Blinded by Science

February 20, 2012

For immediate release (546 words)

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Psalms 110:10 (KJV)

Science and scientific authority are often interjected into political discourse. Two recent letters to the editor in my local newspaper are examples. One author claimed that “… the science is clear: Smoke-free laws have no negative impact on bars or restaurants …” On another topic a writer decried the recent bill allowing schools to teach so-called creationism in science classes,  stating it would “… belittle the scientific method … celebrate(s) ignorance” and that “Hoosiers must laugh (the bill) out of the Indiana legislature.”

(Full disclosure: I oppose smoking bans, but not because of their alleged adverse affects on business, I am not sure what I think about the creationism bill.) Making a claim based on science makes one look intelligent or more important. It is often intended to strike fear and shame in the heart of reader:  fear of derision, shame at being lumped in with the ignorant rubes.

If you drop a ball 10 meters in western Ohio in a frictionless vacuum it will fall to the ground in 1.42808698123 seconds. If you drop the ball 10 meters under identical conditions in central Indiana it will also fall to the ground in 1.42808698123 seconds. The predictions Newtonian physics makes are falsifiable — one can do the experiment — and are replicable — you can do the experiments again and the same results will emerge. Although Newtonian physics has been eclipsed by modern quantum physics, its power to predict is remarkable.  As my late engineer father used to say, it’s good enough to get a man to the moon and back.

It is this kind of certainty being invoked when authors lay claim to science in policy discussions. And no wonder. The power of scientific authority to persuade is extraordinary. Cloaking a claim as scientific gives it credibility, indeed, infallibility. But here is a dirty little secret of social sciences and of evolutionary theory — it can never legitimately claim the authority of Newtonian physics.

The biological evolution of the human species is a single event that happened over eons. We cannot go back and “do the experiment” again, much less replicate it. We can look at fossil evidence and sketch together consistent stories but these can never have the authority of law of gravity. In a similar vein Newtonian experiments in the social sciences are usually impossible. The best we can do is look at data and control as best we can for all other relevant factors and then surmise an outcome. Far from being settled, a recent refereed publication from a University of California at Berkley journal indicates that “… smoking bans in general negatively affect bars, but have a neutral to positive effect on restaurants. An interesting result, but hardly bullet- proof evidence of what the impact of smoking bans will be on related business in any Hoosier community or neighborhood.

Moral philosophers, social scientists and policy advocates often suffer from a bad case of “physics envy.” This does not mean that a scientific approach to fossil records or social data isn’t useful or informative. But the results are tentative, open to question and rarely settled. Invoking science and then dismissing or belittling one’s opponent is no substitute for reasoned argument and careful examination of available data. In my humble opinion final authority on all matters rests with Almighty God — and not any human authority — ecclesiastical or scientific.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at editor@inpolicy.org.


Resources

“Smoke-free laws do not hurt business” by Ellen Hahn, University of Kentucky, Lexington, the Star Press, January 15, 2012 p. 2D

“Shocking” by Annie Laurie Gaylor, Co-President, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Madison, Wis., the Star Press, February 7, 2012 p. 5A

Adams, Scott and Chad Cotti, (2007) “The Effect of Smoking Bans on Bars and Restaurants: An Analysis of Changes in Employment” the Berkley Electronic Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, Volume 7, Issue, 1, Article 7.



Comments...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *