Friday, February 6, 2009

Some of These Things Are Not Like the Others

Some statements to start off your Sunday:

1) "The theory of evolution is a myth."
2) "The government should not fund stem cell research."
3) "Vaccinations cause autism."
4) "Funding for the NSF does not belong in a stimulus bill."
5) "We should repeal the Clean Air Act."
6) "Climate Change is a hoax."

Let's start with the easy question: What is similar about all of these statements?

Answer: They are beliefs commonly touted by many conservatives, and are mocked, in turn, by liberals- (although some liberals also agree with statement "3").

Ok, now what is a major difference among these statements?

Answer: Statements 1, 3, and 6 (Group A) are all contradicted by scientific evidence and are not factual. People who believe in them, either don't know or don't care about the empirical findings of scientific research. Statements 2, 4, and 5 (Group B), however, are merely political arguments. There is perhaps a strong correlation between belief in 1, 3, and 6 AND advocacy for 2, 4, and 5, but this does not mean that the two categories are equivalent.

And I believe that this distinction is essential.

If you've read the "Republican War on Science" or many of the posts on Scienceblogs, people will blithely cite, within the same post or sentence, statements from both categories A and B as evidence of the shear philistinism of conservatives or Republicans.

The problem is, people who understand both the possibilities and limitations of science should know better than to conflate these two categories. A true empiricist ought to realize that a fellow empiricist, no matter how seemingly unsuitable his political beliefs, can, at least theoretically, reject Group A while accepting Group B. For example, one might oppose government funding of stem cell research on moral grounds. Or he may not be morally opposed to stem cell research, but believes that public policy should defer to the opinions those who oppose such research. Or perhaps such funding simply conflicts with his views about the proper role of government. The notion that "Legitimate human life morally starts only starts after 'such and such' time," is non-falsifiable, as "legitimate human life" is personally, rather than scientifically, defined. Thus, there is no reason to believe that someone's opinions about the ethics of abortion, stem cell research, and arguably even birth control has anything to do with science, so long as one does not justify such beliefs with unscientific claims.

Some people, for whatever reason, might not believe that the Clean Air Act was a good law. I am reluctant to list such reasons, for one, because I know nothing about the law, but, more importantly, because heated counter-arguments would obfuscate my main point, which is: One's political beliefs, no matter how objectionable, are not necessarily related to one's recognition of the value of the scientific method, empirically-derived knowledge, Reason, or objective standards of evidence. Information derived from Science might help inform our opinions about morality or politics, but our conclusions are ultimately based on personally-formulated ethical "first principles" (i.e. "Do no harm," "Government is a good/bad tool for solving social problems" etc.).

So eager are some scientists to denounce their ideological foes, such scientists betray the public by implying that "science says" that certain legislation ought to be passed, or that certain moral opinions ought to be espoused by all defenders of Reason. They do a disservice to their readers, making it seem as if non-falsifiable statements fall under the purview of science. Thus, the public's understanding of the way science works diminishes. "Politicizing" science can exist on both sides of the aisle.

I can think of one circumstance for which the political is inextricably linked to the scientific, in which case the liberal scientist politicos have a legitimate argument. This involves the issue of advancing false statements within the public sphere to gain a preferred political resolution. In this case, the only moral first principle is "Do not lie"- a principle so nearly equivalent to "Embrace science," that I would concede liberal scientists' stances in applicable cases. Such a situation might include advocacy of the teaching of creationism in biology class, within the public schools. Additionally, while there is nothing "unscientific" about opposing a cap-and-trade policy, if one advertises against such a policy by using bogus data to "show" that "climate change doesn't exist," he would be making unscientific, non-factual statements. The same principle applies to someone who conjures up false epidemiological data to "prove" a purported link between abortion and breast cancer. As a "social liberal," I would usually agree with the liberal scientists, in these cases. However, my opinion is that the relationship between scientific reality and political expediency is, nevertheless, quite messy. When otherwise-empirically-sound scientists leave academia and enter think tank headquarters, they occasionally "skew" or "pick and choose" facts and figures, perhaps out of a political or moral belief that the "ends justify the means," or simply due to plain, old cognitive dissonance. In other words, in politics, much more than in science, (nearly) "everybody lies."

