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March 17, 2008

science from left and right

On the left today, most people seem to think that science is trustworthy and deserves autonomy and influence. The Bush Administration must be a bunch of rubes, because they continually get into struggles with scientists. Thus, for example, the first masthead editorial in today's New York Times is entitled "Science at Risk." The Times says:

As written in 1970, the [Clean Air Act] imposes one overriding obligation on the E.P.A. administrator: to establish air quality standards "requisite to protect the public health" with "an adequate margin of safety." Economic considerations--costs and benefits--can be taken into account in figuring out a reasonable timetable for achieving the standards. But only science can shape the standards themselves.

Congress wrote the law this way because it believed that air quality standards must be based on rigorous scientific study alone and that science would be the sure loser unless insulated from special interests.

But the definitions of "requisite to protect the public health" and an "adequate margin of safety" could never be scientific. These were always value-judgments--implicit decisions about how to balance mortality and morbidity versus employment and productivity. Costs always factored in, because the only level of emissions that would cause no harm to human health is zero. EPA has allowed enormous quantities of emissions into the air, surely because the agency balances moral goods against moral evils. What the Clean Air Act said was: professional scientists (not politicians or judges) shall estimate the costs of pollution. Since it is unseemly to talk about human deaths and sickness as "costs," scientists shall not use this word, nor set explicit dollar values on lives. Instead, they shall declare certain levels of safety to be "adequate," and present this as a scientific fact.

I well remember when people on the left were the quickest to be skeptical of such claims. Science is frequently an ally of industry and the military. It is intellectually imperialistic, insensitive to cultural traditions. It is arrogant, substituting expertise for public judgment even when there are no legitimate expert answers to crucial questions. (For instance, What is the economic value of a life?). Science is a human institution, driven by moral and cultural norms, power, and status. It is not an alternative to politics.

So progressives used to say. Yet scientific consensus now seems to favor progressive views of key issues such as climate change. The conservative coalition encompasses critics of science, such as creationists. And, as Richard Lewontin wrote immediately before the 2004 election, "Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so. Despite the fact that all of the molecular biologists of my acquaintance are shareholders in or advisers to biotechnology firms, the chief political controversy in the scientific community seems to be whether it is wise to vote for Ralph Nader this time."

These are short-term political calculations that lead progressives to ally themselves with science and endorse its strongest claims to power. If we are going to defend science, we should do so on the basis of principle, not political calculation. I agree with the Times that the EPA should clamp down on air pollution. I disagree that this would represent a triumph of science over politics. It would be a moral and political victory--and that is all.

March 17, 2008 11:01 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


But there's also the "science warriors" manufacturing a clash with religion and ethnicities. Scientists seem to me to be either liberals or big L Libertarians.

Perhaps that's just the way it looks in Europe.

March 18, 2008 4:23 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Naadir Jeewa

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