Let's NOT Debate Science

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.

-- CAV


Burgess Laughlin said...

What I have gained from your article is an integration. You have brought together the various issues about science that are arising in our political system.

I would like to suggest a tentative observation.

There are many forms of totalitarianism, including: Communism, Socialism, National Socialism, Nationalism, Monarchism, Theocracy, Fascism, and Democracy.

By the latter I mean a dictatorship by the majority. Democracy is totalitarian in a special way, a way that distinguishes it from other forms: Democracy, at least superficially, allows vacuoles of freedom of choice while controlling the broad, context-setting conditions.

I see different species of Democracy. The one we are witnessing mostly now is what I would call Parentalism. All forms of dictatorship call for and require sacrifice of some individuals for the sake of others (the poor, the race, God, the fatherland, the proletariat, and so forth).

A distinguishing characteristic of Parentalist Democracy is that it also appeals to self-interest, in the same manner that a parent would say to a child: "This is for your own good." We tax you in order to subsidize science that will benefit you in the future.

I see this mixed, partly and purportedly self-interest message more and more: "We need to tax carbon emissions so that we, the whole family, can avoid global warming," for example.

Countering this Parentalism is very difficult for a variety of reasons. One is that it does superficially appeal to supposed self-interest. After all, every family has to make rules to keep the family functional, doesn't it?

Gus Van Horn said...

"Countering this Parentalism is very difficult for a variety of reasons. One is that it does superficially appeal to supposed self-interest. After all, every family has to make rules to keep the family functional, doesn't it?"

And worse still, there are some legitimate cases of the government forbidding activities shown by science to be harmful, like forbidding people to pollute the wells of others by carelessly dumping toxic waste.

So on top of the confusion you mention, it can be very easy to sound a bit like some kind of libertarian anarchist (i.e., by sounding like one dismisses wholesale anything like that done by the government).

Clay said...

Burgess is right. This infantilization of society is at the forefront of the new totalitarianism.

I just read an article, I cannot presently recall where, outlining in detail how Hillary Clinton wishes us to regard her as the mother of us all. This begs for a line or two about political whores, but I digress. While I couldn't find the article this is trenchant, http://tinyurl.com/ytzztu

I would add that part of the reason that I have such a difficult time making heads or tails of the global-warming issue is that I don't trust people who want to rule my life(scientists or politicians or my next-door neighbors) to give me straight facts about politically-loaded scientific issues. It is in their "interest" to err on the side of the accumulation of power and this makes taking their word for it extremely dangerous.

Gus Van Horn said...

"I don't trust people who want to rule my life(scientists or politicians or my next-door neighbors) to give me straight facts about politically-loaded scientific issues."

Nor do I.

Philosophers like Plato who argue that society should be ruled by intellectual elites of one kind or another not only allow such people to feel justified in seeking power, they dupe them into thinking that such rule could result in anything other than the squalor and brutality that results any time it is tried.

Clay said...


Here's the previously referenced article.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the link, Clay.