Archive for April 23rd, 2010


Democracy and Science

April 23, 2010

Roger called my attention this morning to a comment by philosopher Gregor Betz (Uni Stuttgart) in response to his recent review of four climate books (by Gore, Hansen, Schneider, and Helm/Hepburn) in Nature. You can read Betz’s shortened and published response here, but also his longer response at his website. I’d like to respond to the longer response.

For starters, I do think he’s right both about the normativity of policy (he seems to agree with Roger) and about the importance of descriptive claims to practical reasoning (he seems to disagree with Roger).

Just as an example: if I promise to be in London at 4:00, it matters to me what facts come into play. If there are no trains that arrive before 5:00, I’m in big trouble.

The question, ultimately, is whether Roger is actually saying that under no circumstances do descriptive claims play a role in the success or failure of a given policy or proposal. I’m fairly sure he’s not saying that, and a short shout out the door of my office confirms my suspicions. “Hey Roger: do you think that? No? Okay.”

Even still, if we take Betz’s initial caricature of Roger’s position on its face — “that [Roger seems to imply] that it is undemocratic for climate scientists to call for action against climate change in the name of science” — there are several ways to parse this out.

If it’s the “in the name of science” that’s important, as I believe it is for Roger, then it’s not clear why it is terribly important to accept a policy proposal in the name of science. Maybe there are reasons to propose a policy in the name of science — like, suppose, one may argue for protection of endangered species in the name of science, so that there are more species around to study — but isolating those reasons may be more or less difficult depending on one’s view of what science is.

If Roger is making the broader claim, which Betz apparently understands Roger to be, that democracy has no role for science, and thus no role for facts, I think I’ve completely misread Roger’s Nature article. My understanding of Roger’s position is that scientists who pretend that they’re taking the strictly descriptive stance — lo, this is what science tells us, and prescriptions naturally follow! — and therefore seek the moral high ground through their science, are doing a disservice to science, and to some extent, a disservice to democracy, by pretending (or, at least, acting under the illusion) that they aren’t also driven by ineffable political and normative considerations. That’s a mistake and a pretense of many (if not most) scientists, and it would be good to beat this out of them. We are not guided strictly by descriptive considerations. Practical reason is not theoretical reason. It doesn’t work according to tidy syllogisms.

On the second charge, I’m beginning to be worried that this is a straw man. For one thing, Roger only uses the term ‘democratic’ once, he uses the term ‘democracy’ twice, and he doesn’t use the term ‘undemocratic’ at all. As I say immediately above, my understanding is that Roger is not criticizing the scientists on grounds that there is no role for science in democracy. That’s ridiculous, and just looking at his entire body of work, it should be evident that he doesn’t feel this way. He’s a scientist, first and foremost. To make such a claim would essentially invalidate (or, at least, devalue) everything he works on himself.

Betz reveals, I think, that he has an almost naïve view of the practice of the sciences when he suggests that the only reason why scientists get involved in the public policy discourse is in order to clear up confusions. As he says, “because the public is unaware of the consequences of its actions.” It is true, of course, that scientists are sometimes motivated to clear up confusions, and perhaps that’s why, in many cases, they interject their work into the public discussion. That’s all very valuable. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think Roger agrees that that’s valuable. But what also often happens is that our allegedly value-free scientific positions are shaped, in part, by our orientations toward the right and the good, and sometimes it is when looking through this lens that we are more willing to emphasize one scientific finding and downplay another.

Depending on how cynical one is about truth, and depending also on what standards one holds for truth, one may think that science never escapes the pervasive influence of the normative. I’m willing to accept that claim, and I think it’s true in a very theoretical sense, but since a more-or-less pragmatic theory of truth strikes me as the correct theory of truth, I think I’ll say that the gavel has to fall on science and truth at some point, so the best we’ve got is the best we’ve got. It’s fallible, but it’s true nevertheless.

Finally, and this is a nitpicky philosophy thing, Betz is only partly right about the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy is often confused with the is-ought fallacy, which is what I think he really wants to invoke. The is-ought fallacy relates to the illegitimate leap from some descriptive observation about a state of the world, or a currently accepted practice, to the normative prescription that this is how the world or the practice ought to be. That’s different than the naturalistic fallacy, which refers primarily to moral properties and stems from the misapprehension that whenever we observe some property in some object, there’s a related moral fact. The problem is that it’s an open question as to whether or not the property is also a moral fact. To be sure, the two fallacies are related and often confused by philosophers — particularly those who think that if you’ve identified a moral good then you have a reason, prima facie or otherwise, to promote that good — so I’ll give him a pass on this. Nevertheless, it’s worth bearing this distinction in mind if you ever consider invoking one or the other fallacy. You can read about the difference herehere, and here.