She Blinded Me With ‘Science’!


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.

  1. There is no such thing as “science.“ There are only different sciences, pursued by different scientists.
  2. Every scientist is a specialist, and has no special expertise outside his or her own field.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States (University of Michigan Press, 2020).

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6 responses to “She Blinded Me With ‘Science’!”

  1. What you mention is too easy and is besides the point. Plan-Do-Check-Act, or otherwise know as the OODA loop would be the logical way to approach a problem and determine is a corrective action was working.

    No it’s all about the money and the scam. Not about doing anything relevant pertaining to a real problem.
    Fear mongering. Surely not so many tilting at windmills. No, too much brain power around to make that feasible. It is all about the money. When the administration figures to ‘redistribute’ wealth, even the scientists want their fair share while the get’in is good.

  2. You say:
    “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.”

    How exactly can we determine “the uncertainties of the magnitudes and effects of human-caused change”, unless we know “whether human beings are changing the Earth’s climate in ways that are inimical to our health and prosperity”?

    You say “we don’t need to know if X is dangerous, just tell us the potential harm and likelihood of X harming us”. It makes no sense.

    Despite your four “things” about science, there is a clear definition.

    Science is observing the universe, and making hypotheses about how it operates. Experiments can be done to validate or refute the hypotheses. Experiments should be publicized and repeated by others to verify their accuracy and methodology. This is called “scientific review”. Sometimes results can be extrapolated to things that can not be made into experiments. And sometimes mistakes are made, but over time the truth is more clearly seen.

    The antithesis of science is ideology, where conclusions are predetermined, and no matter how much evidence is shown to the contrary, the conclusions are not abandoned. Climate change denial and creationism are examples of this.

    At least 97% of the people who study climate science, as scientists, agree that the climate is changing (getting warmer overall, but cooler in some places as systems change) and that humans have a significant part to play. Despite millions of dollars in corporate funding of research to try to deny that change, over 97% of the people who have devoted their lives to studying this agree.

    I have a question for you – what is the likelihood that humans are contributing to global climate change? Is it 95%, as experts say? Or do you think we really don’t know, and it is 50%? Or maybe, despite any evidence to support your view, you think it is only 10% likely.

    Now consider the cost of climate change. Just about every farm will need to change their crops. Sea levels will rise, and cities will need to spend trillions or move inland. Desserts will flood, croplands will dry up. The US GDP is about $18T. Say the cost of climate change is 10% of that, or $1.8T per year.

    So do a simple cost benefit analysis. 10% likelihood of a $1.8T per year loss is $180B a year. Spending that is break-even insurance.

    I think the cost is higher, and the likelihood is far higher than what I stated, but I’d be interested in hearing why we shouldn’t spend at least $180B a year to prevent climate change. That spending should not include alternatives to fossil fuels which are necessary even without climate change factored in.

    • You combine considerations from a bunch of different fields, even though nobody is in an expert in all the relevant fields. So we are trusting nonexpert judgemnt (in this course, yours) that you have combined them currectly.
      But in this case, at least you haven’t. Your numbers are pulled out of thin air, with no citations. Strikingly, your alleged cost benefit analysis includes no benefits whatsoever. Just to choose your agriculture example, A lot of farms, when they change their crops, will produce much more valuable crops. The growing season in cold regions will lengthen, plants will require less water at any given temperature, etc.. I don’t know anybody with any sense who actually believes that there will be no gross benefits from global warming.
      And that 97% figure: anybody who knows who to read a survey knows that it is laughable.

      • Briefly, I used basic facts and reasoning, not any expert judgment. My numbers are gross order of magnitude estimates, which do not require citation. If you have reason to doubt that climate change will cost 10% of GDP, put in your own numbers.

        I never claimed that there was no gross benefits from global warming, please read more carefully. I simply put a number for the net cost.

        As far as planting more valuable crops, I really don’t understand that. Assume that current planting is fairly efficient. (If it weren’t then rational farmers would change it). Now assume that all crops have to move 100 miles north. There is no net gain in efficiency. If farmers in Indiana can now grow more valuable crops, then farmers in Georgia can’t anymore. Someone has to lose.

        But that argument is moot. You provide no citations, and you are clearly not an expert in agriculture, so I have no reason to trust your non-expert judgment. :)
        However, some research indicates that increased CO2 is not necessarily as good as we have thought for increasing plant growth.

        I will look into the 97%. Dr. Richard Tol is one of the more reliable critics of this study. He said “There is disagreement, of course, particularly on the extent to which humans contributed to the observed warming. This is part and parcel of a healthy scientific debate. There is widespread agreement, though, that climate change is real and human-made.”

        So I retract the 97% – that study is flawed. But even critics say it is “widespread agreement”. Could be 75%, could be 99%. It doesn’t really matter. But I will keep looking.

      • So what do you think the likelihood is of climate change causing major disruption in agriculture and sea level rise? What do you think the cost will be? If either of those is greater than zero, we ought to do something to stop it.

        Clearly, what we do to stop it should not cost more than our best estimates of the cost of doing nothing. I don’t think anyone is advocating that.

        If we overestimate the likelihood and cost, and curb growth too much, worst case our short term standard of living may suffer slightly, but we will get a head start on the necessary work of moving away from fossil fuels. If we underestimate the likelihood and cost, and that causes us to do nothing, worst case many of us may starve and drown.

        I can go on great vacations if I don’t get homeowners insurance, and I have plenty of psychological reasons to believe the travel agents who tell me that my house is never going to burn down. But we both know that responsible adults buy insurance against significant risks, even if the likelihood is low.