Why We Care About Scientific Understanding in Electeds

Kevin Williamson at NRO punts on a fairly interesting question about why we should care that politicians understand science. His basis: because science is hard, and a specialist field, electeds can’t really know the answer to a scientific question in any meaningful way, making it impossible to judge them for their knowledge, or lack thereof.

But it is a rare politician indeed who is remotely qualified to accept or dispute any scientific question of any real significance. Politicians are here to consider political questions.

I have not argued that scientific knowledge does not matter. I have argued that the scientific opinions of people who do not know the first thing about science do not matter.

Scientific disputes are highly specialized, and meaningful participation in them requires a great deal of non-generalist knowledge.

This is a cop out of a very specific kind. Much like the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica, Williamson’s response is basically a surrender to modernity. Simply put, the epistemological uncertainty of being “correct” about everything new in the world is no excuse for incompetence. Granting that members of the general public can’t really know science as well as professional scientists, we, as members of a technological society, should understand it at least well enough to remain proficient in our chosen professions. And it is the function of democratic representatives to make decisions for the rest of us.

Necessarily, no one politician can know everything necessary to the faithful discharge of that duty. But he must know when (and where) to turn to for expert advice, and be able to rely on it. When politicians tolerate or embrace scientific ignorance — by rejecting fundamental knowledge, on the basis of faith — they’re telling us that adherence to a personal creed matters more to them than the ability to make informed decisions based on both reality, and a healthy, necessary trust of those who know better than him. This is fine for some professions: admirable, even, in others. But for a politician, it represents a dereliction of the elected official’s first duty: to make informed decisions based on objective reality that are binding on the rest of us.

As such, the question, “are you a creationist?” is not just a helpful question when evaluating a politician. It’s a central one, because a “yes” answer proves the respondent is either (1) deliberately ignorant, (2) a shill for an offensively narrow view of Christianity, or (3) a shameless panderer. None of those is a quality I would like to see in my representative.

Ah. For the sake of staying positive: it is a good thing for politicians to engage with difficult facts on an objective basis. We should expect as much from all politicians.

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2 comments

  1. It’s pretty situational dependent. Some examples:

    – Global warming: The government can help drive improvements in fighting global warming BUT the science seems to change daily. That makes it very hard to determine strategies that may take a century or more to play out. This is by far the toughest area (IMO).

    – Creationism: They don’t necessarily have to understand the science behind Evolution – they just need to understand why you can’t teach Creationism in a public school.

    – Space: This is probably the area with the thinnest of necessities because the reality is that NASA just needs to paint the right picture for Congress and play on their sense of exploration.

    – Technology: This one is perhaps the simplest. Smith & Wesson invents a new .50 caliber cartridge that makes 2 mile sniper shots possible. A bunch of Congresspeople go to the range and watch an Army sniper punch holes in cars at 3,520 yards. They guys all get boners and order 500K rounds for the military.

    – Wildlife Management: Fish & Wildlife biologists make suggestions to lawmakers about the laws surrounding certain animal populations. Hunters and animal rights folks all weigh in. Bag limits and hunting seasons are set accordingly. This is a pretty solid partnership.

  2. Ames: This is a cop out of a very specific kind. Much like the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica, Williamson’s response is basically a surrender to modernity.

    Do you perhaps mean post-modernity there? Modernity is all about stuff being knowable.

    Mike: The government can help drive improvements in fighting global warming BUT the science seems to change daily.

    Actually, there’s a pretty clear consensus on both the causes and the solution to GW. I think the main problem is the media don’t really understand the concept of “scientific consensus”, so every time some fringe scientists releases a dissenting view, it gets turned into “revolutionary new research” or something like that.

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