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Arrogance and intolerance in the name of superior expertise are antithetical to popular governance and the requirements of honest argument. But that hasn’t stopped them from becoming a central feature of our political life.
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AMERICA GOT ITS FIRST straight dose of scientific governance in the 1950s. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Brown v. Board of Education—whether schools segregated by race fulfilled the 14th Amendment’s requirement for “equal protection of the laws” to all citizens—not by reference to any legal or political principle on which the general population might pronounce themselves (one such principle was available in Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that Brown overturned), but rather by reference to a “study” by sociologist Kenneth Clark concluding that “separate is inherently unequal.” This was a finding supposedly of fact, not of law. Whereas ordinary citizens were supposedly competent to agree or disagree with the legal and moral principles on either side of these cases, the Court decided Brown on a basis that could be contested only by sociologists as well credentialed and funded as Mr. Clark. Debates within the Court and in society at large subsequently have been focused not so much on what is lawful as on contending studies about the effects of competing policies.
The scientization of American political life was just beginning. Between the 1950s and 2000 social policy slipped away from voter control because the courts and the “independent agencies” took them over. Beginning in the 1970s, courts and agencies began to take control of economic life through the pretense of scientific environmental management.
In Massachusetts v. EPA (2007), the Court agreed with what it called predominant scientific opinion that human emissions of carbon dioxide cause “global warming” and hence ordered it to regulate those emissions—essentially America’s economy. The American people’s elected representatives had not passed and were not about to pass any law concerning “global warming.” No matter.
It should be superfluous to point out that “scientific” briefs submitted to courts, as well as the innumerable contacts between expert “independent” agencies and the interest groups in the fields they regulate, are anything but impartial, bloodless, disinterested, apolitical. But in fact the power of scientific pretense rests largely on the thin veil it casts over clashes of interest and political identity. Let us look further.
In his 1960 Godkin lectures at Harvard, C. P. Snow, who had been Britain’s civil service commissioner, told Americans that “In any advanced industrial society…the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men: in secret and, at least in legal form, by men who cannot have firsthand knowledge of what these choices depend upon or what their results may be.” In short, public figures must be figureheads for scientists who are formally responsible to them but whose minds are beyond common understanding and scrutiny. Snow concluded that society’s greatest need was for change, and that scientists were “socially imaginative minds.” While scientists should not administer, he said, they should be part of the Establishment, along with administrators. He illustrated this point by contrasting the clash in Britain between two scientists, Sir Henry Tizard, innovative, progressive, and very much a member of the administrative- scientific Establishment, and F. A. Lindemann, a scientist close to Winston Churchill but outside the Establishment. According to Snow, Lindemann polluted science and administration with politics, while Tizard’s contrary scientific and administrative opinions were supra-political. Tizard’s membership in the Establishment made them that. But in the same year, President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell to the American people after eight years in the White House and a lifetime in the U.S. Army argued that government’s embrace of science would corrupt itself and science. Whereas Snow had taken pains to identify science with public policy and to call true scientists only those who got along with colleagues and especially with administrators, Eisenhower pointed to these things as subversive. His oft-cited warning about the dangers of a “military-industrial complex” was part of the address’s larger point: the danger that big government poses to citizenship:
…a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.
The prospect against which Eisenhower warned has become our time’s reality. One accedes to the rank of expert by achieving success in getting grants, primarily from the government. Anyone who has worked in a university knows that getting government grants is the surefire way to prestige and power. And on what basis do the government’s grantors make the grants that constitute the scientific credentials? Science itself? But the grantors are not scientists, and they would not be immune to human temptations even if they were. Personal friendship, which C. P. Snow touted, is not nearly as problematic as intellectual kinship, professional and political partisanship. In sum, as Eisenhower warned, politicians are tempted to cast issues of public policy in terms of science in order to foreclose debate, to bring to the side of their interests expert witnesses whose expertise they manufactured and placed beyond challenge.
Power by Pretense
TESTIFYING TO A JOINT CONGRESSIONAL committee on March 21, 2007, former vice president Al Gore argued for taxing the use of energy based on the combustion of carbon, and for otherwise forcing Americans to emit much less carbon dioxide. Gore wanted to spend a substantial amount of the money thus raised to fund certain business ventures. (Incidentally or not, he himself had a large stake in those ventures.)
