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Blinded by Scientism

Many governors, particularly Democratic ones, have justified their states’ lockdowns with the common slogan, “We are following the science.” When Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar barred the nation’s health agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, from independently signing any new rules regarding vaccines, requiring instead his approval, some virus experts expressed concern that the politics would now get in the way of the science.

The mantra of “follow the science” is not unique to the politics of the virus. Politicians offer a similar justification for policies on climate change. Just as the science about Covid-19 “justifies” lockdowns, the science of climate change is used to support spending and regulatory policy that will deliver zero net emissions.

The idea of following science as opposed to politics is a trope that goes back to the beginning of the progressive era. In 1887 Woodrow Wilson, then a professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College, wrote a famous paper arguing that public administration could be separated from politics because it could follow a scientific logic rather than succumb to the corruption of politics. His ideas and similar ones became, in turn, a justification for an expanded administrative state. Within administration, experts would deliver regulations for the public good based on science. This “conveyor belt” model of administrative law in fact suggested that there needed to be fewer constitutional restraints on administrative agencies than on the legislature, because administrative agencies were constrained by science.

The conveyor belt model of administration has been largely abandoned even by most liberals. Experts do not always agree on the science. Moreover, the facts do not themselves dictate policy. Considerations of value are central to choosing policies, particularly when administrative agencies are given substantial delegated power from Congress. For instance, the FCC is to grant licenses to television stations in the public interest. But no set of facts can tell us what the public interest is. As a result of this recognition, administrative law was reformed by the Administrative Procedure Act to require more public input on rules and more searching review of the rules by the judiciary. Since Ronald Reagan, every president has also required major rules to be vetted centrally to make sure they are consistent with the overall political choices of the administration.  

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.

It is much better for a politician to claim she is following science when she is closing the schoolhouse door than admit that she is in bed with the teachers’ union.

The conveyor belt view of politics is ultimately based on a philosophical fallacy. One cannot derive “ought statements” from “is statements.” David Hume demonstrated this point centuries ago. That recognition is not to devalue science. Using science to assess the likely costs and benefits of policies with the benefit of science helps us make better tradeoffs, whatever values we embrace. But it cannot replace debates among different values or determine the appropriate tradeoffs between them.

If the conveyor belt of science dictating politics has fallen out of favor in administrative law and is even more obviously inapplicable to politics in general, why are so many politicians returning to its rhetoric? The reason is that, even if it is an intellectually bankrupt tradition, it remains politically useful. 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.

But hiding behind science is bad for policy and worse for the civic health of the nation. The lockdown is a case in point. It is simply not the case that the facts about the transmission of the virus are sufficient to justify a lockdown by themselves. A policy of lockdown may help prevent transmissions and some deaths. But it also exacts huge costs to the economy, to our cultural life, and indeed to the mental well-being of Americans. Both lower growth and diminished mental health result in deaths as well as other harms. It may well be that the lockdown has been a contributing factor to the riots that have swept many cities across the nation. That is not to say that any particular lockdown is not justified. But enforcing a lockdown is not a decision that can be based on science alone. Instead, it requires prudential judgments of the sort that we elect leaders to make. As this essay was being written, the World Health Organization announced that lockdowns should not be the primary method of controlling the virus. This change of position highlights the dangers of hitching public policy to claims about contestable science.   

Nor can determining the necessarily fine-grained rules for an optimal policy toward the virus possibly be made simply on the basis of science.  Should a city permit the opening of bars and restaurants during the time of the virus to support these businesses and workers, but not open schools for small children who cannot easily learn online? Science cannot answer that question, but that is what my city of Chicago is doing. In fact, a study shows that whether public schools are open in a jurisdiction has more to do with the strength of the teachers’ union there than the local conditions of the virus. It is much better for a politician to claim she is following science when she is closing the schoolhouse door than admit that she is in bed with the teachers’ union.

By distorting policy, scientism in politics also leads to political divisions. Some voters recognize that politicians are hiding behind science in making decisions that they may dislike. And the result often is an anti-scientific populism that not only rejects the scientific façade of decision making but the science as well. And this natural reaction makes rational debate and good policy more difficult, because science is indeed relevant to many political decisions, even if it is not determinative of them.

Our polarized politics has many causes, but scientism is fast becoming an important one. Scientism is not a restraint on populism. Instead, scientism and populism are evil twins of civic discourse that drive out the sober and deliberative judgments that can help a nation hold together and flourish.

Reader Discussion

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on October 15, 2020 at 10:12:12 am

Also consider the fact that politics manipulates science by providing or denying financial support. Scientism creates an extractive cycle. In extractive government, office holders use government to create profit and power for themselves, and they also use the instruments government to maintain their positions in government. That is the purest essence of bad government.

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Scott Amorian
on October 16, 2020 at 08:55:46 am

"That is the purest essence of bad government."

That is the purest essence of ALL government.

