Making Political Decisions with Science

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In these early days of the 2020 Democratic primary, candidates are looking to answer the major questions that will face their candidacy now, in the hopes that they will have to deal with them less when the race really heats up. Joe Biden had one of these moments yesterday as he spoke to the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network on MLK Day. This is how he apologized for his support for 1990s crime legislation:

Former Vice-President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Monday he made a mistake in supporting the tough-on-crime drug legislation of the 1980s and 1990s, expressing regret in particular over a bill that created different legal standards for powdered cocaine and street crack cocaine.

“It was a big mistake that was made,” Mr. Biden said of the measure, which was criticized as disproportionately affecting black Americans. “We were told by the experts that ‘crack you never go back,’ that the two were somehow fundamentally different. It’s not. But it’s trapped an entire generation.”

Now this post is not about crime legislation or Joe Biden (though we have and will continue to talk about both topics on The Church Politics Podcast and elsewhere here at The Crux & The Call). Instead, I am interested here in the now-ubiquitous invocation of science and, more to the point, those bearing the authority of science, as a total justification of policy decisions.

Tom Nichols and others are right to be concerned about the “death of expertise.” A post-truth politics is an unwieldy one that makes it impossible for us to have the common conversation necessary as a country to move forward in a truly democratic way on the big issues that face us all. If we can’t agree on the facts, how can we talk about the merits of the situation?

That said, one reason expertise has become undermined is because of intense, well-financed political advocacy campaigns that weaponize the credentials of expertise in a manipulative attempt to shut down the debate before it even begins. “Science says” really is sufficient in a discussion about whether gravity exists. It is not sufficient in how we as a society determine the legal implications of, say, dropping water balloons off a 30-story building on pedestrians below. Or bricks.

I wrote in my book about the way acceptable forms of knowledge and expertise are used to limit the input of other forms of knowledge and expertise that are now deemed unacceptable in some quarters, namely moral, ethical and religious sources.. And even in just the last few weeks, we’ve seen examples of this: For instance, Alexandra DeSanctis has noted Planned Parenthood’s new president'’s frequent invocation of her status “as a doctor” to argue for an array of public policy decisions. Another example is the longstanding debate over climate change, which is often held on the grounds of either environmental science (“science tells us these harms will be inflicted if we keep going down this path”) or economics (“economic models show us the costs of acting on climate change will outweigh the benefits”).

A purely technocratic view of government is not one that operates only on the basis of evidence and expertise, for that is impossible. Instead, pure technocracy comes with the ethical and moral assumptions already baked in, impervious to reason and impenetrable to engagement and debate—to democracy.

There’s a word for the view that science does or can answer all critical matters of life: scientism. Philosopher J.P. Moreland describes it in this way:

It (scientism) is the idea that the only way—or the vastly, vastly superior way—to gain knowledge of reality and truth resides in and only in the hard scientists.  As one advocate of scientism told me, if something like religious, ethical, or related claims cannot be quantified and proven in the laboratory, then the claims are nothing but hot air, mere expressions of feeling that cannot carry any authority.

Scientism, again, does not really offer a comprehensive way of thinking of governance. The claim that it does is part of the sham. Instead, claims that science guides policy often amount to a shell game meant to obscure the real debate and hide the moral intuitions and rationalizations that undergird a policy argument. And it is when this happens that we are especially susceptible to pursuing policies that will carry with them unexpected, unintended consequences.

Recognize this tactic when you are confronted in political discussions for what it is: an attempt to control the terms of debate. As Christians, we operate on different terms. We can embrace and seek the inputs of science, data, economics and technological expertise—all truth is God’s truth. However, we also understand that those inputs will not do all of the work for us. We know that we are moral beings, and that politics is a moral endeavor. There is no way around ethical and moral dimensions of politics, and when we try to pretend as though there is, we end up loading far too much on technical expertise, hoping that if it goes wrong we can at least answer that we could not know any better; that we operated based on the best knowledge available to us at the time.

We cannot expect moral policies if we intend to reach them through purely technocratic means. We must have another filter, which we will of course utilize imperfectly like any other. In the end, our politics will only be as good as our character. The question is: who or what will we look to for expertise on that? Is there anyone who understands what it means to live the good life? Is there any authority on justice who is trustworthy?

Of course, I have my answer. I believe Jesus is trustworthy in all things, and that He has knowledge that is available to us about what is best for our lives and for our shared life together.

In a country as big and boisterous as ours, there will be many answers about the morality and ethics that will contribute to our political process. We can argue about those, but first, we’ll need to come to understand that these areas of knowledge even matter in the first place. Like so much else that is wrong in our politics, science won’t do that work for us either.