“Imagine a world is ruled by scientists, not by politicians,” the tweet from the science website Physics-astronomy.org proclaimed. The implication of the message was clear: Society would be better off if scientists controlled public policy.
What a dangerous concept!
Rule by scientists wouldn’t only require establishing an authoritarian technocracy—a regime of experts. It would also be “anti-science” because it conflates science’s crucial contributions to progress and learning with the wholly different tasks of crafting efficacious policy and establishing priorities.
Think about it. Science, properly understood, is a powerful method for understanding the physical universe. Science’s tools are observation, crafting hypotheses, careful measurement, testing, experimentation, falsification, and the like.
To be effective, science must be pursued objectively. Its point isn’t to find what the scientists want to be true, but rather, to determine facts about the workings of the natural world.
In this sense, science is amoral. Thus, while science is highly effective at deriving knowledge, it can’t inform us about what is right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral. Those are jobs for philosophy, religion, morality, and the like.
“Ruling”—or better stated in a democratic society such as ours, governing—is a far more nuanced and complicated undertaking. Yes, crafting effective public policy requires accurate data. But unlike science, governing is essentially a subjective undertaking. It requires a value system by which to judge and apply the facts science discerns.
Take the morally contentious question of abortion. Science informs us that a human fetus is a living organism. It identifies that life form as a gestating member of the species Homo sapiens. Science also describes attributes of the fetus at different stages of human development, for example, when the heart begins to beat.
But science can’t tell us whether the fact of a fetus’s organismal humanity matters morally. Nor could it balance competing concepts of the good, in the case of abortion, a woman’s bodily autonomy with the value of human life in the womb. Hence, scientist “rulers” would be no more adept at deciding abortion policy than politicians.
Governing also entails crafting compromises, which isn’t an attribute of scientific inquiry. Take COVID-19. Science can tell us the nature of the disease, its symptoms, how it spreads, and hopefully, the steps that would lead to its ultimate elimination.
But that “science” isn’t all that matters in establishing the most beneficial COVID-19 policies. For example, how should the economic harm caused by total societal quarantines and the depression resulting from isolating the elderly be weighed against the likelihood that a lockdown would inhibit the spread of severe illness? That isn’t strictly a scientific question.
Also, would a vaccine mandate spark such intense public resistance that it would be detrimental to the fight against the pandemic overall? Again, that is beyond what scientists can determine as scientists.
The purveyors of “follow the scientists” know that. So, what is the point of such let-scientists-decide advocacy?
The short answer? Ideology. As I have written here previously, the scientific sector is becoming increasingly ideological, with major scientific journals often promoting blatantly progressive political agendas, hiding their bias behind the authority the public grants to science.
Indeed, according to a survey published in October by the science journal Nature, 86 percent of polled scientists preferred Joe Biden for president versus only 8 percent for President Donald Trump. Talk about an insular mindset that doesn’t reflect the views and values of the body politic!
Beyond politics, advocates for rule by scientists promote a belief system known as “scientism.” Despite the words’ similarities, “science” and “scientism” are paradoxical concepts. As stated above, science is a method for learning objective facts. But as a mere technique, it is also amoral—which is why the quest for scientific knowledge must be governed by ethical constraints (for example, the Nuremberg Code that crafted rules for scientific experimentation on human beings).
In contrast, scientism promotes a subjective worldview. As my Discovery Institute colleague John West writes in “The Magician’s Twin,” scientism is “the wrongheaded belief that modern science supplies the only reliable method of knowledge about the world, and the corollary that scientists have the right to dictate a society’s morals, religious beliefs, and even government policies merely because of their scientific expertise.”
How to distinguish the two concepts in the real world? Genetics is science, a branch of biology concerned with the study of genes and heredity in organisms. For example, scientists have identified eight genes that lead to a human being having red hair. That is simply what is. It doesn’t presume to assign any value to that attribute.
In contrast, eugenics is an example of scientism. Eugenics claimed that scientifically, some human beings are “fit” versus others denigrated as “unfit”—and that it was a scientific imperative to inhibit procreation by the eugenically incorrect.
To America’s shame, many states “followed the (pseudo) science” and enacted involuntary sterilization laws under which more than 60,000 innocent people were stripped of their ability to have children. Do you see the danger now of “letting the scientists decide”?
So, let us have no more advocacy for rule by experts. We certainly need scientists to inform government leaders accurately about the facts of the natural world and to provide their best, objective projections of potential benefits and consequences of pursuing various policy approaches.
But the actual work of crafting laws, rules, regulations, and guidelines requires more. Of even greater necessity, it entails applied wisdom, morality, and the skill to craft necessary compromises among competing policy constituencies. Forming such a more perfect union is well beyond “the scientists’” skillset.
Award-winning author Wesley J. Smith is chairman of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.