The bottom line is- If someone espouses counterfactual information, call him anti-science. However, if he simply opposes your science-related political opinions, call him something else.


Jacob Russell Wintersmith said...

Some political arguments fundamentally stem from disagreements on ends and values. In many cases however, everyone agrees on the ends being sought but disagrees on the best means to those ends. "X is the best available means to accomplish end Y" is a factual statement subject to empirical investigation.

Issues (4) and (5) are primarily disagreements over means rather than ends.

Even (2) involves many factual issues. The definition of "legitimate human life" is not entirely arbitrary. The people who think that legitimate human life begins at conception think so because they believe that human embryos have souls. People who refuse to believe in ghosts without evidence for their existence rarely place much value on zygotes.

Heal Spieler said...

Hi Jacob,

I agree with you that a lot of political arguments are theoretically testable if 1) both parties have the same pre-defined goal "Y" 2) neither party has a moral objection to the "X" that is necessary to bring about "Y" (for example, if someone were to say "we can stop AIDS by monitoring people's sex lives," I'd oppose this, even if outcome Y would be positive, because "X" involves too much of a sacrifice.

I suppose my main concern is that, given so many uncontrollable variables, it is very difficult to test some hypotheses that are testable "in theory." For example, there is just no legitimate point of comparison to prove or disprove the potential effectiveness of this large stimulus packages, and even if we had 5 successful stimulus packages, the situations would all be so different, that I still wouldn't be sufficiently convinced about its efficacy (although, I suppose I'd be a bit less skeptical).

You are correct that people often base their moral beliefs on erroneous assumptions. The problem is, I can't argue that the justification for my moral beliefs, such as in relation to the stem cell issue, is at all superior. If anything, it's more based on a feeling that I care more about people who are suffering from diseases than about a bunch of cells, rather than based on religious absolutism. I'd feel uncomfortable with the idea of a fetus being aborted an hour before it's due to be born (assuming no threat to the mom's or fetus' health). So where would I draw the line? I don't doesn't tell me. So I just turn to supporting "what seems right."

themadengineer said...

I could see how "stem cell research should not be funded" could be seen as anti-scientific, since the adoption of this statement as policy would make it more difficult to practice (certain, stem-cell based) science.

I do know there are people that are explicitly hostile to science out there, thinking that there are things-humankind-isn't-meant-to-know(tm), but you are correct in that opinion is often confused for fact in these debates, and people disagreeing doesn't mean either one is necessarily totally wrong. (Each could be right on some things and wrong on others, or it's a matter of social preference and there is no absolute "correct.")

And the most frustrating conversations I've ever had are ones where the other person had some counterfactual belief that they refused to abandon under any weight of evidence. Especially when they then proceed to have all their arguments revolve around this one piece of falsehood. Argh.

Jacob Russell Wintersmith said...

I agree that there is a legitimate controversy over the efficacy of stimulus spending, quite unlike the evolution "controversy". (Although if we're going to have a huge stimulus, I think throwing money at the NSF is a pretty good option, since it can be spent fairly quickly and is unlikely to be a complete waste.)

As for questions of values, I'm an open moral subjectivist. I agree that it isn't possible to obtain any sort of universal blessing for one's values. And I intend to go on pursuing my values nonetheless. (One important point: Contrary to the imaginings of many moral realists, moral subjectivism need not lead to narcissistic egoism. There's no reason that "my values" can't include concern for ideals and for other people.) But yeah, sometimes I do still wish I had universal sanction for my values.

Joshua said...

This is true to some extent but there are limits. For example,
consider someone who said that
"Evolution should not be taught in public schools" or "the government should not require vaccinations" or "research funding should not go to anything related to long-term climate issues"

Each of those are political statements, but they are intimately related to statements 1,3 and 6. They are all examples where in order to accept them one must almost certainly make the corresponding statement 1,3 or 6.

The point is that sometimes political arguments can only be made in a context where there is some genuinely anti-science issue. I don't think that's occurring in 2,4 or 5 (although I think I could make a half-way decent case for it occurring in 5) but the three examples I gave should make clear that the line between what is a political issue and what is a science is not always so clear cut.