell us about ourselves?”

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