Politics and Science

Recently a mild brouhaha has erupted over what scientific sources that Congress should be referencing. If you google “congress science tweet” the first return is to ThinkProgress, which tells you a lot more about ThinkProgress than Congress.

As a trained (but currently non practicing) scientist, and citizen, I am of the opinion that Congress should NOT look to any “scientific” justification for either the creation of legislation or policy. If that sentence shocked you, odds are you put more faith in science than most scientists do.

A pretty reliable estimate of peer reviewed papers shows that many can’t be replicated. The number you’ll hear passed around most is, “about half” which in my opinion is probably “about right.” http://www.nature.com/news/over-half-of-psychology-studies-fail-reproducibility-test-1.18248

“But Roland” you say, “Surely there is nothing better than Science to guide our elected servants to produce sound law that will stand the passage of time!” (well, not actually you saying it, but I need someone to make that argument so I can slay the straw man.)

Yes there is, and that is the twin guides of “morals” and “ethics.”  I would much rather have moral and ethical lawmakers and public leaders than scientifically literate public leaders. Science, is the search for a more consistent truth about the universe, it is NOT a search for a more ethical and moral existence: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/9113394/Killing-babies-no-different-from-abortion-experts-say.HTML If you didn’t figure it out from the URL, that links to a nice story about a peer reviewed and published paper that attempted to paint infanticide as acceptable as abortion. Are these truly the people you want in charge of the next big Government Eugenics program?

“Wait, wait, wait” you say (well, not YOU you, but someone), “Eugenics has been proven to be utterly bunk! No one believes that rubbish, it is ancient history.”

My response, is that at the time it was “settled science” and the fact that science moved away from eugenics doesn’t undo the damage of mandatory sterilization programs that existed in the United States. http://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/ Could you imagine if, in the 1970s when a scientist proposed intentionally releasing extra carbon dioxide to increase the heat retention potential of the atmosphere to avoid “the coming ice age” and all that became law? “Burn as much coal as you can humanity! It’s the only way to not freeze in the coming perpetual winter!” If “you” are an environmentalist you should be screaming right about now, but that is the danger of basing public policy on “science.”

But, people using science as an excuse to “engineer a better human” doesn’t seem to be going away: http://bigthink.com/think-tank/why-genetic-screening-should-be-mandatory Once you have “socialized medicine” doesn’t it just “make sense” to require genetic testing to ensure only healthy offspring are produced in order to not drain the resources of the publicized medicine system? Of course it makes sense from a budget and “scientific” standpoint, but it utterly fails the moral and ethical frameworks of “don’t be a douchebag and kill other people for your own convenience.”

A world without Einstein… it’s the inevitable outcome of science managing public policy: https://geneticsandliterature.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/a-world-without-einstein/

So science gets it wrong, a lot. And there are still two major schools of thought in science, the first is the “determinism” school that believes, “if we just learn enough, all will become transparent” which is directly at odds with the “chaos club” which believes “even simple mechanisms can produce chaotic and unpredictable output, we’ll never be able to achieve transparency.”

As a card carrying member of the “chaos club” I have a LOT of evidence to show throughout the course of history where “science” got it wrong. The “humors of the body” the “phlogiston” theory, the protein centric view of inheritance, even the debate about whether DNA was conservative or non-conservative or semi-conservative during replication. Another disaster of public health caused by “scientific leadership” was the “food pyramid” which caused the greatest expansion of obesity and diabetes increases at any time in recorded history.

On the flip side, a moral and ethical framework, doesn’t go out of style. Whether you are of the humanist, or utilitarian bent, or even plane old Judeo-Christian in your worldview, I suspect that having Congressmen (er, “congresspeople” or is it “congresspersons”?) and Senators debate about the morality and ethics of a law rather than attempt to justify it with the “appeal to authority” logical fallacy which is “scientific justification.”

Now this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be interested in scientific advancement. But we probably never should have tried to influence public eating by using the “food pyramid” in the first place. We probably never should have tried to “make a better American” through the public application of eugenicist drivel. Perhaps we should learn from the past about embracing individuality being key to maximizing our collective effectiveness: https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2016/01/16/when-us-air-force-discovered-the-flaw-of-averages.html For those who want a TL:DR version, ergonomics to adjust equipment to the users is a MUCH more effective way to build your tactical fighter aircraft than trying to find “average size” pilots.

It is my experience, that whenever a politician is looking to impose some intrusive legislation it is always justified, “it’s for their OWN GOOD!” with some handy dandy scientific belief to back it up. In some cases, we really do need some form of Government Regulation, such as that which ended the “patent medicine” era and established the FDA and began the environmental turn around through the Clean Air and Water act. These sorts of regulations are on the whole, a good thing. And they are clearly justified by moral and ethical standards REGARDLESS of any science. After all it is difficult to make a strong moral and ethical argument for MORE pollution and MORE poisonous/addictive products, and very easy to make a strong moral argument for less pollution, and less cocaine being sold in cough syrup.

But, the danger here is that you end up with stupid things like “prohibition” and “the war on drugs” which end up creating black markets and only cause more harm to the public than the good they tried to achieve. This is why simply having a moral and ethical framework requires wisdom and experience to avoid causing more harm than good. It’s a tough call, but I still prefer morals and ethics to science as guiding principles for public policy.

But the moral and ethical questions; “Is this legislation necessary at our level?”, “Is this legislation going to cause a worse side effect?”, “Does this legislation need to be permanent?”, and “Does this legislation protect individual rights?” are better than, “Can I find a study in a peer reviewed journal that says this is the thing to do?” over the long run.


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1 Response to Politics and Science

  1. Dick B says:

    Thanks for that, good to see somebody take up the subject of scientific fallibility. Too much BS passes for ‘scientific fact!’


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