The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Settled by "Scientism"

Science cannot settle all policy debates.


I encourage everyone to read Professor John McGinnis's essay, Blinded by Scientism. He explains that it is not possible to resolve policy debates by "following the science." Policy debates implicate a lot of values that should not be delegated to apparent experts. Indeed, the views of experts are often shaped by their values. As a result, McGinnis writes, politically accountable leaders, and not scientists, should make those tough decisions.

But the mantra of "follow the science" is even more problematic when applied to politics than administration. It is not possible to make politics subsidiary to science. First, the facts are open to dispute as are some of those about climate change, for instance. Second, no one set of facts is likely to dictate any result. Policies on climate change affect economic growth and that is another set of facts that must investigated. And as James Rogers has noted at this site, the radical uncertainty present in most judgments about human affairs requires prudential judgments, not just scientific modeling.

But most importantly, politics demands debate about values, not just facts. There are tradeoffs between different policies. The Green New Deal may hamper economic growth and thus harm generations to come. As a result, it may be wiser to adapt to a warming climate rather than try to prevent it at great cost. Moreover, it is a question of value, not fact, as to who should bear the burden of climate changes policies—this generation or future generations who, because of technological acceleration, may be substantially richer.

John introduces a term I had not heard before: scientism.

Scientism is an attempt to shut down political debates.  It shifts the discussion from questions of value, which are accessible to all, to questions of facts which are in the domain of the experts, thus shifting the terrain of the debate. It also hampers the evolution of expert consensus, because when science becomes a front for politics, dissenting from the party lines becomes harder even for experts. And it allows progressives to portray their opponents as ignorant. That has been a common trope of progressive politics: conservatives are the stupid party.

I have long encountered the notion of "scientism" in the Second Amendment context. Gun control advocates have long described gun control as a public health issue. On face value, this characterization may make some sense. Guns can lead to health problems. But the import of this statement is very different. When something is a public health issue, it should be resolved by public health experts. In short this slogan shuts down any political debate. #Science. The decision to enact, or not enact certain gun control laws cannot be based entirely on counting. This decision must incorporate competing values, for which elected officials can stake their position. I wrote about some of these issues years ago in an article titled, The Shooting Cycle.