Both Left and Right Misuse Science in Politics

Politicians don't have science down to a science.


I'd like to associate myself with the remarks of Jim Manzi, who, in this week's blogospheric debate about friction between science and public policy, staked out what seems like an eminently reasonable middle-ground:

Neither the left nor the right is guiltless here. The left attempts to stretch science to justify what are really non-scientific viewpoints, but conservatives often react by attacking the underlying science, rather than making the more complicated, but more accurate, point that the actual scientific findings published in peer-reviewed journals (i.e., "the science") don't really imply the political assertion.

As an example, Manzi accepts the "indisputable scientific finding that CO2 molecules redirect infrared radiation." But he says it is—or should be—a long and vigilant walk from there to a "massive global program of emissions mitigation." The mere acceptance of settled science doesn't negate the balancing of other factors such as "the growth of the global economy, Chinese politics, technological developments and so on for something like the next couple of hundred years."[Check out our new energy intelligence blog.]

Manzi's post was a lifeline to National Review's Kevin Williamson, who made this startling assertion:

[I]t is a rare politician indeed who is remotely qualified to accept or dispute any scientific question of any real significance. Politicians are here to consider political questions.

Yes, but are there any purely "political questions?" I'm hard-pressed to think of any matter of public policy that doesn't in some way absorb knowledge from nonpolitical disciplines. Even the Founders' choice of what kind of government we should have—a Newtonian machine of checks of balances—was derived in part from science. [See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

With this week's earthquake in mind, consider a hypothetical big-city mayor confronted by a panel of seismological and structural engineering experts who insist that the city's building code and emergency response systems need to be updated. (And if you think I'm just shooting in the dark here, check out this Wired magazine piece on the unique vulnerabilities of an East Coast earthquake: "Though the rest of the country experiences far fewer moderate or large quakes than the Pacific Coast, which sits directly on an active tectonic plate boundary, when things like population density, building codes and preparedness are taken into account, the potential for disaster in the eastern U.S. is high. In some cases comparable to cities like San Francisco.")

What does our hypothetical mayor know about the underlying science? Probably nothing. But should he not trust the relevant expertise in this case?

I can't imagine that Williamson is suggesting that he shouldn't.

Then what is he suggesting?

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the Democratic Party.
  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.
  • See a slide show of 10 reasons Americans aren't talking about climate change.