Saturday, June 22, 2013

Science Is Not The Enemy

This is a post about how political adversaries handle science, both on the conservative and liberal side of things, and how it's dangerous to stake your political battle on a particular scientific outcome. But mainly it's about my worry that advocates of liberty run the risk of ending up on the wrong side of truth, and are missing opportunities to explain their political and moral case in the process.

Science comes into play in many areas of political policy, such as:
  • Evolution
  • Abortion
  • Fracking technology
  • Climate science/global warming

The first two are largely the result of theological leanings, and are pretty cut and dried. Since for many these are matters of faith, there's not a lot that can be discussed unless faith is surrendered.

However the other two are non-theological and most peoples' ideas tend to fall along political lines. Recently I made a comment to someone (a free market advocate like me) that it's far-fetched to think that you can inject water and chemicals into the ground under pressure and not have some water get contaminated. It may not have happened yet (according to the EPA, no less), but water even gets contaminated with natural hydrocarbons, let alone ones pushed around by what we are doing. This was taken as a rejection of fact and -- so it seemed -- a threat to fracking. But it's nothing of the kind, and it has no necessary connection to how we handle fracking from a policy perspective, which was my point. For a free market advocate, whether fracking causes harm or not does not change policy; unless it is an imminent danger on par with a physical assault or murder attempt, any problems should always be handled by tort law, not new bans or regulations*. That is the point we need to be making.

Too often I see peoples' scientific ideas falling in lockstep with their politics, and this bothers me. If scientific conclusions happen to support your opponent, you end up fighting science, rather than bad politics and bad moral premises.

In the case of fundamentalist conservatives in particular, this tendency contributes to the view that they are anti-science, anti-knowledge and beyond the reach of reason, which hurts the cause of any positive virtues they support, such as lower taxes and economic freedom. It gives the appearance that they support these things because they are uneducated, backwards, or are hiding something (which progressives use as the perfect segue into the issue of secret massive campaign contributions).

In the case of liberals, this creates the impression that they are the gullible minions of funding-drunk government scientists, and phrases such as "the debate is over" also create they impression that they are impervious to discussion.

In the case of Objectivists and libertarians, waging a battle on the basis of science runs the risk of pitting them against the truth, and of being lumped together with the flat earth crew that rejects evolution and other widely accepted findings.

This effect is probably worst in the case of the global warming thesis. Instead of constantly asserting that there is no warming, advocates of freedom should be talking about the moral issues involved, such as what level of responsibility individuals have in the matter, what individual rights are -- and mean for this issue -- and what if anything should be done if there is damage being done. To not do so makes it seem as though defenders of freedom are advocating irresponsibility, which is ironic since we are the ultimate advocates of responsibility (for both good and bad behavior).

I realize that government-funded science will inherently gravitate towards policy, if not because of the intent of individual scientists, then because the topics of research are skewed and less policy-related subjects become underrepresented. And we are well to point this out when it happens.

However, can we get away from the science for a bit, and start talking ideas again?

*I also have issues with mineral rights as implemented in Colorado, which work like a form of imminent domain, and which I think is wrong, but that's for another day.

1 comment:

  1. For so many people it is acceptable to equate science and religion. Science can be dismissed out of hand if you choose to not "believe" it. Such a messed up trend. There is a place for science and a place for religion but the discussions are so idiotic I think we lose the opportunity for meaningful progress and policy like you say.