When Science Comes with an Underlying Hope


An essay on NRO by Oren Cass is worth a read for the broad-ranging illustration it provides of the state of politicized science these days.  His opening vignette is perfect:

The president of the United States had just cited his work with approval during a Rose Garden speech announcing a major change in American policy, and MIT economist John Reilly was speaking with National Public Radio. “I’m so sorry,” said host Barbara Howard. “Yeah,” Reilly replied.

This was not a triumph but a tragedy, because the president in question was Donald Trump. And the action taken was withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement.

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Trump had cited Reilly’s work correctly, saying: “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full” using Reilly’s economic projections, “. . . it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree . . . Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100.” But as Reilly explained on NPR, “All of us here believe the Paris agreement was an important step forward, so, to have our work used as an excuse to withdraw it is exactly the reverse of what we imagined hoping it would do.”

In other words, this isn’t about science, but about belief, and in this view, science is supposed to find evidence confirming progressive assumptions.  That’s what it means to “believe in science.”

As Cass elaborates, this is especially a problem for people who profess to believe in data-driven public policy.  If their data starts to raise doubts about their policies, and rather than adjust the policies, they look for new data, the whole thing begins to seem a bit like a scam.  More from Cass:

Some check is needed on the impulse to slice and dice whatever results the research might yield into whatever conclusion the research community “imagined hoping” it would reach. In theory, peer review should do just that. But in this respect, the leftward lean of the ivory tower is as problematic for its distortion of the knowledge that feeds public-policy debates as it is for its suffocating effect on students and the broader culture. Peer review changes from feature to bug when the peers form an echo chamber of like-minded individuals pursuing the same ends. Academic journals become talking-points memos when they time the publication of unreviewed commentaries for maximum im­pact on political debates.

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