The political pitfalls of settled science


To be modern is to live in a world of man-made marvels that continually astound, that give us ever-growing power over space and time, and yet that leave us perhaps more subjugated than we realize at first.

TIME magazine reports on two recent proud conquests of nature, one industrial and the other human. The politics of it, however, require some unveiling.

Researchers have developed a kind of corn-based plastic. Your descendants won't find it in landfills a thousand years from now because it turns into corn mush 40 days after you bury it:

"Regular, petroleum-based plastic doesn't biodegrade. But this year's crop of Earth Day-inspired ads shows plant-based plastics doing just that: an empty SunChips bag fading into the soil, a Paper Mate pen dissolving underground. . . . Bioplastics could be really good for the environment---the manufacturing process produces fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than that for petroleum-based plastics, and these biomaterials don't contain an allegedly hormone-disrupting chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), that some regular plastics do. . . ."

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Making a plastic pen from corn is an impressive feat, but the human factor is not as easy to engineer. The environmental advantage depends on people composting their SunChips bag. We don't have much opportunity for that here at my office in the Empire State Building. Even at home, few people have a composting crib. Unless municipalities send around a composting truck to empty out specially colored cans from the foot of people's driveways on designated days of the week, that SunChips bag is going in the regular kitchen trash. So to take fullest advantage of this technological advance, we need a further advance in the administrative state.

The conquest of nature necessarily points us, and without pausing for a breath, to the conquest of human nature. If the one is problematic, the other is treacherous at the very least.

The very next story in the print edition of TIME reported on a Tulane University study published in Pediatrics that supposedly proves scientifically beyond any reasonable doubt that spanking children inclines them to violence in their later years. But studying human beings where it involves moral issues is a lot trickier than studying the composition and industrial applications of corn.

The study, led by community-health-sciences professor Catherine Taylor, makes an effort to account for factors that may distort the findings: "a host of issues affecting the mother, such as depression, alcohol and drug use, spousal abuse and even whether she considered abortion while pregnant with the child." Nonetheless, the study compares the behavior of 5-year-old children who were spanked from the age of 3 at least twice a month with children who were not. From what TIME reports, Taylor does not study children at the ages of, say, 10, 14, and 18 who had been spanked throughout the age range when spanking is appropriate. Age 5 is hardly "the long run" for observing the fruit of discipline. Furthermore, she does not distinguish between wise and unwise spanking, i.e., spanking accompanied by age appropriate instruction and other variables.

Here, scientific research is said to have proven that certain methods of nurturing are significantly more likely to produce people of a desirable sort (it's not yet an exact science). Yet the human factor in studying human affairs still distorts the conclusions that researchers draw. This must account for the striking discrepancy between common sense and these grand scientific pronouncements. Everyone has observed the difference between the unspanked or cruelly spanked little wretches kicking up a fit in Wal-Mart and the well-behaved, wisely paddled young homeschoolers in the same setting.

Then there's the politics. You know that once "the science is settled," the next step is public policy, i.e., European-style laws that make spanking a criminal offense and grounds for placing your children in government-regulated foster care. Science removes a question from the political realm of judgment to the objective realm of administration. It gets us, as President Obama has said, beyond left and right, Democratic and Republican, and the old disputes of the culture wars into the post-partisan happyland of technocracy, government by experts.

When the pronouncement of scientific researchers puts a matter beyond discussion, beyond public deliberation, it opens the way to manipulation of such pronouncements for political advantage, either by politicians themselves or by politically motivated scientists.

As we have discovered in the global warming controversy, whenever people try to get quickly past public discussion to public policy with the conversation-stopping phrase "the science is settled," you can be sure that there is more than dispassionate science at issue.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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