Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Scientism and Libertarianism

There has been a recent flare-up in the scientism debate, with Richard Dawkins Steven Pinker (sorry!) trying to reclaim the term, Douthat responding to Dawkins Pinker, Douthat making the case against Sam Harris, and Ta-Nehisi Coates going after Bloomberg's technocracy.  I intend to think and write more about it, but to start I want to make a comparison that I think captures an important dynamic in the debate.

So here it is:  scientism is like libertarianism in several ways, and this helps explain why it is so galling to me.  Consider:

1.  Libertarians cloak themselves in the language of freedom, going so far as to name their ideology after liberty, which is almost universally admired.  Science chauvinists (my term for practitioners of scientism - "scientist" having been taken) do the exact same thing, invoking "science" as if the debate were "science:  thumbs up or thumbs down?"

2.  But of course everyone supports science (and liberty) in the abstract.  What people object to is the use of the term "science" to advance a narrow and tendentious version of the concept.  Again, it's the same trick libertarians try to pull.  Everyone is in favor of liberty, but not everyone agrees that income taxation is morally equivalent to chattel slavery.

3.  And if you take a properly broad view of science (or of evidence-based reasoning, if you prefer), you will find that the decision to be pro- or anti-science gets you almost no traction in particular cases.  This example came up in a discussion with Grobstein.  Imagine that my girlfriend has cheated on me, and I have discovered the lapse.  (This example is not based on real life.)  Imagine I find some studies that suggest that, among people whose partners cheat on them and who forgive the cheating partner, 85% are happy with the decision, while among those who break up over the infidelity, 75% come to regret it.

These numbers are highly suggestive, but imagine that my friends urge me to break up with her anyway.  They know her, they know me, they know the facts of the situation, and they think I should break up with her over the infidelity.  As Grobstein pointed out when we talked, the study is only as good as its construction, and its conclusion is only applicable within its proper scope.  Its subjects are people who are similar to me in one respect, but there may be salient differences not evident on the face of it, and a study of people who are more similar to me may yield different results.  On top of that, my friends have access to all kinds of data that may be relevant, and that data was (of course) not taken into account in the scientific study.

So what is the "scientific" thing to do?  I hope it's clear that this is not a helpful question, or at least it doesn't add anything to the overarching question, which is "what is the right thing to do?"  Anyone who claims I should forgive her because that's the "scientific" thing to do is engaged in (a mild form of) scientism.

And the same goes for freedom in a lot of policy discussions.  If I levy a tax and use the proceeds to make public areas accessible to disabled people, have I reduced freedom or increased it?  If I regulate a market in such a way that it becomes much more active (for instance, by solving asymmetrical information problems), have I increased liberty (the freedom to trade) or reduced it (by imposing regulatory burdens)?

Again, I hope that it's clear that the "more freedom!" framework is fruitless here.  And in fact it's fruitless in almost any policy discussion.  It is a high-level value that should guide our instincts, but it is not a clearly articulable principle that can be deployed like a surgical instrument.  All of the interesting questions involve the fine details of the tradeoffs we make between kinds of freedom, and between freedom and other values.  The question is almost never resolved by an investigation into whether freedom is good or not.

And that's what I think about science.  Science as an approach to life is very powerful.  I wouldn't want to live in a society that wasn't steeped in the scientific virtues:  inquisitiveness, respect for data, hypothesis-testing, etc.  But the idea that we can deploy "science" as a fine-grained tool to sort good ideas from bad is misguided and dangerous.  And it is especially obnoxious to be accused of being anti-science when I refuse to embrace some narrow conception of science like cost-benefit analysis.


Blogger Sarang said...

I agree that there is an analogy (though I would consider it more sociological than formal; silicon valley people and their groupies, and Robin Hanson, are given to both ideologies). I agree with this part of your argument (I'm paraphrasing):

a. "Maximizing liberty" or "basing decisions on all possible evidence" is practically useless, you can justify anything this way if you try hard enough.

b. In practice, therefore, either idea is only applied in a crude and reductive form, so that you try to maximize "liberty" by saying the govt. should never intervene, or try to be "scientific" by crude forms of cost-benefit analysis and "studies-say"-ism. When attacked, you defend these by appealing to the higher-level principle (/accusing opponents of being anti-liberty/anti-science), which of course no one is disputing.

I'm not sure this is specific to either ideology, though. I think it's a fairly standard argumentative approach that is used, say, to justify bombing Syria. (a. States should not be free to gas citizens with impunity. b. Therefore, the US should unilaterally bomb power plants in Syria. If you disagree, look at these dying children.)

Beyond this, I'm not sure the parallel holds up well. For instance, non-libertarians are often, justifiably, willing to trade off liberty against values that are not _really_ liberty at all (say, eminent domain as a solution to collective action problems). I can't see what the "other values" in the case of scientism would be...

9:05 AM  
Blogger James said...

Yeah, I didn't mean to imply a wider similarity between libertarians and science chauvinists. I just think it's important to note the dynamic in which people purporting to defend something (liberty, science) are actually trying to advance a narrow conception of it. This may be a fairly obvious point, but it's important because all too often the critics of scientism take the bait. The ability of science chauvinists to fight on the friendliest possible terrain (whether science contributes to human welfare, or advances truth, or whatever) gives them a huge unearned rhetorical advantage.

I'll have a lot more to say, this is just a casual thought that I found illuminating.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

Yeah I agree w/ some of this but am not really sure what key parts of it mean.

I'm still not sure what "scientism" is and I'm not sure the word is illuminating here.

There is a species of what I might call "science fandom" on the web at places like ScienceBlogs, which basically amounts to putting an irrational weight on the social indicia of science. So anything a "scientist" says is regarded as automatically authoritative; the arguments of non-scientists in areas that count as "science" are automatically deprecated; and "unscientific" and "pseudoscience" are deployed liberally as attacks. I don't know that these people would have anything much to say about your cheating-girlfriend example.

Then there are people with very high tastes for reductionism, perhaps like the Less Wrong community or "quantified self" fanatics, who want to put as much as possible in numerical terms and have explicit reasons for decisions as much as possible. These people are into the background principles that make science work, like learning from evidence etc., rather than the social institutions that do science. I think these people can be a little over-optimistic about the power of their approaches. But I don't know that there is some other general error to discover.

As with "freedom," there are decisions that appeals to "science" can't help with, but also decisions that it can help with. In areas where we might be inclined to behave according to habit or dead reckoning, it might help to be reminded that scientific approaches have a good track record.

I don't think the cheating girlfriend example really shows what you think it does. If there was a very good scientific literature on fact situations similar to yours in the example, then it would be simple to assimilate that evidence, and act accordingly. There probably isn't such a literature, but that's a contingent fact about the current state of scientific progress, not a general limitation of science.

3:05 PM  
Blogger James said...

Yeah, I thought about trying to define scientism, and I came up with a few plausible definitions, but none of them seemed to capture the full range of possibilities. The Pinker/Douthat pieces give a good idea of what scientism looks like, and I think it is also on display in the infamous "refutation" of Colin McGinn's theory of disgust (link here, PDF).

5:44 PM  

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