| August 21, 2012

Public policy should be informed by science ... and more

Our friends at the Mackinac Center, a venerable free-market think tank in Michigan, like to point out that their publications and programs “offer an integrated and comprehensive approach” that considers not just economics but all disciplines.

Center research incorporates the best understanding of economics, science, law, psychology, history and morality, moving beyond mechanical cost/benefit analysis.

OCPA takes the same approach. Yes, we have a high regard for science (even the dismal one), having published papers by economists—both liberal and conservative—of national and even world-historical repute.

But science isn’t everything. “Public policy arguments need an authority to which they can appeal,” Greg Forster writes. “The problem is that, increasingly, our culture has no widely recognized authorities other than science.” Forster, who has written for OCPA on what the science has to say about school choice, writes:

Say that you favor a given approach—in education, in politics, in culture—because it is best suited to the nature of the human person, or because it best embodies the principles and historic self-understanding of the American people, and you will struggle even to get a hearing. But if you say that “the science” supports your view, the world will fall at your feet.

Of course, this means powerful interest groups rush in to seize hold of “science,” to trumpet whatever suits their preferences, downplay its limitations, and delegitimize any contrary evidence. If they succeed—which they don’t always, but they do often enough—“the science” quickly ceases to be science at all. That’s why “scientific” tyrannies like the Soviet Union had to put so many real scientists in jail—or in the ground.

Forster correctly says “we need other sources of wisdom and knowledge—and hence of authority.” As he and some fellow researchers recently put it in Education Week,

[W]e fear that political pressure is leading people on both sides of the issue to demand things from “science” that science is not, by its nature, able to provide. The temptation of technocracy—the idea that scientists can provide authoritative answers to public questions—is dangerous to democracy and science itself. Public debates should be based on norms, logic and evidence drawn from beyond just the scientific sphere.

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