Science and Truthiness

by Roger Koppl

President Obama seems to be setting himself up as the scientific President.  He has a Nobel Prize winning physicist for his Secretary of Energy.  Monday he reversed the ban on stem-cell research and issued an interesting memo meant, presumably, to restore scientific integrity to the Executive Branch of the federal government.

Obama’s attitude toward science is a vast improvement over the Bush attitude that, in Stephen Colbert’s brilliant satire, “truthiness” trumps science.  I think the celebration of “science” has its risks, however.  Obama gets it right, I think, when his memo says, “If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.”  And he is right to say, in effect, that we don’t get to pick our facts.  Right.  But I fear the tyranny of experts, especially when their funding comes from one source, the federal government.

Obama’s memo says, “Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues.”  What counts as science and what science counts?  When the federal government dominates science funding, then we may not have enough cognitive diversity for error detection and correction.  A monopoly funder may turn the process of scientific review into a kind of Keynesian beauty contest.  Separately and together, William Butos and Thomas McQuade have done important work on this topic, as illustrated by their 2006 paper in The Independent Review available here.  Science is better than truthiness, but it has its dangers too, I fear.

10 thoughts on “Science and Truthiness

  1. I disagree that science in its modern form as “S”cience is better than “truthiness.” I think, fundamentally, so does every other living human who would not [rightly] be considered a monster by the rest of us.

    The contention is centerd on only a few issues: abortion, climate modeling, and the origin of life. Small “s” science can never answer the first and third with certainty by any scientific method. The second may be answerable, but is beyond our current capacity to answer definitely.

    As a demonstration of the point, however, abortion has no scientific meaning in a debate outside the context of the “truthiness” that people have a right to live. The debate then circles on when people are, in fact, people. The “truthiness” that people have a right to live is not even contested.

    On that and the majority of practical issues, people believe in natural rights which exceed scientific consensus.

    The historical reason for science has been the pursuit of knowledge fueled by curiosity. I agree without reservation that one cannot pick and choose which facts to believe, but it is a fallacy of the first order to think that scientific investigation arrives always at an indisputable conclusion.

    What if “S”cience concluded it would be beneficial to the human race if mentally retarded people did not exist to pollute it? gays? blacks? Jews? That isn’t a trope, as the scientific consensus did that very thing once.

    I’ll take the fundamental “truthiness” that all life is valuable over scientific findings, whether they agree with my position or not.

    Likewise, I’ll take the “truthiness” that freedom is a natural right regardless of whether science concludes we’d be better off if every person on earth were strictly controlled in what they could and could not do by those who scientifically knew better.

  2. Let me get this straight. You say Bush was wrong to ban the federal funding of stem cell research, but now that Obama has, in your opinion, rightly lifted the ban, you fear the federal funding of stem cell research. Your position is a little too nuanced for me.

  3. Tom,

    I’m all for stem cell research. I have no ambivalence about Obama’s decision to reverse the ban on stem-cell research. Three cheers for stem-cell research, period.

    I was reacting to Obama’s science memo. On the one hand he goes for transparency and he says we don’t pick out facts or overrule science. I like that. I approve. Obama is waaay better than Bush. But that same memo seemed to suggest that we can turn lots of social decisions over to technical specialist, experts. That same memo raises a fear in me that Obama may overvalue the role and place of technocrats.

    This is straight Hayek. Knowledge of time and place vs. codified knowledge. Epistemic monopoly is the end of truth. The limits of knowledge are sometimes neglected by those who worship science. One of Hayek’s 1952 books was subtitled “Studies in the Abuse of Reason.” One way to abuse reason is to slap your gut and say “truthiness.” That’s way worse than anything we have yet seen from the Obama administration. Another way to abuse reason, however, is to worship science, to confuse science with magic. “We’ll just call in an expert (a.k.a. wizard) and hand the problem to him. He’ll tell us what to do.” Thanks, no, I’d rather pass on that one.

  4. Delong:[I’m sorry. You are not entitled to your own facts: please use the facts that Milton Friedman and the rest of us are using.

    Note that Larry White’s “evidence” that Mellon was not a liquidationist is an undocumented and unsupported claim that Herbert Hoover was a liar…]”

    Sorry to be a little off topic, but Brad Delong also says you’re are not entitled to pick your facts in response to Larry Whites evidence that Mellon was not a liquidationist. So, who get’s to decide what the “facts” are???

  5. Hi again Tom,

    It looks like your getting at a very specific point, but I don’t think I see what that point is. Sorry if I’m being obtuse.

    In the particular case you cite, I’ll pick Larry over DeLong any day. I caught DeLong inventing facts in the history of economic thought as documented here:

    The relevant page on DeLong’s site seems to be gone. I wonder if it was scrubbed. For evidence that DeLong may lack the scholarly virtues we normally take for granted follow these two links:

    Anyway, saying you don’t get to pick your facts does not imply that it’s trivial to decide what the facts are and what the *relevant* facts are. Science produces multiple interpretations. That’s kind of the point, really. Science is not a univocal truth machine, but a fallible social process. I worry that the Obama administration may hold the implicit model of science as a univocal truth machine. That’s not science; it’s magic.

  6. Kary Mullis, 1993 Nobel prizewinner for Chemistry, says it isn’t either science or truthiness that drives government science policy. Mullis says it is all “public choice” economics at work. See Mullis’s views here.

  7. Tim,

    Thanks for that link. Very nice. Mullis is an interesting guy! One wonders if he isn’t exaggerating the prowess of his individual judgment when he declares certain established results to be pure hooey. For example he denied that any solid evidence links HIV to AIDS and the supposed link is all scientific rent seeking. Maybe, but I confess that claim strains credulity, especially in light of the medical establishment’s apparent success in reducing AIDS mortality by aggressively attacking HIV.

    However all that may be, the public-choice logic of Mullis’s criticism of science is solid, IMHO. I think Mullis is pretty much in line with McQuade and Butos, although they go deeper. Mullis points out that current institutions give scientists an incentive to engage in what philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt calls, in a technical sense, Bull*****ing. They have an incentive to generate models and theories useful in rent seeking, without regard to the scientific merit of those models and theories. Butos & McQuade go deeper, pointing out that a single funder can lead science astray even when each scientist tries hard to eschew B******t. These are complementary insights.

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