Many of today’s most important political questions revolve around science: population growth, global warming, abortion, and stem-cell research, to name a few. With the ever-growing body of scientific research, many lament the scientific ignorance common among our political leaders. Princeton’s very own representative, Rush Holt (D-NJ), a trained physicist, recently echoed this concern when he said that we “need more scientists in Congress” and more scientific thinking among non-scientist politicians. While such a claim may seem uncontroversial, Holt’s concerns extend beyond the mere participation of scientists in government. He expressed great faith in the ability of scientific reasoning to replace existing ideologies when he said, “it’s not how strongly you believe something, it’s what the evidence says.” Moral principles are, in essence, supposed to take a back seat to scientific conclusions. While many could agree that an analytical framework is helpful in many policy debates, the call for greater science in politics often extends beyond those issues where it is directly relevant. Advocates of a scientific approach to politics, like Holt, propose that an analytical, scientific, data-driven approach to policy-making should be our primary lens for policy analysis of all issues. They argue that without science and scientific reasoning, statesmen cling to impractical ideological principles, and Washington becomes stalled in deadlock. Politics should therefore be the domain of intelligent and scientifically-versed men and women, who can determine what is best for society without bias. If science is the trump card of truth, they contend, then maybe it is the solution to political gridlock. Science should do more than inform policy; it should decide policy. The hopeful intuition that science is uniquely neutral, objective, and ideology- free, while attractive in our political era, utterly fails to hold in practice. Science is a good and immensely useful tool to answer all sorts of questions. It can certainly help us in policy-making, but it shouldn’t be policy-making. Science is insufficient as the sole tool to make policy determinations because it only offers positive statements, whereas politics additionally requires normative evaluations. Additionally, scientists and politicians warp this neutral discipline to conform to their own ends. An insistence that science can answer all the questions that arise in politics – from the obviously scientific to the moral – is controversial, and certainly not neutral. Those who tout science as a cure to ideologies are just creating a new belief system, and not one that can be proven superior. When science replaces other ideologies it becomes an ideology itself. A better understanding of the nature of goals of science will help us understand the roles that it should and should not play in politics. Science is about the discovery of truth. It’s about the uncovering of cold, hard facts through scrupulous reasoning and inquiry. Science is descriptive; it confirms or rejects hypotheses that can be evaluated by evidence. These are observations like “carbon dioxide levels are rising” or “a fetus has a beating heart by 12 weeks” or “women are more likely to vote for Democrats”. It is esteemed for its objective and neutral nature. Science’s objectivity and neutrality should prohibit it from leading to an absolute moral or political ideology. However, science can certainly be used to strengthen ideologies and pursue what is most reasonable. For example, conclusive scientific evidence for evolution might cause Christians to re-interpret the Genesis creation account, but it likely will not cause them to give up Christianity. In this case, the underlying ideological beliefs remain unaffected. Science can be a useful tool in resolving reasonable intra-ideological disagreements, but it will never lead to consensus on all matters religious, political, or otherwise. Politics, on the other hand, concerns itself with “what should be.” In politics we make normative evaluations of what to do. According to the preamble of our Constitution, our government was established “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” From this, we see that the goal of government is to ensure certain values, each of which are difficult to define. All politicians ostensibly treasure them, and yet they seldom reach agreement on how to legislate them. Given this, the supposed clarity of science provides an attractive alternative. However, this is problematic for a variety of reasons. First, scientific findings must always be accepted cautiously. The discipline is full of disagreement. Scientific journals are the arena of competition, and a single study cannot be our standard of truth. Periods of ‘scientific limbo’ are often long as competing theories vie for survival, and it is from this period of intellectual competition that scientific advances are born. Even after much deliberation, science has a history of being wrong. Science has misled humans to believe that the Earth is flat, that a mysterious ‘ether’ pervades the universe, that bleeding a patient has medical benefits, that slavery is scientifically just, and, most recently, that it is impossible for particles to travel faster than the speed of light. In his famous 2005 essay, John Ioannidis, a medical mathematician at Stanford University, argued that most published research findings were false due to sloppy research techniques.1 A faith that current scientific standards eliminate bias and guarantee the highest standards of scholarship is unjustified, and indeed dangerous. Since, using Holt’s words, “what the evidence says” is provisional and often later conclusively falsified, we should be wary of adopting the scientific method as a wholesale approach to politics. We cannot base good policy entirely off of potentially faulty facts.
