Monday, December 31, 2007
Via Glenn Reynolds and John Tierney comes an idea whose time should never come: a debate by a bunch of politicians about science. Yes. I am a scientist and I have an intense interest in political philosophy.
And yes, needless to say, I have very strong opinions about several issues in the public policy debate that many would claim require at least a better-than-layman's command of scientific or technological matters. Off the top of my head, global warming, creationism, and the medical insurance crisis come to mind.
Regular readers of my blog will not find my opinion on this matter a surprise, but with a web site and several scientists (and science writers) I respect signing on, now strikes me as an excellent moment to reiterate them.
The government should have nothing whatsoever to do with science outside of protecting the intellectual freedom and intellectual property of scientists, engineers, other innovators, and their financial backers. Since protecting these freedoms -- derived from the fundamental individual rights of the scientists themselves -- requires our nation to be able to protect its scientists from harm, the government not only can but ought to prevent certain militarily valuable discoveries from falling into enemy hands.
Beyond that, some small amount of funding for military research by our government is appropriate, but no more. And yes, this means that I think that the government ought not be involved in the vast majority of the research funding it currently engages in. If scientists have individual rights that ought to be protected (and we do), so does everyone else. As a scientist -- indeed, as a human being -- I have no right to one red cent of loot expropriated from someone else. All scientific funding should be given voluntarily to scientists or not at all.
The government is the only social entity which can and should wield force -- the delegated retaliatory force we all have the right to use to defend ourselves from the initiation of force by others -- and the government exists to wield that force for one reason and one reason only: the protection of the individual rights of its citizens.
It follows, then, that the government should use scientific knowledge for only one purpose: to protect the rights of its citizens as well as possible. For example, the government would use applied science to protect its citizens through such means as superior weaponry against foreign threats, better forensic techniques against domestic threats, and superior methods of measurement to resolve honest disputes or to determine whether some act by a citizen poses an objective threat to another.
If you recall my off-the-cuff list early on, you will note that in light of what I have just said, only perhaps global warming would merit any special scientific study by a political candidate. (More on that shortly.) The government should leave education and medicine entirely in private hands for the same reason it should not fund scientific research: Namely, doing so requires the taking of money belonging to private citizens by force, in violation of their individual rights. (And not even that high a level of government involvement in a sector of the economy violates more than just property rights, as Linn Zinser and Paul Hsieh recently argued in the case of medicine.)
I regard evolution as an induced fact and Western medicine as second to none. But please, please give me any day a politician who isn't so sure about evolution and who goes for a folk remedy or two -- but whose convictions and public record indicate an unwavering understanding of and loyalty to individual rights -- over a Nobel laureate in medicine who thinks socialism is the ideal political system. As for global warming, the only issues that need concern the government are whether human activities pose an objective threat to other human beings through such a mechanism and, if so, what ought to be done.
Thanks to our mixed economy and its source, the widespread lack of appreciation for the concept of individual rights, our political debate has repeatedly taken on the following form. (1) A government-funded scientist claims that mankind may be in danger from a calamity caused by the hot scientific topic of the day, like global warming. (2) Because the government is believed to exist to nurture us (rather than protect our right to pursue our own welfare), some government scheme is concocted to "protect" us from the new "threat". These schemes must necessarily involve the violation, in some way, of our individual rights as they curtail one activity or another of ours that does not pose an indisputable threat to the lives of others. Economy-wide fuel rations (with euphemistic names like "carbon caps") are an example. (3) Other scientists argue pro and con. (4) Nobody disputes the propriety of government intervention in controversial cases, so what should be a political debate about whether the government ought to be telling us, say, what fuel to use, becomes a free-for-all of unqualified laymen wrangling endlessly about an issue that the scientists who aren't just angling for more state funding from sympathetic politicians haven't settled.
Let us say for the sake of argument that someone shows conclusively -- on the level that thallium is known to be poisonous -- that global warming is due to human activities and will cause the oceans to rise fifty feet over the next century, by any reasonable prediction based on current trends. The average man will, by such a point, be able to grasp this fact, and a politician who doesn't will be about as hard-pressed to get elected as a flat-earther.
What should be going on in all of these "scientific" political debates -- in which all sides agree that the state owes us all a living -- is, instead of a perseveration on scientific and technological minutiae, a debate about how the state can best protect the rights of all individuals.
Were we to work on removing the apparatus of the state from education, a Mike Huckabee could spout creationist nonsense all he wanted, but he'd have no way to subject our children to it. Were we to insist on all patients making their own financial arrangements for their own medical care, how much lung cancer costs taxpayers would be off the table entirely. And were we not rushing headlong into imposing a draconian set of immoral and impractical government controls over our economy, we would realize that the scientific debate over global warming and the political debate on what (if anything) to do about it are two entirely different things.
Having our politicians hold a debate on science is a harebrained idea because it distracts us all from the real problem, which is that politicians (and the general public) do not have a firm grasp of the nature of individual rights or of the proper role of government or, therefore, of the actual role of science in government.