Culture

The Unscientific Claims of the March for Science

Sign at the “March for Science” rally in Seattle, Wash. (Reuters photo: David Ryder)
It’s not enough to wrap one’s policy preferences in the righteous quest to vindicate science.

Editor’s Note: This piece is reprinted with permission from Acculturated.

The posters were wittier and there were fewer pink hats, but last weekend’s March for Science was no less about partisan grandstanding and name calling than any other political rally. The message this time? We are pro-science and anyone who disagrees with us is anti-science. As if there are people out there burning copies of Scientific American and picketing the beaker factory. Down with the theory of relativity!

Marchers allege “an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery.” They are fighting for “science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.” For all its lofty rhetorical appeal, however, the argument suffers from glaring flaws in logic.

The Marcher for Science conflates scientific findings with public-policy choices. Science informs but does not dictate public policy. To paraphrase philosopher David Hume, what is does not determine what ought to be.

A few examples: Scientific research shows that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on criminal behavior. This finding, however, cannot speak to the complex moral and legal arguments over capital punishment.

Scientific research shows that vaccines safely prevent the spread of viruses. This fact informs but does not spell out vaccination requirements for public schools. Should there be health or religious exemptions? Science cannot weigh issues of common good and individual freedom. That’s for the public and its elected leaders to debate.

Scientific research shows children raised in families with a biological mother and father fare better on health and education outcomes than those raised in other family arrangements. Should the government subsidize marriage programs? Should it discourage adoption by individuals or gay couples? Should government do nothing and let community and faith-based organizations support marriage health? Science cannot answer these questions. Support for or opposition to these policies does not make one pro- or anti-science.

Scientific research shows that a new plant, animal, or human life begins when gametes meet and the new life begins to grow. Science, however, cannot determine whether the government should protect the lives of any human, plant, or animal. That is a matter of public policy. Scientific consensus does not equal public-policy consensus.

Advocates of these policy prescriptions must persuade the public that they are needed and are preferable to other choices.

Science cannot “uphold the common good.” It is morally neutral — or at least it should be. The same scientific process that produced the polio vaccine, CRISPR gene editing, and dwarf wheat produced Zyklon B, the atom bomb, and methamphetamine. Similarly, “evidence based policies in the public interest” are not for scientists to decide but for political leaders, think tanks, commentators, and the people themselves to determine based on scientific findings, budget constraints, economic impacts, ethical considerations, constitutionality, and other costs and benefits.

Because the earth has warmed 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century and carbon emissions have contributed to that warming does not automatically justify wind subsidies or participation in the Paris Agreement. Advocates of these policy prescriptions must persuade the public that they are needed and are preferable to other choices. Wrapping their policy preferences in the righteous quest to vindicate science from the ignorant masses isn’t going to do it. Scientific research shows that calling people stupid makes them less — not more — receptive to persuasion.

—Krista Kafer writes for Acculturated, where this piece originally appeared. It is reprinted with permission.

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