Have you, too, been irritated by those signs on the lawns of your most unjustifiably smug neighbors – the ones composed of a list of cliches that, depending on how they’re interpreted, are either innocuous bromides, dog whistles to the virtue sniffers, or horrifying declarations of economic, civic or moral obtuseness? If you haven’t seen any, drop me a line to let me know where you live, and if house prices there are attractive.
But if you have, then you may have noticed the particular bromide of today’s focus: “Science is Real.” It follows the three-interpretations pattern. At the surface level, it’s the most inane of observations, deserving no other response, if any, than “And …?” At the conspicuous-display-of-cheap-virtue level, it works as this unsupported and insupportable assertion: “Oh golly, our political positions [Ed: 57 genders, anyone?] are remarkably grounded in science and fact, while our mouth-breathing opponents whistle theirs up out of some dark concatenation of fantasy and hate.”
But it’s the third meaning of this banal little assertion that is the most dangerous, and the most revealing. This meaning is: “We will wrap whatever we believe in the mantle of science and use our empty declaration of scienticity to beat our opponents into submission.”
This third implication stands the whole meaning of science on its head, and gains its perniciousness from that reversal of meaning, in the same way that the current invocation of anti-fascism (i.e., “Antifa”) does so much harm because its tenets are fascist to their core, or anti-racism for the parallel reason.
For the record, it is not clear how many members of the smug squads fully recognize that they are perverting the very meaning of science in their eagerness to render their personal policy preferences both inviolable and mandatory. Many may simply lack sufficient schooling, thoughtfulness, or native ratiocinative capacity to realize that science doesn’t work anything like the way they think it does. Some leaders of the movements that misuse the whole idea of science so casually surely know full well what they’re doing, and some may even understand the great dangers they run by destroying the casual public understanding of what science is and how it works. But for them, comprehensive power is the sole motive, and any useful means fully sufficient to their end.
Proper science is very powerful, but distinctly limited – and is powerful and valid only if employed with scrupulous attention to its exacting limits. This isn’t the place to go into significant detail about the scientific method (though the technological products of rigorous science make discussions of such details instantaneously available), but that method – without which there can be no science – limits the results science can produce, and how it can produce them. Any claims that science goes further than that are at least false and, in many cases, actively mendacious.
One implication of how science works is that it can never directly dictate public policy. All it can do is provide facts upon which policy judgments should be based. And even these facts seldom look like the “science” signalers appear to think they do.
The facts that science can provide are, in most cases in which significant public controversy is aroused, not dead-certain facts (e.g., if we do X, then #Y people will die/get 8% richer/grow a beard/eat their broccoli), but only ranges of probabilities (e.g., if we do X, then there is a Z% chance that R result will happen, if I have included all the right variables and weighed them correctly, but still a C% chance that things will happen differently; and if my variables or weightings are wrong, my model fails.”) And where there are questions that require the scientists to make judgments about variables and weights in building their models, there are, necessarily, also different possible models that use the possible inputs differently to get different probabilities.
If a selection is made between these different models on the basis of any nonscientific reason, most particularly any reason related to one’s preferences and desires, however manifested, then anything that comes after that selection is no longer just science, but science + preference. That recognition is vital in the realm of public policy, because everything in public policy implicates independent value judgments that are themselves simply not amenable to scientific analysis.
Consider just one example: How highly should you value liberty as opposed to safety? This question – and wildly tangled subsidiary questions even about what liberty and safety mean in specific policy contexts – is simply not a scientific question. But it and a host of other value judgments must be answered before any set of facts or probabilities can be turned into public policy (i.e., the rules that govern public action).
All of this provides a complete repost to the next assertion by the virtue sniffers that “science demands” their personal policy preferences, or “only my policy follows the science.” In reality, “science” doesn’t demand anything. Ironically enough, science really is real – but it simply is. It doesn’t have a political agenda.
It is therefore fairly easy to dismantle most “The science says!” arguments pretty comprehensively, given the chance. But lacking that chance, at very least one may disregard any other assertions such declarants might make. Whether they’re uniformed or unprincipled, they’re not the people whose opinions or demands should be taken very seriously.