Well, any hopes that 2021 would prove to be a less turbulent year than 2020 are so far not coming to pass. Here’s an idea: What if, for all the politicians who disappoint us, we substituted scientists? Our colleague Wesley Smith comments on the frequently heard cry, “Follow the scientists!”
“Imagine a world is ruled by scientists, not by politicians” the tweet from the science website Physics-astronomy.org proclaimed. The implication of message was clear: Society would be better off if scientists controlled public policy.
What a dangerous concept! Rule by scientists would not only require establishing an authoritarian technocracy — a regime of experts. It would also be “anti-science” because it conflates science’s crucial contributions to progress and learning with the wholly different tasks of crafting efficacious policy and establishing priorities.
Think about it. Science, properly understood, is a powerful method for understanding the physical universe. Science’s tools are observation, crafting hypotheses, careful measurement, testing, experimentation, falsification, and the like.
To be effective, science must be pursued objectively. Its point is not to find what the scientists want to be true, but rather, to determine facts about the workings of the natural world.
In this sense, science is amoral. Thus, while science is highly effective at deriving knowledge, it cannot inform us about what is right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral. Those are jobs for philosophy, religion, morality, and the like.
“Ruling” — or better stated in a democratic society like ours, governing — is a far more nuanced and complicated undertaking. Yes, crafting effective public policy requires accurate data. But unlike science, governing is essentially a subjective undertaking. It requires a value system by which to judge and apply the facts science discerns.
Wesley asks, “What is the point of such let-scientists-decide advocacy?”
Beyond politics, advocates for rule by scientists promote a belief system known as “scientism.” Despite the words’ similarities, “science” and “scientism” are paradoxical concepts. As stated above, science is a method for learning objective facts. But as a mere technique, it is also amoral — which is why the quest for scientific knowledge must be governed by ethical constraints (for example, the Nuremberg Code that crafted rules for scientific experimentation on human beings).
In contrast, scientism promotes a subjective worldview. As my Discovery Institute colleague John West has written in “The Magician’s Twin,” scientism is “the wrongheaded belief that modern science supplies the only reliable method of knowledge about the world, and the corollary that scientists have the right to dictate a society’s morals, religious beliefs, and even government policies merely because of their scientific expertise.”
Could scientists and advocates of scientism really make a worse hash of things than the politicians? No doubt they could and would.