Blinded By Science

Are you in favor of science? Well, of course you are! How could you not be?

And you’re in good company. Governor Wolf, describing his plan to reopen Pennsylvania, said that “We need to follow the science.” His party, the Democrats, seek to position themselves as “the party of science”. And our current president is constantly under attack by our betters in the media for not adopting a sufficiently “pro-science” stance.

But does this make sense? I would argue not, and for three reasons.

First, science is not a monolithic idea that one can support or oppose. It is a constantly evolving body of knowledge, some of which will be true and some of which will be false. It’s one thing to believe in gravity and other well-tested theories, but it’s quite another to believe all ideas that are proposed by scientists. Even in fields that are considered somewhat respectable, the so-called reproducibility crisis has demonstrated that many of the experiments on which “settled science” is based cannot be repeated with the same results. And in fields like climate science and disease modelling, the experts have singularly failed to produce predictions that come close to the observed results. Saying you believe in science is thus like saying you like music—too broad a statement to mean anything.

Second, science is conducted by scientists, and scientists are human beings. They are not immune from ambition or hubris or self-deception, and they do not conduct their work in some fantasy world where they all work together for the common good. They are subject to the same failings as you and I, and indulge in the same infighting and competition as any other group. The modern tendency to create heroes—be they scientists or healthcare workers or policemen—conflates admirable performance in one area with wisdom and virtue in all, and assigns to fallible human beings a weight that they cannot be expected to carry.

And finally, if you want to solve a real world problem, you need to think like an engineer, not like a scientist. If science is about purity of ideas, engineering is about compromise between performance and cost. If a bridge uses too little concrete, it will fall down. But if it uses too much, it will never be built as the customer will not be able to afford it. If an airplane has a wing that is too weak, the plane will crash the first time it encounters a storm. But if that wing is too strong, the plane will be too heavy and never get off the ground. In each case, the calculations are driven by scientific ideas, but the result must be a balance between competing factors, none of which can be given absolute priority.

Every good CEO knows this. They surround themselves with experts, but in the end, it is their job to make the balanced decisions that reflect the overall needs of the business. They cannot be ruled by the risk-aversion of the lawyers, the parsimony of the accountants, or the techophilia of the R&D department—and yet they must take each factor into account as they pick a path forward.

And so it should be with science and politics: Yes, the views and opinions of scientists should be sought and considered, but fetishizing science and giving scientists control of the economy and the country is both foolish, and an abdication of the responsibility that was ultimately assigned to our leaders.

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