Science and society—separating the roles

I posted thoughts on the fallibility and self-correction of science on August 13, then on August 19 addressed the nonsense of non-scientists presuming to adjudicate scientific disagreements. This post concerns a further aspect of the interaction between science and nonscientists: public policy about science. But first, in the service of role distinction, permit me a brief detour into the philosophy of science, a rather esoteric field that logically precedes science itself.

Philosophy of science is an academic field that describes and delimits the special knowledge-gathering process we call science. Philosophers of science, engaged broadly with how we know anything (epistemology), concern themselves specifically with the characteristics of science that justify our giving it special status among ways of knowing. Their pursuit includes the demarcation that separates science and pseudo-science, how to consider probability versus “truth,” what distinguishes the unique rules of inquiry, and the special science meaning of theory. It is manifestation of their relevance that eminent biologist Richard Dawkins, in describing ambition about the integrity of his research, said that he “wanted to do a textbook Popperian study” (Karl Popper is perhaps the best known philosopher of science).

It is important to note that philosophers’ concerns view science from outside science itself or, in a manner of speaking, intellectually pave the way for science. Philosophers of science do not themselves have to be scientists, but they must be capable epistemologists, for philosophy of science stands apart from the doing of science in order to engage in the defining of science.

Musing about this field of study recently led me to thinking about public policy of science inasmuch as it relates to, but is removed from, science itself—just as distinct from science per se as is philosophy of science. It would address the public and governmental approach to and relationship with science.

Consider a few actions in the United States in the recent and not so recent past: (1) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was instructed not to study gun violence. (2) Federal funding for stem cell research was suspended except for limited cell cultures. (3) Federal budgets have long altered from year to year how much tax funding will be directed at specific scientific inquiries. (4) Research on syphilis treatments were conducted with minimal regard for very harmful effects. (5) Massive funding was brought to bear on producing nuclear fission bombs to end WW II. (6) Tobacco companies and fundamentalist churches gave more credence to a few outlier scientists than to the great majority of scientists working in evolutionary biology. (7) I chose to make a charitable research donation to fistula treatment versus microbiology of diabetes.
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Not one of these choices was itself a scientific action and not one was a philosophy of science consideration. Each was a choice made by an individual, a group, or their representatives. It is the accumulated effect of such choices that comprise what I’m referring to as the broadly construed public policy of science. Regardless whether you or I agree with any one of these decisions, no one questions the right of the general public, in its cumulative effect, to make such judgments.
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To be a bit more analytic, we can divide these choices into separable concerns such as these: (a) the extent to which we as a society give science-derived information and conclusions an authoritative niche in our understanding of reality, (b) the extent to which we apportion wealth to specific scientific research or science in general, (c) the way in which we deal with gaps between science and conflicting sources of knowing (e.g., ”revealed truth,” religious faith, patriotic attachment), and (d) the limits we impose on scientific inquiry, whether due to considerations of prudence, ethics, protection of beliefs, or simple distaste.
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I propose that decisions made in these three arenas (philosophy, science, public policy) should be made exclusively by and within the relevant one of these three groups. Scientists are uniquely qualified to make research decisions and compose theories, unrivaled by philosophers or public. Philosophers are uniquely qualified to distinguish the epistemic role of science from other pursuits of knowledge (such as what separates science from pseudo-science), unrivaled by either scientists themselves or public.
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All the foregoing line of thought brings me to the reason for this post: the public is qualified neither to evaluate the findings of science itself nor to define the nature of science, but it is the only grouping with the unique authority and legitimacy to make public policy decisions. In fact, not one of the three groups can both competently and justifiably do the others’ jobs.
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Although I contend there should be minimal or no overlap of roles, there always will be overlaps of individuals. An individual scientist, for example, is also a member of the public and, in that role, is qualified to participate in discharging the public’s prerogatives. But scientists as scientists, other than as sources of information, should never be allowed to intrude on public decision-making.
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Consequently, the public—particularly as represented by elected officials—cannot responsibly sidestep the charge of making public policy decisions. Public policy is flawed, indeed, when the public defaults to scientists a role that is not rightfully theirs. As a current example, scientists should find the facts and devise the best theories regarding global climate change with the rigor demanded by philosophers of science, but not dictate what the public should do about it. Whether the cost-benefit of one course of action or another is “best” and how to value risks are not questions of science, but of public policy.
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This requires a public informed enough and wise enough to demand that available choices for public action pass both the philosophic and scientific tests. (“Creation science” doesn’t pass what is required to be science. The view of a few outlier scientists does not pass the “what does science say” test.) Flawed public policy will be the inevitable result when the very starting point for public consideration is of questionable integrity. With these two necessary assurances, the public job begins. The public must examine and debate its competing values with the commitment to accept and shoulder the responsibility incumbent on its role to boldly make the ensuing, difficult public policy decisions. I will leave for another time the problems with our current methods of conducting that debate and of assessing informed public opinion.
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This philosophy-science-policy role specificity would deny the plea attributed to a U.S. Congressman that scientists should “tell us what to do” about anthropogenic climate change. It would deny to the Union of Concerned Scientists a role any more than that accorded to other general public groups (that is, while input is welcome, it is devoid of the special status of “scientific”). Citizens would be able to identify the political (in its derogatory sense) maneuvers of Congressional committees that bring together outlier scientists to shore up a political point of view, as if politicians are qualified to referee a dispute among scientists.
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Why is so rigid a separation of roles and role assignments so important? It is because role confusion is so often an unrecognized source of dysfunction, even when the decisions themselves might be good ones. (I built an entire career on role clarity with respect to boards of directors and CEOs—an area of crippling role confusion.) Many problems in organizations that are commonly ascribed to personality differences or various inadequacies are due instead to unrecognized poor role differentiation.
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In the American public sector, politicization of climate change and biological evolution is marked by the public’s playing a role it cannot carry out intelligently, while at the same time it is reluctant to confront the decisions that belong uniquely to it. (I am reminded of the misleadingly-named “social Darwinism” spread in the late 19th Century—nonscientists making pseudo-scientific applications of their misunderstood notions of Darwinism, simultaneously damaging humaneness and the public perception of biological science.) Such confounding of roles continues unabated in our current arguments by religious fundamentalists on what constitutes authoritative scientific inquiry and the meaning of scientific theories.
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Evolution, climate change, abortion, healthcare coverage, infrastructure deterioration, gay parenting, and many other major issues are made more difficult and their resolution less rational by our slipshod treatment of role differentiation with regard to the potential gifts of science.
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[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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