Science and public policy

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.

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12 Responses to Science and public policy

  1. Heather, you seem to be missing the point about enviromentalism. The issue with the recent administration was not where to set the balance between economic and environmental concerns. The issue was that that discussion was distorted from the start by the administration pressuring scientists and censoring their reports when they indicated the possibility of serious environmental harm.

  2. Argon says:

    Heather, do you think that allowing the scientific data to be published is important? That was a frequent problem with the Bush administration. Do we get policy decisions by working in the dark and altering reports?

  3. Heather Mac Donald says:

    Both practices–altering or censoring reports–are reprehensible, to the extent that they occurred. If all that the Obama Administration proposes to do in the name of vindicating science is to stay far away from its workings, then it can justly take credit for restoring the integrity of science within the federal government. My guess, however, is that it will cite “science” as cover for highly value-laden political decisions. Obama’s decision, for example, to allow California to set its own greenhouse gas auto emissions standard is wholly illogical, economically disastrous, and a laughable deviation from the purpose of the Clean Air Act. But I would not be surprised if this decision is cloaked in “science.” And even if it is not, it is a violation of the mandate to be rational in policy-making.

  4. Heather’s little essay is profoundly true. I have argued with the SIECUS people and found them blinded by a deep liberal bias. They disrespect parental authority and are pushing an agenda that treats sex as nothing but a personal choice. As Heather points out, families are far better equipped to teach the self-restraint and sound judgment needed to navigate the teen years.SIECUS has a dangerous philosophy that exactly invests in the Sixties “Sexual Revolution” as the only correct lifestyle.We all know that blacks(and society) suffer immeasurably from their rampant early sex and illegitimacy rate. The SIECUS approach basically tries to decapitate adult authority by treating kids as mature adults who can play sexual games with impunity.

    Once upon a time I gave a talk against abortion at the famed Friars Club in LA. The audience of 200 high-powered Hollywood types sat in bemused silence as I made my case. I looked out at a sea of faces of intelligent but absolutely close-minded True Believers.Liberalism can become a religion in the hands of the same kinds of people we see deifying Obama for his socialism. Even my friend Carl Sagan believed that abortion was a very messy moral problem, but not this group of hard-core liberals.Give them porn, open borders, and dead babies in abundance- no problem.I had a strange feeling that whatever morality they absorbed in childhood must have been weak or none. Science is in danger so long as fervent liberals prowl the corridors of Washington, D.C.and the president is a slick socialist with a grudge against whites.

  5. Heather Mac Donald :

    Heather Mac Donald

    Obama’s decision, for example, to allow California to set its own greenhouse gas auto emissions standard is wholly illogical, economically disastrous, and a laughable deviation from the purpose of the Clean Air Act. But I would not be surprised if this decision is cloaked in “science.” And even if it is not, it is a violation of the mandate to be rational in policy-making.

    Heather, what is wrong with letting states set their own emission standards? If different states want to approach air issues differently why shouldn’t we let them? If it does end up being economically problematic we will see that. Letting states experiment with different approaches is something I would have thought would be generally favored by conservatives.

  6. To elaborate on my last point, Iam referring to the race issue in anthropology and Obama’s obvious naive environmentalism(nurture vs nature). He could well suppress genetics research bearing on such sensitive issues,not to mention his also obvious Green ideology that is OK in moderation but could be economically damaging if done too extensively.

  7. Caledonian says:

    “Heather, what is wrong with letting states set their own emission standards?”

    There’s a very real conflict here: it’s important that we let people suffer the consequences of their own actions and that they are free to make their own decisions, for good or for bad.

    But in cases where the actions of a few have consequences for everyone, and those consequences include permanent and irreparable harm, then the freedom of the few to screw up cannot be permitted.

    The real question is whether there are such harms, and whether we can identify them, in the context of modern understanding of ecology.

  8. Argon says:

    @Heather Mac Donald
    Great, so we agree that censoring and altering reports are reprehensible.

    If all that the Obama Administration proposes to do in the name of vindicating science is to stay far away from its workings, then it can justly take credit for restoring the integrity of science within the federal government.

