Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Scientists Make Terrible Politicians

Because you can't derive an 'ought' from a scientific paper

John Michael Greer, the pagan writer of The Archdruid Report, has an excellent commentary up about why scientific thinkers are terrible at political reasoning. Excerpts:

To make a political decision, you sort through the evidence to find the facts that are most relevant to the issue—and “relevant,” please note, is a value judgement, not a simple matter of fact. Using the relevant evidence as a framework, you weigh competing values against one another—this also involves a value judgment—and then you weigh competing interests against one another, and look for a compromise on which most of the contending parties can more or less agree. If no such compromise can be found, in a democratic society, you put it to a vote and do what the majority says. That’s how politics is done; we might even call it the political method.

That’s not how science is done, though. The scientific method is a way of finding out which statements about nature are false and discarding them, under the not unreasonable assumption that you’ll be left with a set of statements about nature that are as close as possible to the truth. That process rules out compromise. If you’re Lavoisier and you’re trying to figure out how combustion works, you don’t say, hey, here’s the oxygenation theory and there’s the phlogiston theory, let’s agree that half of combustion happens one way and the other half the other; you work out an experiment that will disprove one of them, and accept its verdict. What’s inadmissible in science, though, is the heart of competent politics.


In science, furthermore, interests are entirely irrelevant in theory. (In practice—well, we’ll get to that in a bit.) Decisions about values are transferred from the individual scientist to the scientific community via such practices as peer review, which make and enforce value judgments about what counts as good, relevant, and important research in each field. The point of these habits is to give scientists as much room as possible to focus purely on the evidence, so that facts can be known as facts, without interference from values or interests. It’s precisely the habits of mind that exclude values and interests from questions of fact in scientific research that make modern science one of the great intellectual achievements of human history, on a par with the invention of logic by the ancient Greeks.

One of the great intellectual crises of the ancient world, in turn, was the discovery that logic was not the solution to every human problem. A similar crisis hangs over the modern world, as claims that science can solve all human problems prove increasingly hard to defend, and the shrill insistence by figures such as Tyson that it just ain’t so should be read as evidence for the imminence of real trouble. Tyson himself has demonstrated clearly enough that a first-rate grasp of astronomy does not prevent the kind of elementary mistake that gets you an F in Political Science 101. He’s hardly alone in displaying the limits of a scientific education; Richard Dawkins is a thoroughly brilliant biologist, but whenever he opens his mouth about religion, he makes the kind of crass generalizations and jawdropping non sequiturs that college sophomores used to find embarrassingly crude.

None of this is helped by the habit, increasingly common in the scientific community, of demanding that questions having to do with values and interests should be decided, not on the evidence, but purely on the social prestige of science.

Read the whole thing. I hope you do, because Greer discusses the insistence by scientists that Greenpeace are a bunch of idiots for opposing the testing and sale of GMO rice. In fact, Greer points out, the claim that science proves GMO rice is fine conceals serious questions having to do with whether or not it is wise to allow a multinational corporation have control, via patent law, of the major food source for many of the world’s poor. This is not a question that science alone can answer, but by insisting that theirs is the only valid perspective, scientists wrongly dismiss an important dimension of the problem.

But this is the difference between science and Scientism. Scientism is the ideologically charged fallacious belief that science is the only legitimate way of knowledge. Greer leads his essay off by a typically arrogant, typically ill-informed political remark by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Along those lines, here’s science writer Thomas Burnett:

Scientism today is alive and well, as evidenced by the statements of our celebrity scientists:

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” –Carl Sagan, Cosmos

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” –Stephen Weinberg, The First Three Minutes

“We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little.” –E.O. Wilson, Consilience

While these men are certainly entitled to their personal opinions and the freedom to express them, the fact that they make such bold claims in their popular science literature blurs the line between solid, evidence-based science, and rampant philosophical speculation. Whether one agrees with the sentiments of these scientists or not, the result of these public pronouncements has served to alienate a large segment of American society. And that is a serious problem, since scientific research relies heavily upon public support for its funding, and environmental policy is shaped by lawmakers who listen to their constituents. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it would be wise to try a different approach.

Physicist Ian Hutchinson offers an insightful metaphor for the current controversies over science:

“The health of science is in fact jeopardized by scientism, not promoted by it. At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response from other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism. It taints science itself by association.”

I like this comment from one of Greer’s readers:

I work in computers, and there’s a huge tendency among the people I work with to, in the words of someone I can’t remember, see the law and politics as a Universal Turing Machine. That is, they believe that people and the law work just like computer programs and that if they can come up with a clever reading of the law they’ve found a bug they can exploit, even though an actual lawyer would roll their eyes and explain patiently that no, common law doesn’t work that way, intent etc. This mindset then leads into a lot of the more whacky stuff coming out from various libertarian types, who don’t seem to realize that they are making exactly the same mistaken assumptions that the communists did in the 1930s, that we can just engineer away human nature. This will have exactly the same results in the very unlikely event any of their suggestions ever actually happen in practice.

By the way, if you ever want to make a Bay-Area resident change the subject, point out that the current Bay-Area economy looks exactly like Detroit’s did circa 1955 or so.

The problem is that real life, like religion (in the view of H.L. Mencken), is a poem, not a syllogism. This is a truth that smart people often fail to grasp.