Plato and the Pollsters 

For weeks leading up to Tuesday’s elections, Americans who follow politics have been reading about polls: about how the Democratic Party or Republican Party is trending, or how this candidate or that candidate in this or that race for governor, the Senate, or the House of Representatives is favored or disfavored by continually shifting percentages of voters, or registered voters, or likely voters, or men or women of different ages, colors, incomes, and ZIP codes. The pollsters are in the business of scientific prediction: 47.5 percent of likely voters who claim to be pro-choice and anti-gun will vote for Candidate X, with a 2.1 percent margin of error. 

Even Americans who do not follow polls, or politics, know that in their aspiration to be scientific most of these polls fall woefully, often laughably short. Nonetheless, scientific prediction is their standard, which is why when their egregious and persistent errors show them to be exercises in partisan politics rather than science, they lose whatever small “scientific” credibility they ever had, which diminishes very little their political utility. 

But as an old joke—familiar in quaint circles—goes, when pollsters send their interns out to interview people, they don’t first instruct these interns in the scientific method by which they will be able to be sure only to interview human beings and not any other kinds of beings. It is assumed the interns know how to recognize human beings already without having to be scientifically instructed in the subject. How do they know it? 

That is a very interesting and complicated question and science has never, and will never be able to answer it adequately. It was a question that preoccupied Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in all their philosophical inquiries. And it was a question to which the American founders thought they had an answer that was good enough for government work. 

Plato’s simple, if unsatisfying, answer to the question is that they would know it because they are human beings. Human beings somehow see, however imperfectly, the “idea” of human being. They possess the capacity to see such things. Science doesn’t teach them. They know with a pre-scientific understanding that is natural to human beings. And this pre-scientific understanding underlies all scientific inquiries and polls. 

Just as every “scientific” poll unscientifically—and reasonably—assumes the pollsters know a human being when they see one, every scientific inquiry necessarily assumes what might be called the miracle of the human mind. All honest and self-aware scientists acknowledge that scientists can’t explain science scientifically. Their scientific reasoning depends on reason more fundamental and more authoritative than science. 

Another way of answering the question is to say that it is “self-evident” to the pollsters and their interns that there are different kinds of beings, among which are the “human beings.” This is how Americans talked, back at the time of the American Revolution. It is what the Declaration of Independence meant when it proclaimed as a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” This was just a philosophical and political way of saying that it is obvious to all undamaged human minds that men are neither dogs nor gods and shouldn’t be treated as if they were. 

Because it was self-evident to the American revolutionaries that all human beings are by nature equal in this way, it followed that the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed. No man is by nature the ruler of other men the way God is the ruler of all men; and no man is by nature the subject of other men the way a dog is naturally subject to a human being. This is why we have elections. 

The consent we exercise in these elections is not scientific; it is rooted ultimately in our more authoritative rational, pre-scientific recognition of what kind of thing a human being is—the “idea” of human being. This recognition is inseparable from the basic and simultaneous moral recognition of how human beings should be treated. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that murder and slavery are wrong. As Jefferson wrote, “The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader.” 

From such authoritative, pre-scientific understanding—with experience, observation, and study—we become the thoughtful citizens who are meant to be sovereign in this country. We elect representatives who are meant to direct the country—and science—to its proper ends. Not with scientific formulas or pronunciamentos but with the practical wisdom that is built on natural, human, pre-scientific reason. 

Modern science is the ambitious project to replace all pre-scientific understanding with scientific understanding. “Follow the science!” as we are told over and over. This fanatical enterprise can never succeed and can produce only catastrophe. At its heart, it is a determined effort to replace human understanding and our very humanity with a quantifiable entity to fit a formula. In our times, “science” insists that a human being who identifies as a cat should be provided a litter box in public restrooms. 

So when you vote, remember that you represent the authoritative, rational, pre-scientific understanding that does great honor to our humanity and is meant to be sovereign in this country. Remember that you are going there to elect somebody to tell the scientists what to do. And not the other way around.

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About Christopher Flannery

Christopher Flannery is one of the founders of the Claremont Institute.

Photo: Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images