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Scientism, Subverted Science and the Morality of Political Decision Making

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According to Wikipedia “Scientism” is belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.

In other words, science has all of the answers, or at least all of the answers worth having.

Let’s put this to a test: Consider the minimum wage. There is almost universal agreement among “scientists” (i.e., economists) that minimum wage laws price lower end workers out of the job market and lead to higher unemployment in that group. But minimum wage laws are not all bad news. There are certain “goods” at stake as well, which must be evaluated in any decision about whether to support such laws. The primary beneficiaries of minimum wage laws are suburban teenagers working at fast food restaurants (they keep their job and get a raise) and leftist politicians pandering to their base (they get more votes).

Now here is the test: Science is good at telling us what the probable impact of minimum wage laws will be. Can science tell us whether to support such laws given those probable impacts? Of course not. This is a classic economic tradeoff, and which side to come down on in that tradeoff is not a question science can even begin to answer. The tradeoff is essentially a moral question. The issue is do I want to sacrifice the job prospects of the poorest workers for the benefit of suburban teenagers and leftist politicians or is that a bad idea? Science is mute before such questions.

Of course, this analysis assumes the science informing (but not answering) the moral question is legitimate. All bets are off when the science is subverted in the interest of politics. Some years ago I was representing a charter school applicant whose application had been denied by a school district in an appeal before our state board of education. The school district hired a local “social scientist” to produce a study showing that the charter school would be an economic drag on the district. This particular social scientist was infamous for his ability to demonstrate the near one-to-one correlation between the education establishment’s policy preferences and scientifically demonstrable fact. I argued as follows: “Whenever the education establishment desires to tart up its prejudices up in the mantle of scientific respectability, they hire [social scientist X], and amazingly X always delivers a 50-page report showing how whatever policy position the establishment desires is absolutely compelled by cold dispassionate scientific truth.” Fortunately, ham-fisted science mongering is easy enough to spot, and I won that appeal.

I thought of that case when I was reading Helen Andrews’ Bloodless Moralism today, and I commend her fine essay to you. Here is a taste:

The mistake most frequently made by modern anti-social-science polemicists is to focus too much on their target’s philosophical shortcomings. This would be excellent high ground to stake out if Americans were attached to terms like “empirical” and “falsifiable” because they had all given deep consideration to the works of Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper, but the reality is more superficial. They put their faith in academics and research analysts because they have an idealized picture of the sciences as a self-policing community of disinterested truth-seekers with laboratories and databases and state-of-the-art modeling programs.

This superficiality is not negligence, really. Most of our decisions about whom to trust take place at this aesthetic level. You and I do not know enough neuroscience to refute a convinced phrenologist, but if we have a feel for the pseudoscientist type (say we have read Martin Gardner), we will have no trouble identifying our bumpologist as a textbook example. So it is, in reverse, with social scientists. We come to them with a jumble of opinions and half-formed personal judgments, and they repeat them back to us as facts. Their main contribution is not information, but authority.


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