Second, science is easily manipulated by rivalrous ideological factions when brought into policy disputes, losing the very objectivity that makes it a powerful and useful policy tool. Too often, the words and findings of a single scientist are taken as truth. News anchors regularly invite a scientist to comment on a political issue, and this single scientist is taken to be an oracle of truth representing his or her entire field. For example, MSNBC’s resident climate change specialist is Dr. Reese Halter, an outspoken believer in human-caused climate change and a proponent of active government policies in climate control. Fox News, on the other hand, invites scientists like Dr. Timothy Bowls and Dr. Roy Spencer, both of whom question whether human activity is responsible for temperature fluctuations. Viewers watching these networks would reach very difficult conclusions about climate change, and both would feel confident in the scientific basis for their beliefs. Yet, there is nothing scientific about hearing one set of facts and extrapolating truisms. The objective guise of science is merely used to cover a premeditated ideological bias.There are many examples from history of this phenomenon. Scientific racism used pseudo-scientific studies to ‘establish’ the racial inferiority of persecuted groups, including blacks in America and Jews in Europe. Some scientists claimed to have proved that blacks and whites constituted entirely different species, using metrics like skull size. As recently as 1985, homosexuality was considered a personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder. These statements were once justified with the supposed backing of science, reminding us that we must engender a healthy wariness in immediately accepting its findings. Convenient “empirical” evidence can often be found to support a publically popular conclusion. It is naïve to dismiss those examples as relics from a bygone era and to assume that scientists today are immune from the pressure of public opinion.
Third, even if we agree on the facts of a policy, the value question of whether the policy is good or bad remains. For example, many pro-choice and pro-life advocates acknowledge the same embryological biology, but reach their positions through differing prioritization of values. A recent article in Salon titled “So What If Abortion Ends A Life” acknowledged that the debate isn’t about whether or not life begins at conception, but the relative prioritization of embryological life (to survive) and a mother’s liberty (to not have a child). In this case, a policy disagreement remains even after a scientific consensus is reached. Similarly, the debate about embryonic stem cell research is often misconstrued as a battle between politicians who are pro-science and anti-science. Both sides agree on the scientific possibilities that could arise from embryonic stem cell research, but they disagree about whether this practice is ethical. This ethical question cannot be answered by science. And yet scientists specializing in stem cell biology are often called upon to offer definitive policy recommendations, and we fail to recognize that we are accepting not just their scientific expertise, but also their moral opinions.
The politicization of science is harmful to both science and politics. Science is about the discovery of truth. Politicians look to science to support their preconceived notions, and scientists in turn look to the government for research funding. This cycle, with its distorted incentives, disrupts the scientific process. If we subscribe to a scientific approach to all policy decisions, then we presuppose that moral questions can be best resolved through the scientific method of hypothesis testing. A belief that the scientific approach to politics is optimal is not obvious and, moreover, cannot be proved by the science it touts so highly. This faith in the abilities of science is nothing less than another ideology. Replacing alternative moral paradigms with science is not an objective stance. A claim that science is better than alternative moral paradigms is merely another absolute ethical claim.
When science becomes another moral paradigm, it is especially pernicious because we deny its existence and yet find ourselves ruled by it. The claims of scientific racism were particularly difficult to unseat because there were supposedly discovered by the neutral, inductive methods of science. Similarly today, dissenters on issues like climate change are silenced, much to the detriment of science which thrives on competition. The hasty labeling of opponents of stem-cell research as anti-science excuses us from grappling with the moral arguments against the killing of embryos. This is especially hypocritical because these arguments, which hinge on the fact that an embryo, from its conception, is capable of undergoing self-directed specialization, are motivated by scientific reasoning. We must remember that good policy is founded on good values. The great political debates of our time are not scientific—they are debates about the relative prioritization of values: liberty versus safety, freedom versus security, opportunity versus equality, and others. We cannot let science distract us from discussing values and debating ethics. A proper understanding of politics, science, and the different questions they are meant to answer will allow science to better bolster, but not define, our political decisions.
By Margaret Fortney ‘ 13