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on October 15, 2020 at 10:21:41 am

Now that I think about it for a moment, it isn't just office holders in government who are the bad guys. The close associates of the office holders are also part of the problem. Close associates would be people like party officials, union leaders, the very wealthy. You know, the usual suspects. In the case of profiting from covid, the profits would come from selling vaccines. The worse the problem, the more the public should be persuaded to buy vaccines. They beneficiaries would include big pharma and Bill Gates (https://www.collective-evolution.com/2020/10/15/bill-gates-a-second-wave-of-covid-vaccines-will-come-next-year-after-the-first/).

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Scott Amorian
on October 15, 2020 at 10:58:25 am

The problem of scientism or “following the science” is not that it has ignored that one cannot derive an ought from an is, which as many have noted does not show that values cannot be based on facts, but rather that it assumes that the methods of science, e.g. those of physics and chemistry, are the only ways of determining the facts. There is more to reality than what the so-called scientific method reveals.

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Douglas Rasmussen
on October 16, 2020 at 08:58:43 am

Agree- the error of the common people is failing to realize that once a scientist/expert leaves the realm of determining facts for the realm of advocacy, he's now a politician...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on October 15, 2020 at 11:13:55 am

And, of course, there is always utility value of claiming "science" while simply asserting one's Executive will or excusing rather poor decision making as in the following"

https://townhall.com/tipsheet/leahbarkoukis/2020/10/15/leaked-audio-shows-cuomo-admitting-the-real-reason-for-ny-lockdowns-n2578119

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gabe
on October 15, 2020 at 13:57:45 pm

1. Theodoric of York is in charge of U.S. COVID policy.

2. The philosophical concept of determinism has been replaced by that of anthropogenism; i.e. the idea that nothing that affects human life happens without some man-made policy or intervention to cause it. It also holds that nothing in the world is beyond the influence of human intervention. When Mr. Biden assures us he is "following the science," and that Mr. Trumps failure to do so has left more than 200,000 dead Americans, it seems logical to ask "Who is the scientist who claims that if the proper policies were in place, the death toll from COVID would be zero?"

3. At some point in the process of hypothesis testing, the notion that the hypothesis just hasn't been accepted by enough people has to yield to the more likely alternative that the hypothesis is wrong. When exacerbations and remissions of COVID cases occur despite "mitigation measures," faith in the notion that such measures just need to be more extreme must yield to the conclusion that they do not work, and will not work as assumed.

4. When science seems uninterested in inherently interesting questions, such as why the trajectories of COVID cases and COVID-related deaths have diverged, pretty much everywhere, one may be skeptical that decision-making is actually following the science.

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z9z99
on October 15, 2020 at 13:58:48 pm

McGinnis had to find a lot of moles to build such a modest hill. Anyone paying attention has seen that the problem this "mantra" is aimed at is the anti-science bias of incompetent leaders who are now (apparently) in full embrace of the illusion of "herd immunity." It is not one of the four horsemen of "scientism." To what end is not clear, but there is a disaster brewing and lives will be lost. I am increasingly struck by the irresponsibility of this brand of sophistry.

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Anthony Raymond Brunello
on October 16, 2020 at 09:05:27 am

[...the anti-science bias of incompetent leaders who are now (apparently) in full embrace of the illusion of "herd immunity."]

Anti-science? Is there another means of stopping an infectious respiratory disease? If there is, please alert WHO, the CDC, etc. and of course the medical industry as they'd all love to know what it is...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on October 16, 2020 at 22:42:49 pm

So when did herd immunity become an illusion? It has been used for years against certain diseases with a good effect. And, I take it you haven't really listened to all the speeches by the President and Dr Fauci regarding Covid 19. They are commenting on it everyday, and what they have both said has changed over time. January was a long time ago. And, you really think the president doesn't have dozens of experts on any subject at hand to consult? Unbelievable.

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Barbara
on October 15, 2020 at 14:49:39 pm

Professor McGinnis' essay is useful because it covers (only) a few of the negative political impacts of "scientism." But the essay fails even to define "scientism" and by calling "scientism and populism... evil twins of civic discourse" McGinnis suggests that he fully understands neither.

Scientism is not science but, rather, a secular religion which abuses science for political reasons. Scientism is the scientifically-unfounded faith that only science can provide the truth about reality, the theologically-unfounded belief that science can define life's meaning and goals, the historically-unfounded conviction that science ought direct, not just assist, government in pursuit of human progress and, the morally-unfounded opinion that science must control, not just assist, human decision-making. Scientism is the antithesis of human freedom, the death of prudence, and the bane of representative government. Scientism is the handmaiden of the administrative state, which is the ruling authority of bureaucratic totalitarianism.

"Populism" today must be seen as conservative to the core, as seeking to conserve the best of America, as a grass-roots, bottom-up reform movement. It is the "conservative populism" of democratic republicanism. The populist movement chose Donald Trump as its leader; he did not found the movement. Conservative populism is not the top-down, psychologically-manipulated, politically-controlled, mob rule of Mussolini's Brown Shirts and Black Shirts or of Mao's Red Guard or of BLM. Conservative populism is the political movement of ordinary people who feel that their traditional values and concerns are those on which the nation was founded, that those values and concerns are important for human happiness and essential to the nation's survival, and that those values and concerns and the people who cherish them are disregarded and despised by an alliance of elite groups who now rule most of the country, who conspire to revolutionize all of it, and who deploy scientism as a weapon in their conspiracy to do so. The weapon of scientism is most powerfully and destructively on display in the area of public health, specifically in the government-directed responses to the China Virus pandemic and to climate change, wherein the media and the Democrat Party have willfully distorted the real science and replaced it with scientism.

