Back off Man; I’m a Scientist …
Should scientists be politically active? Individual scientists should participate in debates as citizens. They should bring their knowledge and expertise to every subject, just like others do. But “scientists” as a group should not be political animals because there is a big difference between “A” scientist and “THE” scientist.
… Dr Peter Venkman
What is a scientist anyway? Do you have to have a science degree? Is BS enough or do you need a PhD? Do you have to do experiments? What kind of science qualifies as science? Sociologists and psychologists sometimes call themselves scientists. Political scientists even have that name in their titles. Some historians thought they were scientists. The term is very elastic.
Western civilization is based on the scientific method
Anybody who uses the “scientific method” in his work or to draw conclusions could legitimately call himself a scientist, but that would make scientists out of a lot of business people, most engineers, many farmers and almost everybody who works with actuarial tables. There is a field called “scientific management.” For that matter, all those body builders at Gold’s Gym are scientists, given their constant experimentation with their bodies and familiarity with chemicals. Successful modern farmers, builders & business people certainly approach their work scientifically? Everybody could be included sometimes and any definition that includes everybody is not a useful definition. This is not what most people have in mind.
Science and politics are methods to address different problems
But even when we exclude sociologist, body builders, engineers etc, we still have a problem and the problem is that science and politics are almost polar opposites. Science is iterative. It never comes to final conclusions. It tends to narrow inquiry and make scientists experts on narrow fields. Science doesn’t permit extrapolation. Extrapolation is what politics is all about. Politicians are rarely troubled when they are not sure of the precise truthfulness of their statements. Scientists MUST be.
Science provides options, not decisions
Probably the most important impediment to science in politics is the very nature of decision making. You cannot “let science decide” because decisions are exactly what science does NOT do. Science provides inputs into decisions. Science can give you a probability that if you do X you will sacrifice Y, but somebody has to decide on the relative values. Maybe X just doesn’t matter to you. Science cannot make that decision.
Think of a decision about a medical procedure. The doctor can use science to tell you that there is an 80% chance the operation will be a success, but a 70% chance you will be incapacitated by the procedure. On the other hand, if you do something less invasive, you have only a 50% chance of survival, but you can make a full recovery if you survive. You could come up with a complete breakdown of the odds, but you still have to decide, based on non-science values, what you want to do. One person might choose the greater risk of death for the greater health later. Others do the opposite Science cannot help. Once it gives you the options and odds, the job of science is done unless new information comes to light.
BTW – when we reach a near certainty, we no longer have decision making. We all agree that we will apply the rule of physics when flying in an airplane. No matter what anybody says about alternative reality, he doesn’t believe it when it comes to that. Decisions are ONLY needed in areas of disagreement or uncertainty.
Science informs; it doesn’t decide
Most “scientists” understand this limitation. Those scientists who want to be political might not get it. They want to use science as a trump card, but it doesn’t work. Decisions are made based on values. Science is value neutral. Therefore science cannot decide.
20th Century tyranny was “science-based”
When science becomes political, it stops being science and starts to become tyranny. In fact, science works a lot like religion when mixed with politics. It invests too much “certainty” into a human political process. It might start off “good” but politics corrupts it, because politics is not science, but politicians – especially bad ones – like to use science, as they once used religion – as a weapon to pummel their opponents into silence.
Stalin and Hitler had scientists working for them. Marxist and Nazi systems were “science-based” in the minds of their creators. Nazi science was chillingly precise. There was “scientific racism” and the eugenics movement was firmly rooting in the science of the time. We now tend to call them “pseudo- scientists” but they were trained and passed scientific muster at the universities of their times. They were pseudo BECAUSE they were political, not because they were not trained as scientists.
I would also point to the case of Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber. W/o his work literally half the world population would probably go hungry. Some of his other inventions were less felicitous. He had the most impeccable scientific credentials, but his political judgment was perhaps not so good.
Leave the lying to the politicians
This broad political road that leads to perdition is posted and brightly blazed all the way. Scientist should stay on the steep and narrow trail to truth. Leave the lying to the politicians. That is what they are good at.