Back in his inaugural address, President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” It was part of a long run of comments from the Democratic Party trying to characterize itself as the “Party of Science.”
They may be the party of pop-science, but the Democrats’ support for scientific studies typically begins and ends with climate change, sex education and evolution.
A party of science would look at the relevant research and admit there is a serious problem with a society composed of increasingly single-parent families, rather than steadfastly refuse to support anything related to marriage, unless it has to do with gay rights.
A party of science would recognize that the benefits of pre-school, particularly the Head Start program, dissipate well before elementary school ends and do little to improve long term education outcomes, rather than trying to turn Head Start into a universal entitlement program.
A party of science would fight against the egregiously dishonest anti-fracking crusaders and help focus the discussion on facts, rather than debate how much to pander to them.
I could go on.
Instead, democrats dismiss studies that would offend their key constituencies, including single mothers, education workers and radical environmentalists in the three examples I listed.
My real point is that neither the Republican Party, nor the Democratic Party, is really a party of science. Both conveniently avoid studies that conflict with their values while trumpeting the ones they agree with.
But how should science be reflected in the United States’ policy? It depends.
There are some situations in which scientific studies should resolve an issue. A great example is when the military is deciding which jet to build. Studies testing the available options can resolve many of these issues. But that is a very rare situation.
The key to remember is that science, or more accurately the scientific method, is not ideological. Instead, it typically provides facts and information that will assist in the decision making process.
Take climate change. Even if you buy everything Al Gore says on the subject (I don’t), the science doesn’t really dictate a policy solution.
No climate scientist is arguing that driving an SUV today will destroy the planet tomorrow, or at all. The worst consequences suggested note that some species, including humans, stand to be harmed if the planet heats up at an unreasonable pace, while others will benefit. That’s if you assume the worst possible harms from the situation, something that goes well beyond any scientific consensus that the globe is getting warmer. You need values that prioritize specific species, including humans, to get to the conclusion that there is a problem at all.
So it is a discussion of values. If you accept the climate rhetoric framed as science (once again, I don’t) you still have to ask how much economic harm is worth keeping the globe at a certain temperature. Assuming the proposed harms, what is a reasonable solution?
Science doesn’t tell us those things. Rather, it gives us information about what will happen and allows us to make a decision.
Science should typically inform our decisions, but it shouldn’t be the only factor. A great example is balancing first amendment interests with the consensus among social scientists on the harms of violent media.
In a few situations, science shouldn’t be a factor at all. For instance, even if the science of eugenics had been completely correct, our values would correctly have dictated that Hitler’s solution was morally wrong.
As a society, we need to be more honest about the value of science. Doing so will allow us to use it and create the best possible outcomes for the world around us.
I suspect doing so will also lead to more science being used in policy debates with honest disagreements being framed as value discussions rather than simply insulting or dismissing science altogether.
Finally, it will help scientists remember their proper role as those searching for truth, rather than advocating for specific policies. That’s a line often crossed by climate scientists like James Hansen, but it isn’t limited to just them.
The value of science lies in the scientific method, which is the same in the hard sciences and in the social sciences. When scientists become willing to overstate the situation, the value of the specific science, as well as the value the public gives to all scientific studies, is greatly diminished.
Correcting such situations will greatly benefit the scientific community and the public.
In turn, that will lead to a more informed populace that treats science as what it should be an honest search for truth.