Monday, March 09, 2015

'Science-Based' or 'Data-Driven' Public Policy

I wrote just last week about how belief in God and belief in evolution have been markers of communal identity. To clarify what I meant, I want to add that these two sorts of belief are markers of communal identity in the following sense: in the popular discourse, what is being debated is whether the next person is ‘right-thinking,’ whether they can be trusted, whether they belong to ‘our’ community, or not. That is to say, belief in God and/or belief in evolution stands for a whole constellation of ways of thinking about things, which gives one person a good idea about whether they are likely to have anything to say to the next person, whether they are going to agree with them on many issues, whether they see the world the same way that I do.


The converse is also true: what is not being debated is whether God exists or not, or whether the theory of evolution is true or not. The sort of people who *actually* engage with these specific questions are exceptionally small in number. They can usually be found on university campus. They are usually reasonably well-dressed. And when they make a public appearance, it is most often in front of a classroom full of students. As for the rest of us, including the classroom full of students, we absorb what they have to say for ourselves. But this is different than engaging in these rarefied debates for ourselves.

This time, I want to adjust my focus on how belief in science (and by this I mean something that includes, but is more general, than belief in evolution) is indicative of a breakdown of civic participation and civil discourse. It seems to me that if markers of communal identity express themselves anywhere, it is in our political outlooks: in the sorts of things we think our political masters ought to be concerned about, how they ought to think about those concerns, and what they ought to do about them. Belief in science, which expresses itself in calls for ‘science-based’ or ‘data-driven’ public policy, reveals our underlying distrust in other persons with whom we share the world. We no longer want to, know how to, or care to—and perhaps we never did—trust each other to engage in good faith.

Appeals to ‘science-based’ or ‘data-driven’ public policy cuts across party lines.The prestige that science possesses in the Western world has meant that different groups makes different appeal to science, in the abstract, to justify their particular stances. The recent uproar over the declining level of measles immunization in the general population is case in point. I will stick to a Canadian example, though I suspect the general point can be inflated many times over in the United States.

A could of weeks ago, the Conservative government of Canada roundly condemned the negligence of parents who had not immunized their children. The Health Minister Rona Ambrose, while scrumming with reporters, was verbally and visibly frustrated, even even to the point of shaking with anger, with parents who had not vaccinated their children. Why? For no other reason than that the scientific evidence was so clear on the matter. And how could they be so selfish not to listen to what the science has to say? This is, of course, the same government that sits lightly to the one side with regards to the scientific evidence for climate change. But I will leave hornet’s nest alone for the moment.

The idea of ‘science-based’ or ‘data-driven’ public policy scares the bejesus out of me. In most cases, and in the measles case specifically, I am completely on board with the putting the scientific findings into practice. My difficulty is with the argument itself. The idea that an entire country ought to do something because the scientific evidence was so clear on the matter is functionally equivalent to claiming that an entire country ought to do something because God said so.

With belief in science, as with belief in God, some mere mortal tells the rest of us, on no uncertain terms, to sit down and shut up because science has said so. But, of course, science says no such thing.

The claim that we ought to do something because science says so is effectively a show stopping argument. It brooks no dissent. Belief in science may possess the allure of being democratic, in a way that belief in God does not. Science is supposed to be objective and verifiable, and so is supposed to belong to everyone in the same way. But that is not really how things work. Scientific knowledge is born of a hypothesis that has been tested and verified by persons who have reasons of their own. The hypothesis is constructed for reasons that transcends merely scientific determination or justification. And the conclusion that one draws is essentially factual and provisional, and has absolutely to say about how it is going to be applied.

Scientific conclusions are always morally and politically ‘under-determined.’ The science may say that an increase in the number of vaccinated children increases the likelihood that someone catches measles. But that is all it can say. It says nothing, for example, about why this is a bad thing (even if it is a bad thing). That conclusion the persons have to supply for themselves.

I would go so far as to suggest that a claim that the scientific evidence is clear on the matter in the context of a public policy discussion is as dubious, as charlatan-ly, as barely concealed attempts at gaming the political system made by advocates of religious freedom. My reasoning is thus: the person who says ‘we’ ought to do thus and such because science says so refuses to engage ‘us’ as persons who are collectively engaged in the communal enterprise of nation-building.

They talk down to ‘us’ from on high, shaming ‘us’ into submission. They do not try to persuade of the goodness of their proposed course of action. They make no attempt to appeal to the ‘better angels of our nature.’ They do not ask ‘us’ to pursue a course of action for the common good.

They treat ‘us’ instead like unruly individuals, ultimately seeking our own ends, even at our neighbour’s ultimate expense, who must be coerced to submit. In other words, they treat us as mere objects, when they should be treating us as equals.

And in a democratic country, this is a load of horse-hockey. No doubt the Ms. Ambrose was correct that parent’s should be immunizing their children. The reason she offered, however, were at best cynical; and, at the very worst, they perpetuated the same lack of concern for one’s fellow citizens as not immunizing your children.

The translation of scientific theory into public policy must confront the inevitably variegated and duplicitous character of human intention. Scientific conclusions lay down no rules, sets out no moral standards, has no political goals. People, on the other hand, do all of these things for what are more or less self-interested reasons.

Since scientific claims are various and sundry, as numerous even as the stars in the night-sky, different groups can cherry-pick their favourites. They can make them say almost whatever they want. And, given that scientific conclusion are contingent—which is to say, only ever suggestive—there is nothing in the claim itself to give it moral or political force.

What is needed is the sort of civic discourse that does not begin with an argument ending appeal to an authority that knows nothing ‘our’ concerns. We the people, to borrow an American euphemism, must be persuaded that perfect strangers are stronger when the stand together than when they individually pursue their self-determined courses of action. The public policy advisers must make the case that both our individual and collective self-interest is served by acting in the interests of others.

But sadly, it seems that our masters have forgotten how to speak the language of the common good and the public interest. All I can see is technocrats to the left, and plutocrats to the right; and here I am, stuck in the middle, alone with my thoughts.

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