Science and Politics

Matt Welch's description of science and politics strikes a chord

Even more interesting than the soft consensus in favor of government intervention was a strong undercurrent that those who disagreed with it were guilty of denying basic truths. One of the questions from an audience full of Senate staffers, policy wonks, and journalists was how can we even have a rational policy discussion with all these denialist Republicans who disregarded Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous maxim that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”? Jared Bernstein couldn’t have been more pleased.

“I feel like we’re in a climate in which facts just aren’t welcome,” he said. “I think the facts of the case are that we know what we can do to nudge the unemployment rate down.…I think the consensus among economists is that this is a good time to implement fiscal stimulus that would help create jobs and make the unemployment rate go down. I consider that a fact.”

In science, you insist most loudly on a fact based on how much it has withstood independent peer review. In politics, it’s closer to the opposite—the more debatable a point is, the more it becomes necessary to insist (often in the face of contrary evidence) that the conclusion is backed by scientific consensus

  • Doug G.

    I don't recall when the scientific method got replaced by popular vote. Did I miss that? My recollection of how facts are determined in science is that you state a hypothesis, design an experiment to test that hypothesis, conduct the experiment, then analyze the results. But apparently if my hypothesis is "most scientists are smarter than the average person", I don't need an experiment anymore, I just need to get a consensus among scientists, and it then becomes indisputable fact. Am I getting this right?

  • a leap at the wheel

    Doug G., you forget that only scientists with a vested interest in the results are given the franchise. Scientists from other fields, like Freeman Dyson, don't get a vote either.

  • stan

    "It ain't what we don't know that gets us into trouble. It's what we know that ain't so."

  • Ted Rado

    Doug G:

    You hit the nail right on the head. Those of us in engineering and science do what you describe. Exceptions are those pushing their own agenda for personal gain).

    Many ideas I have had over the years that I first thought had merit foundered when "wrung out". To evaluate a hypothesis critically and objectively is the most important part of being an enginer or scientist. Those who are unable or unwilling to do so should take up working at McDonald's.

    If every enviro scheme was evaluated as described, 99% of DOE projects would disappear.

  • Smock Puppet, Frequent Fantasy Flyer

    >>> In politics, it’s closer to the opposite—the more debatable a point is, the more it becomes necessary to insist (often in the face of contrary evidence) that the conclusion is backed by scientific consensus

    What's the old saw: "If the facts are on your side, pound on the facts. If the law is on your side, pound on the law. If neither of them are on your side, pound on the table."???

    This is the political equivalent.

  • Hasdrubal

    In all honesty, when you're talking economics, especially macro economics the scientific method is pretty well hobbled without the "test your hypothesis" phase. So economic "scientific" facts are very much different than, say, chemical "scientific" facts and far more debatable. That's the nature of the beast when you're dealing with an observational rather than an experimental discipline.

  • http://harries@free.fr blokeinfrance

    Are facts in fact fact?
    Ask any historian, there are trillions of them around to be used or abused as the historian sees fit. (Carr's Marxist "What is History" makes this plain.)

    Example: My grandfather was poor, my father was rich, I am poor.
    Conclusion: wealth grew during my father's life, then declined.
    But what if my father was not my grandfather's son, he just fucked my mother and I'm a bastard?

  • jj

    "I think the consensus among economists is that this is a good time to implement fiscal stimulus that would help create jobs and make the unemployment rate go down. I consider that a fact.”

    That quote nicely illustrates the folly of this approach. Economists could hardly be FARTHER from a consensus on the efficacy of fiscal stimulus. Bernstein must live in an echo chamber.