On Saturday, a group of concerned citizens will participate in the March for Science, a gathering on the National Mall in Washington, DC, protesting the Trump Administration’s attitudes towards science, accompanied by the assertion that science should be a motivating factor in determining public policy.
The appeal to science is one of the progressive movement’s go-to tactics in the attempt to appear reasonable and unbiased. After all, science doesn’t have a political agenda, right? As Joe Friday said, it’s “just the facts, ma’am.” And since science is synonymous with learning, inquiry, and critical thought, the only people who would reject science must be ignorant, unintelligent, and superstitious.
The trouble with this line of reasoning is that it anthropomorphizes science into something that has opinions, conclusions, and recommendations. This not only fundamentally misunderstands the concept of science, but can lead down some pretty dangerous roads if we’re not careful.
First of all, let’s get straight what science is and is not. The word “science” is only a noun for grammatical convenience. In reality, science is not a “thing,” but a set of methods that, when applied appropriately, can answer certain questions about the world in which we live. Science is a process. It is not something you can “believe in,” and it cannot “say” anything. When you hear people claiming to believe in science or that science says the Earth is warming, they are misusing the term and projecting their own beliefs onto a set of abstract principles.
And while science is excellent at answering questions when applied properly, it can also be applied improperly, or used sloppily to give answers that don’t reflect reality. This is why it’s so ridiculous to assign conclusions to science. The conclusions are really those of certain fallible humans who have used certain techniques in an effort to answer questions. You can argue that their techniques were good or bad, but you can’t just declare an entire discipline in agreement on any questions of great import.
It’s all well and good to say that science should guide public policy, but what does that really mean? In one sense, this is basically the same as saying language should guide public policy. It’s so obvious as to be meaningless. Every road and bridge, every piece of military equipment, all telecommunications were designed and constructed using scientific principles. Without science, it would be impossible to have any public policy at all.
What these protestors really mean, of course, is that they want their particular conclusions on controversial topics to be the standard by which government operates, particularly when it relates to climate science. But even if we could all agree that climate change is caused by man and is something that will cause problems, science cannot tell us what to do about it. Decisions about tradeoffs between human welfare now and in the future, prioritizing some people over others, and central planning versus individual freedom are well outside the scope of the scientific method.
I cannot help but be reminded of our most scientifically minded president, Woodrow Wilson. The only president to hold a Ph.D., Wilson was eager to use science to guide the country forward, and this eagerness caused him to embrace some things that, in hindsight, were really, really bad ideas. The American eugenics movement, supported by Wilson, held that the nation could be improved by forcibly sterilizing the unfit, the criminals and the mentally disabled and allowing only the strongest to breed. Darwin’s theory of natural selection gave scientific credence to the idea that this was possible, and so-called enlightened men went along with it. Tens of thousands of Americans were forcibly sterilized before the horrors of World War II soured us on the idea.
The point of this story is not to say that global warming alarmism is akin to eugenics, but to point out that science cannot answer the moral questions, such as “Is it okay to rob people of their liberty for the good of the species?” That is the domain of philosophy. Personally, I would rather more energy be spent on ensuring that our president has a good philosophy of government than on flogging for science that can be misused and manipulated — and that ultimately can’t answer life’s most important questions.