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Science with a side of humility

February 19, 2015

Charles Lane offers some wise words:

There’s a lesson here for all of us, especially those who urge that this or that public policy be dictated by “the science.”

To be sure, that lesson is not that all science is as poor a guide to policy as the cholesterol research that led to such misallocation of scarce resources. Evolution, certainly, is established beyond a reasonable doubt, as is the link between tobacco and cancer, “Sleeper’s” joke notwithstanding.

Still, some science is bound to disappoint, or mislead, at significant social and financial cost, before it gets corrected. Unfortunately, consumers, or voters, including the best-educated ones, are poorly positioned to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Bronislaw Malinowski, the cultural anthropologist, famously explored overlaps among magic, science and religion, explaining that “[m]agic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge, or in his powers of practical control, and yet has to continue in his pursuit.”

Written in 1931 regarding what was known, in the argot of the time, as “primitive man,” Malinowski’s words nevertheless describe the typical American. There’s a limit to how much science we can understand on our own; we take the rest on faith, either because we think it’s advantageous, or because we see no practical alternative, or because people often defer to authority.

Doctors and researchers, authors of “medical miracles,” are more like a priesthood, or a cadre of sorcerers, than we generally admit. Their legitimacy is based on something real, and time-tested — the scientific method — but it also comes from the mystique of their diplomas and white coats.

And, like priests, even scientists can be led into error — whether through good faith, self-interest or simple “scientific inertia,” a synonym for conventional wisdom, which was the culprit in the cholesterol case, according to a researcher cited by The Post.

We’re doomed to rely on science; imperfect as it is, it beats the alternatives. The trick is for scientists to produce their work with appropriate humility, and for citizens to consume it with appropriate skepticism. For all the money, time and energy we wasted on mistaken beliefs about cholesterol over the past few decades, at least the error got corrected through continued research, well before 2173.

Precisely because it is, or aspires to be, value-free, science is better at describing social problems than solving them. Pol­icymaking is all about value judgments and trade-offs. Science can prove that man-made climate change, for example, is real; the “right” way to address it is a matter of morality and politics.

And in a democracy, a PhD’s vote counts the same as that of a Greenwich Village shopkeeper.

 

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