New York Times Deputy Science Editor Dennis Overbye celebrated the alleged “restoration of science” under the Obama Administration this week, sounding a Chris Matthews-ian note of ecstasy about Obama’s ascension. I agree with most of Overbye’s essay, which makes a beautiful case for the social accomplishment of science. The scientific enterprise teaches such humane, democratic values as “honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view,” Overbye writes. (Our religious friends will of course claim that these values are uniquely Christian ones, and that science is parasitic on Christianity.)
But Overbye’s column also hints at the facile conflation of science with favored liberal politics.
Overbye appears to link the repression of scientific inquiry and democratic expression in China, where a physicist was disciplined for teaching the Big Bang theory in contravention to Marxist teleology, with the scientific and quasi-scientific culture-war battles of the Bush Administration: “But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.”
I can’t quite following the reasoning here, such as the leap from China to the U.S., or the suggestion that we aren’t able to talk about global warming, abortion, or even evolution. (We talk about abortion far too much, in my view.) But the real problem with this statement and the column’s celebratory introduction is the implication that in the era before the Bush Administration, science-tinged policy areas were governed by pure science, not something else—presumably politics or religion. (To be fair to Overbye, others have made this argument much more explicitly than he does; I am seizing on his column opportunistically as a synecdoche for a broader discourse.) But science rarely determines policy outcomes; complex political worldviews do.
Environmentalists have been trumpeting the “restoration of science” under the Obama Administration. Science says nothing, however, about where to strike the balance between the costs and alleged benefits of environmental regulation; those are political and economic judgments. The NRDC and the Sierra Club reflexively push for the elimination of infinitesimal levels of toxics that have only the most hypothetical effect on public health. Science is not driving their crusade, a quasi-religious zeal regarding the evils of business and the unquestionable righteousness of banning chemical emissions is. Stricter environmental regulation is not necessarily more “scientific;” it merely values health risks and business productivity according to a conventional “environmentalist” perspective.
To the extent that the Bush Administration ignored truly solid scientific consensus on global warming, it was irresponsible and wrong to do so. (Much of the conservative establishment appears sadly to have let its justified appreciation of business entrepreneurship determine its take on the science.) But even if the existence and cause of global warming have been definitively established, science has nothing to say about the proper policy response. The Kyoto treaty is a joke; the Bush Administration was right to avoid it. Bjorn Lomborg and others have made rigorous arguments for why global warming reductions should not be the top environmental agenda item in the West. Whether you reject or accept Lomborg’s suggested priorities has nothing to do with the underlying science of climate change.
I’m not sure what Overbye’s reference to not being able to talk about birth control and abortion means exactly. Among domestic sex issues the debate over abstinence education has had the most social-science-y tinge to it. Planned Parenthood, SIECUS, and other groups favoring condom demonstrations and distribution in schools point to studies that show that abstinence education differs little from conventional sex ed in reducing teen pregnancy. (The research is weak to begin with, lacking randomized controlled assignments.) So does “science” then dictate that school condom instruction is wise social policy? No, notwithstanding Sam Harris’s view that an objection to conventional sex ed represents only the Religious Right’s war on science. Leaving aside the absurdity of having government, rather than parents, try to inculcate in children values regarding sexual behavior, the messages adults send to children regarding sexual restraint, modesty, and self-control have subtle and long-term effects on society that cannot be easily measured in a program evaluation. When adults provide children with condom demonstrations or, worse, build day care centers in schools for students’ babies, they signal that they expect children to have sex. The enthusiasm of sex-ed advocates and the progressive ed teaching establishment for increasingly explicit official sex talk in schools is not driven by “science,” in my view; it arises out of a need to retroactively legitimate the sexual revolution. Conservatives can oppose their agenda without reference to the Bible or God’s will, but simply on the basis of an understanding of how complex is the fabric of values that make up a stable, responsible society and how careful we must be to preserve it.