We have heard a lot about the danger of using martial metaphors in public debates, but that hasn’t stopped anybody from throwing them around. Metaphorical wars seemingly erupt daily, and with good reason: accusing your opponent of waging war against something “good” assures the general public that they are for bad things while “we” are for good things.
All these wars are, of course, illusory. The reality is that well-meaning people are disagreeing about how best to achieve good things.
The danger of using martial metaphors is not that they inspire the less mentally balanced among us to spring into violence (remember all those bogus calls for “civility” in debate a couple of years ago, based upon the silly notion that an unstable person spent his time watching cable news shows instead of listening to the voices in his own head?).
No, the danger is that using overheated rhetoric forecloses all opportunity for rational discussion.
Especially dangerous in this regard is the so-called “war on science,” in which (primarily) conservatives are being accused of denying truth and reason. Were this true, or worse yet, were it to merely be believed to be true, then only people who cling to the idea of “science” and “scientists” as infallible oracles should be allowed to have any say in public policy. In other words, accusing your opponents of waging a war on science is just another way of saying: “shut up” and making it stick.
The entire idea of a “war on science” is made up out of whole cloth. There is not a shred of evidence for it.
There are lots of disagreements about what scientific evidence really tells us, but that is a different matter. Such disagreements are natural and healthy, and frankly should be much more common than we see. Science itself would not be science without huge doses of healthy skepticism, and science stagnates when “consensus” develops. Usually a consensus develops right before the universe slaps scientists upside the head and reminds them of how truly huge and complex it is, and how little we really know about how it works.
This would be of only passing interest to most of us except for one thing: ideology masquerading as “science” is often used to bludgeon people into behaving the way politicians want them to.
I’ll take a pass on the issue of climate change, because it inspires too many emotions (see what I mean about ideology and science flirting with each other?), and use another example to make my point: public health.
Public health gets its authority from science, for obvious reasons. The government has vast public health powers (the government couldn’t arrest you and detain you without cause in a criminal matter, but it can throw you in quarantine, for instance, if it suspects you of harboring a dangerous disease). We can’t leave it to the politicians alone to decide whose civil rights to yank, so we appeal to medical science.
Scientists decided what chemicals to dump into our water (chlorine, a poison, is routinely used to kill bugs in water, and fluoride, another poison, is used to strengthen our teeth). We allow this authority because on balance we believe it benefits society, despite the fact that without question some people are harmed in the process.
But the mixture of science and politics has been toxic to both, however beneficial it has been in some ways. As rudimentary public health measures have shown great benefit, public health professionals have looked for other dragons to slay. Clean water and sanitation vastly improved public health, so why not use the vast powers granted to achieve these goals to other good?
The war on salt (another martial metaphor!) is a great example of the dangers inherent in this.
For decades doctors, the FDA, and other government officials have told us that too much salt is bad for us. If you Google salt intake, you will find thousands of pages recommending that we limit salt intake. In some cases, governments have gone beyond making recommendations, and have used their power to restrict the availability of salt. In 2010 the Institute of Medicine called on the FDA to impose regulations limiting salt use in food.
The problem? There is pretty much no solid scientific evidence that salt is bad for you in the kind of quantities that people actually eat. Don’t believe me? Read this article at Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=its-time-to-end-the-war-on-salt. In fact, there is some evidence that people who eat less salt die earlier. It, too, is probably wrong.
The evidence that salt is bad for you has always been slim, and as time has gone by and more research has accumulated, the evidence has pretty much evaporated. Sure a few people are salt intolerant, but then again some people have peanut allergies. We don’t restrict access to peanuts wholesale.
What is particularly important about this example is not just that politicians have decided to go on a jihad against salt based upon thin evidence; what is important is that by and large scientists have either gone along or even cheered them on. Scientists are using their authority to promote policies for which the evidence of benefit is basically non-existent.
Scientists are people, and once an idea is out there and been established, they are quite reluctant to admit they were wrong. Especially if their money, their prestige, or their power is at stake. For decades scientists have been recommending reduced salt intake, and it takes a lot of courage to admit that, gee, we have made your lives much more complicated and difficult than they need have been because we screwed up.
So they don’t admit it. Not because they are bad people, but because they are people. Being a scientist does not magically change that.
The mixture of science and politics is dangerous precisely because we assume that “science” magically inoculates scientists from the foibles of normal human beings. We assume money doesn’t attract, that power doesn’t corrupt, and that the impulse to admit one is wrong magically appears.
None of that is true.
Science is a powerful tool we use to understand the world; it is a method. We learn things using science. But science can never, ever tell us what to do, distinguish right from wrong, or even give us definitive answers to many basic questions. And when “science” is invoked as an authority in policy debates, it is almost always being used ideologically.
And ideological science is rarely if ever good science.
So eat your salt (unless you are truly salt intolerant), listen to scientists to get data (more than a few, so you get a sense of how solid the evidence is), and ignore anyone who speaks of a “war on science.” They are trying to bully you, not inform you.
Cross-posted at Center of the American Experiment
David Strom is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are his own.