You see it everywhere. People post yard signs expressing their personal value judgments, proclaiming among other things that “science is real,” and insinuating that those who hold different political affiliations are unscientific. We constantly hear policy advocates say, not only on social media but in traditional media, that they are simply “following the science,” by way of dismissing opposing opinions.
Don’t do this. In particular, don’t do it if you want your audience to think that you understand what science is, or how it works.
Let me preface my view of this phenomenon by expressing my devotion to science. I have loved science and scientific reasoning for as long as I can remember. Throughout my education, I loaded up my curriculum with all the science courses I could, eventually acquiring a doctorate in theoretical chemistry and publishing in both physics and chemistry scientific journals. I’ve devoted countless hours of personal time to reading books that translate scientific subjects in which I did not specialize into terms accessible to the layman.
As a lifelong baseball fan, I have been thrilled by how our understanding of the game has been revolutionized by the relentless application of scientific reasoning. None of this background about me is intended to establish my authority on anything in particular, only to convey my lifelong passion for scientific thinking and discovery.
It’s precisely because of my love and respect for science that I lament its reckless invocation to support anyone’s subjective value judgments, policy preferences or political allegiances. Doing so perverts the meaning and role of science and undercuts the debate over alternative value judgments, which is essential to policy-making in a democratic republic.
Science is a method of discovering and understanding reality. It does not tell us right from wrong. It doesn’t dictate our values, our priorities or the level or type of risks we are willing to tolerate. Science doesn’t tell us whether what one person thinks is important is superior to what another person values. If someone says that their subjective policy views reflect their superior understanding of science, they really don’t understand what science is.
It’s obviously good for decision-making to be informed by an accurate and complete understanding of the relevant science. However, two reasonable, well-intended people can understand the same science and still reach different policy conclusions because of their different priorities and risk preferences. Two equally intelligent, moral people can also understand the same science and still want or even need to live their lives very differently. And two people can understand exactly the same science and still regard one valid scientific conclusion to be more important and relevant than another. This is true in debates over climate change, over policies to contain the spread of COVID, or most anything else.
It’s for all these reasons that Winston Churchill once wisely said that “scientists should be on tap, but not on top.” In other words: good science should serve the decision-making of officials who carefully weigh competing priorities and value judgments. However, science cannot dictate those judgments.
Science can serve good or evil without distinguishing between the two. Both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany boasted some of the world’s greatest scientists serving nefarious ends. Science neither prioritizes the rights of the individual over the objectives of the societal majority, or vice versa. Only subjective decision-makers can do so.
Social media provide countless examples of the inappropriate invocation of science for political purposes. Even those who have avoided scientific study for most of their lives, perhaps because they weren’t very interested in it or very good at it, are quick to invoke science in support of their political views. Others invoke science in support of their opinions when they really just mean “there are noted scientists I can quote who share my policy preferences and political allegiances,” which is a far cry from understanding the science itself. And we all know people who hasten to invoke science in support of their views in one policy area, but quickly dismiss scientific findings in another area, whenever it becomes inconvenient to their political positioning.
The bottom line: don’t invoke science in the abstract to bolster your policy or political arguments. It only makes you look foolish, especially if your audience includes actual scientists who know better.
Charles Blahous holds the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Chair at the Mercatus Center, and is a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution.