The Spectacle Blog

When Scientists Enter Government

By on 2.27.14 | 6:24PM

Franklin’s List, a nonpartisan political action committee “dedicated to electing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals to public office” officially launched last month.

The PAC wants STEM specialists to win elections and address funding scientific research, education policy, and even curriculum specifics.

In Is Progress Possible?, C.S. Lewis foresaw the specialist’s inevitable rise in government:

Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man's opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man.

Lewis’s point is not that scientists shouldn’t enter government. Entering government purely as a specialist is the problem, and that is exactly what Franklin’s List wants to see happen.

Scientists draw inferences from empirical data, whereas politics is concerned with the distribution of social and economic goods. Even if political science is labeled an empirical science, the science itself cannot make normative claims about the data it obtains. If data reveals that legalized substance x leads to obesity, it does not follow, on those grounds alone, that it is just or prudent to ban substance x. The former is a scientific claim—the latter, moral or political.

As scientists strictly concern themselves with empirical data, a STEM background does not imply uniquely good judgment to write policy based on, or aimed at, promoting science. Let’s pretend that climate change is affirmed by all members of Congress. This new acceptance says nothing of what public policy should or should not be enacted. Science tells us what is taking place; not what what we should do.

Admittedly, if policy based on scientific consensus is to be drafted, then scientific knowledge is a necessary ingredient. But what sort of political judgments are the STEM specialists concluding from their scientific research? The goal should be specific policy rather than a specialist trained in a certain discipline.

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