    I agree that government shouldn’t unduly interfere with the day to day operation of science (e.g. investigation, research, publishing and discussion). Well, except for funding, which is something the government takes an active role — but at least the case should be made to minimize political interference in the function too.

    Heather, in this regard, how would you grade the recent Bush administration? I can tell you that most scientists I know (Republican & Democrat), including myself were aghast at the maneuvers employed. The status quo prior to Bush wasn’t perfect but at least a return to that would be a significant improvement.

    It is interesting that you worry about policy decisions being cloaked in ‘science’ (as opposed to un-fear-quoted _science_). I share some worries too as science has always been misappropriated for value decisions. But at least with open publication, the scientific results could be evaluated as opposed to those instances under the Bush administration where reports and emails were buried so that the administration could go: “Reports? La-la-la, can’t hear you.”

    Heather, a similar angle to your fear of Obama’s “restoring science to its rightful place” can be found among the Evangelicals who worry that it is being used as political cover for things they didn’t approve. In this case, it’s reversing Bush policies on stem cell research and abortion, and supporting scientism/ secular humanism. For example, Chuck Colson’s article “Exposing Scientism” ( is making the rounds of many religious right blogs and websites. Note the parallels with ignoring past administration wrong-doings and promotion of personal bugaboos.

    How about taking the scientific approach and see what plays out?

  9. Heather Mac Donald says:

    @Joshua Zelinsky and Caledonian:
    The problem with the recent EPA waiver for California is that it is unrelated to air quality standards; the reason that California says it wants to set a tougher level for auto emissions is to prevent global warming. But global warming is not geographically confined to California either in its causes or its effects. Allowing each state to set its own auto admissions standards imposes an enormous burden on car makers, requiring them to make different cars for different markets. Frankly, such state efforts at national market regulation raise Commerce Clause problems, to my mind. Nevertheless, I support Clean Air Act state waivers for localised air quality problems; as an LA native, I know well how Southern California’s geography can trap smog-producing particulates and create unique pollution problems. REducing carbon emissions for the sake of lowering global warming is a completely different proposition. Though I am not by any means an opponent of anti-global warming efforts, this particular bid by California strikes me as pure self-righteous posturing. The only possible argument for it is that it will create the de facto national emissions standard. Fine, but California has no legal authority to do so.

    @Argon: I have not read Shulman or Mooney’s books on the Bush Administration’s war on science, nor have I spoken to scientists about the matter. I am willing to assume that the charges are all true, but frankly, I am so suspicious of the mainstream media’s anti-Republican bias that I may be unjustifiably hesitant to endorse them without qualification.

    My personal positions on stem cell research and abortion are the opposite of the Evangelicals. Nevertheless, even if science definitively proves that a zygote or embryo is not a human being or that the soul is a fiction–both of which propositions would be an empirical challenge–I don’t think science can eliminate good faith arguments why we should even so be worried about a slippery slope, say. I may not agree with those arguments, but I don’t think that they are inherently backwards.

  10. Argon says:

    Heather, I’ve tried to provide some context for Obama’s statement about restoring the position of science. If you haven’t followed the scientific backstories for the policies pushed by the Bush administration during the last eight years then it might seem easier for you to see Obama’s statement as a snow-job. And perhaps it is — time will tell — but for those like myself who’ve followed the backstory it’s actually a significant recognition of past problems.

    I didn’t reference Colson’s article to debate abortion policy but to illustrate some of the parallels between how the Evangelicals are ‘framing’ the statement and how you are, i.e. reading personal bugaboos into the text and ignoring the actual context of recent history.

  11. Heather Mac Donald says:

    Argon, I understand the context of Obama’s statement about restoring the integrity of science; I am familiar with the charges about the Bush Administration having repressed scientific findings. I have not denied that these charges may well be true–I just haven’t read the specific examples myself. My point in the post was different: that political preferences, especially in the environmental realm, often cloak themselves in the deserved majesty of science, when in fact they rest on non-scientific judgments about, say, whether preventing a .00001% chance of a rise in lung disease justifies closing the local tire factory. Policy-makers may legitimately and with public backing decide that the economic hit is worth it; but science cannot make that trade-off for them.

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