But, he argued, his proposal was not political, and debating it was somehow illegitimate, because he was just following “ science,” according to which, if these things were not done, Planet Earth would overheat and suffocate. He said: “The planet has a fever. If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor. If the doctor says you need to intervene here, you don’t say, ‘Well, I read a science fiction novel that tells me it’s not a problem.’” But Gore’s advocacy of “solutions” for “global warming” was anything but politically neutral acceptance of expertise. As vice president until 2001, and afterward, he had done much to build a veritable industry of scientists and publicists who had spent some $50 billion, mostly in government money, during the previous decade to turn out and publicize “studies” bolstering his party’s efforts to regulate and tax in specific ways. Moreover, he claimed enough scientific knowledge to belittle his opposition for following “science fiction.” But Gore’s work was political, not scientific. Not surprisingly, some of his opponents in Congress and among scientists thought that Gore and his favorite scientists were doing well-paid science fiction.
Who was right? Gore’s opponents, led by Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, argued that the substance of the two main questions, whether the Earth was being warmed by human activities, and what if anything could and should be done about it, should be debated before the grand jury of American citizens. Gore et al. countered that “the debate is over!” and indeed that nonscientific citizens had no legitimate place in the debate. Yet he and like-minded citizens claimed to know enough to declare that it had ended. They also claimed that scientists who disagreed with them, or who merely questioned the validity of the conclusions produced by countless government science commissions to which Gore and his followers had funneled government money, and which they called “mainstream science,” were “deniers”—illegitimate. Equally out of place, they argued, were calls that they submit to tests of their scientific IQ. Whatever else one may call this line of argument, one may not call it scientific. It belongs to the genus “politics.” But, peculiarly, it is politics that aims to take matters out of the realm of politics, where citizens may decide by persuading one another, and places them in a realm where power is exercised by capturing the commanding heights of the Establishment.
Thus on July 28, 2008, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi explained to journalist David Rogers why she was right in forbidding Congress to vote on proposals by Republicans to open U.S. coastlines to oil drilling. Using fossil fuels, she explained, causes global warming. Forbidding votes that could result in more oil being used was her duty because, she said, “I’m trying to save the planet. I’m trying to save the planet.” No one would vouch for her scientific expertise. But she was surely saving an item in the agenda of her party’s constituencies, which rightly feared defeat in open debates and votes.
In the same way, in September 2008 Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Ben Bernanke told Congress and the country, backed by many in the banking business, that unless Congress authorized spending $700 billion to purchase the financial assets that the banks and investment houses considered least valuable, the entire financial system would collapse and the American people would lose their savings, jobs, homes, and so on, and that authorizing that money would avert the crisis. But none of those who proposed the expenditure explained why the failure of some large private enterprises and their subsequent sale at public auction would cause any of the abovementioned catastrophes. There was no explanation of how the money would be spent, how the assets to be bought would be valued, or why. The arguments were simply statements by experts in government as well as finance—whose repeated mistakes had brought about the failures that were at the center of contention, and whose personal interests were involved in the plan they proposed. The strength of their arguments lay solely in the position of those making them. They were the ones who were supposed to know. And when, a month later, the same Paulson, backed by the same unanimous experts, told the country that the $700 billion would be spent otherwise, and as they committed some $8 trillion somehow to shore up the rest of the economy, the arguments continued to lie in the position of those making them, combined with the clamor of those who would benefit directly from the government’s outlays. In practice, expertise—or science—has come to be defined by a government job or commission. Truth and error are incidental.
The confluence of political agendas with the attempt to describe political choices as scientific rather than political, and the attempt to delegitimize opponents as out of step with science, is clear in the 2005 book by journalist Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science. Typically, Mooney disclaims substantive scientific judgment and claims only the capacity and right to discern the “credibility” of rival scientists and their claims. Note well, however, that propositions or persons are credible—that is, worth believing—only to the extent that they are correct substantively. Arguments such as Mooney’s, Paulson’s, Pelosi’s, and Gore’s most certainly aim to convince citizens about certain substantive propositions, but—and this is key—they do so indirectly, by pretending that they find certain propositions credible and others not. Credible are the ones of which they approve, coming from persons the places of which they approve: the government bureaucracies or universities. Judgments of authoritative provenance, they argue, need not refute the opposition’s arguments, or even refer to their substance because science— meaning the Establishment—supposedly has settled the arguments intellectually to its own satisfaction, the only satisfaction that matters. Mooney writes that because “American democracy… relies heavily on scientific technical expertise to function [public officials] need to rely on the best scientific knowledge available and proceed on the basis of that knowledge to find solutions.”
Modern Republicans, he argues, have put themselves “in stark contrast with both scientific information and dispassionate, expert analysis in general.” Caught in the confluence of corporate interests and conservative ideology, primarily religion, Republicans have “skewed science” on every important question of the day, from stem cell research to “global warming, mercury pollution, condom effectiveness, the alleged health risks of abortion, and much else.” They have “cherry picked” facts and, most ominously, even cited scientists to back them up. Mooney worries: “If the American people come to believe they can find a scientist willing to say anything, they will grow increasingly disillusioned with science itself.”
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