Tonight’s debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is sure to bring many heated exchanges and supply plenty of soundbites for tomorrow’s morning news shows. In this unpredictable campaign, it’s hard to anticipate what the contours of those outtakes might be. But it’s a fair bet Clinton will spend some time making the charge that Trump is a troglodyte and a science “denier.”
“I believe in science,” Clinton proclaimed during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in July. That’s a shame. I don’t believe in “science,” and you shouldn’t either.
My scientific education is moderate, unless you count political science as a “science”: I took a year of college physics, a semester of college biology, and I graduated magna cum laude in mathematics—in other words, I was a sub-mediocre student in what was undoubtedly the best mathematics undergraduate program in North America.
But I know enough about science to know four things that Clinton and her fellow “science believers” deny.
- There is no such thing as “science.“ There are only different sciences, pursued by different scientists.
- Every scientist is a specialist, and has no special expertise outside his or her own field.
- No scientist is an expert as to whether their field is worth pursuing; that is to say, whether the discoveries and inventions his or her research promises are worth the cost and whether anybody should care about them.
- Even when the scientist claims that his research has policy implications, to turn those implications into policy is to price in the costs and benefits of that policy. For any policy of any importance, nobody knows all the relevant costs or all the relevant benefits.
When Hillary Clinton or anybody else says she “believes in science,” she means to give the aura of the approval of brilliant experts in lab coats to some policy-relevant claim. She certainly does not mean to say that every claim undisputed by scientists in the field should determine all policy: after all, you don’t need even high school biology to know that life begins at conception. Yet Clinton and her allies do not believe that particular scientific claim should determine abortion policy. Everything they think they know about abortion they learned in law school or from the New York Times; real scientists most likely had little to do with it.
When people say they “believe in science,” they mean they believe what science journalists tell them scientists say. This belief is easier if you don’t know that science journalists, in turn, report what powerful interests such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration permit them to report.
According to a story in the October issue of Scientific American, the FDA—by no means alone among federal agencies—manipulates science news though a process known as the “close-hold embargo.” FDA public-relations officials give news outlets special access to stories before their official release date. But in exchange for the privilege, the FDA prevents reporters from soliciting comments from scientists no on a government-approved list. The story goes on to say:
Documents obtained by Scientific American through Freedom of Information Act requests now paint a disturbing picture of the tactics that are used to control the science press. For example, the FDA assures the public that it is committed to transparency, but the documents show that, privately, the agency denies many reporters access—including ones from major outlets such as Fox News—and even deceives them with half-truths to handicap them in their pursuit of a story. At the same time, the FDA cultivates a coterie of journalists whom it keeps in line with threats. And the agency has made it a practice to demand total control over whom reporters can and can’t talk to until after the news has broken, deaf to protests by journalistic associations and media ethicists and in violation of its own written policies.
In Clinton’s convention acceptance speech, the policy claim draped in the mantle of science was “climate change.” I don’t want to get into the sleight of hand in the shift from “global warming” to “climate change.” What citizens and policymakers need to know from the experts is not whether human beings are changing the Earth’s climate in ways that are inimical to our health and prosperity. What Americans need to know, from a variety of experts, interests, and perspectives, are the costs and benefits of proposed ways of responding to these claimed changes. Any honest effort to sum up costs and benefits of responses needs to take into account, of course, the uncertainties about the magnitude and effects of human-caused change.
And who is going to do that summing up? Since nobody has the relevant expertise, the only alternative is to have a bunch of experts and non-experts argue it out, come to a decision, implement that decision, and then revisit that decision in the light of the observed consequences and the progress of understanding. The more expert and non-expert voices participating in those decisions, without being blinded or frightened off by claims about “what science shows,” the better the decision is likely to be. That is the Condorcet Jury Theorem of political science—on this you can trust me, I am a Ph.D.’d political scientist.
Faith, we are told, can move mountains. “Faith in science” won’t help you know about when and where moving mountains is worth the sweat.