McGinnis is only half-right about scientism and dead wrong about populism. Populism in the USA is a good thing, not an "evil twin" of scientism. Scientism is the weaponization of true science for evil political purposes. Scientism is not the evil twin of populism but the bludgeon of political elitists and bureaucratic totalitarians who are the enemies of conservative populism.

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paladin
on October 15, 2020 at 18:15:27 pm

Right-o on McGinnis and populism as the good Professor may not wish to be seen as less Never Trump than his faculty colleagues.
Quiote frankly, it disturbs me that a scholar who advocates originalism and bases that advocacy upon the assertion that the Constitution ought, indeed MUST be interpreted as would the common man of the Founding Era, is wont to disparage the common understanding of today's common citizen deriding it as "populism" in its most pejorative sense.

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gabe
on October 24, 2020 at 20:29:22 pm

Perfectly stated!
Good job.

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Skeptical1
on October 15, 2020 at 15:30:09 pm

What McGinnis wrote has a major flaw: The debate now is not over science and public policy but over an imperfect science that is evolving as more is discovered about Covid-19 and a political leader whose primary if not exclusive goal is his own re-election. The weaknesses of the former are not balanced against the shallowness and danger of the latter. Fellow readers, which would you trust? Would you trust Dr. Fauci or Donald Trump to recommend health care for your mother and your children?

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Bob Lyke
on October 15, 2020 at 18:09:47 pm

Well, I would take Trump over Fauci who has been wrong on every issue re: The ChiComm Flu.
Also, Trump was apparently at least as correct about regeneron (sp?) and other medicines as was the now August Fauci with equal numbers of studies supporting Trump as Fauci with "hydroq....."

So, would you entrust your health to one who has been wrong repeatedly, who has an institutional imperative to "enhance" the dangers of the ChiComm Flu in the face of considerable evidence that it is only as deadly as Seasonal flu, and the effect of Fauci's "scientific based" recommendations has been to force an additional EIGHT MILLION Americans into poverty.
In this light, all Trumps efforts to minimize Fauci's prognostication based remedies, falsifications and retractions are to be viewed as the rational response to the current "plague" (as some would have it / hope for.

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gabe
on October 16, 2020 at 10:28:05 am

Your reply is intellectually lazy, reducing everything to Trump v. Fauci. That has nothing to do, for example, with whether the restrictions imposed by the governors of New York or Michigan are reasonable (both governors are Democrats, and neither are controlled by Trump) nor whether and how school districts, which are controlled locally (with some state oversight) are to open their doors for education.
There are thousands of public policy decisions being made at all levels of government this year because of COVID-19, and the place of "science" in making those decisions is an important question which the article addresses.

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Bored Lawyer
on October 16, 2020 at 11:47:02 am

Uhhh! The reply was meant to *answer* the question as to a preference between Trumpa nd Fauci.
nota bene: I did not raise the issue of Fauci versus Trump. I simply respopnded to the "intellectually lazy" question raised by another commentor.

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gabe
on October 15, 2020 at 17:25:44 pm

Mr. Lyke asks (rhetorically, I'm sure):
"Would you trust Dr. Fauci or Donald Trump to recommend health care for your mother and your children?"

To which I reply, "Trump, in a New York minute!"
Trump has repeatedly demonstrated incredibly good judgment, while Fauci has shown that he is not to be trusted.

Give me a week, and I might think of something big about the China Virus on which Fauci has been both right and consistent. I can think of no important China Virus matter on which Trump has been wrong or inconsistent. Trump's far greater trustworthiness is also reflected in his sober realism toward the China and the WHO, as to which Fauci was inexcusably gullible and naive, to the great detriment of public health. Further, Fauci appears willing to deceive the public. He admitted that he lied when he told people that masks were of no value.

How many contracted the virus because of Fauci's gullibility and deception? It cannot be said that Trump has been naive toward Red china and the WHO, deceived the public or that anyone contracted the virus because of his advice.

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paladin
Trackbacks
on October 16, 2020 at 10:09:04 am

[…] 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 […]

on October 16, 2020 at 10:18:26 am

[…] 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 […]

on October 16, 2020 at 10:42:48 am

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on October 16, 2020 at 11:04:30 am

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on October 16, 2020 at 11:08:15 am

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on October 16, 2020 at 13:28:37 pm

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on October 17, 2020 at 03:43:03 am

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on October 21, 2020 at 03:09:07 am

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on October 22, 2020 at 04:10:29 am

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on November 08, 2020 at 12:12:00 pm

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on November 13, 2020 at 22:54:44 pm

[…] “It is much better for a politician to claim she is following science when she is closing the schoolhouse door than admit that she is in bed with the teachers’ union,” Axe said, quoting a recent Law and Liberty article. […]

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