Dynamist Blog

Science Is Not Enough

In a column about a California controversy, the SacBee's Dan Weintraub makes an important point:

Regulating pollution is not only about science. It is also about economics. And scientists, no matter how smart or educated they may be, are not necessarily the best people to tell us how their findings should be weighed against the other needs of society.

If the state really wanted to fight smog, for instance, it could ban the private automobile. But no one (or almost no one) is recommending such a thing. The reason: The car is an integral part of our lives, and without it, the economy would grind to a halt. Millions of people would be far worse off, even if a few might live longer if they were not exposed to the tailpipe exhausts that cars emit.

Banning the car is an extreme example. But the point is that nearly every regulatory decision involves trade-offs that science alone cannot resolve.

Scientists have gotten way too fond of invoking their authority to claim that "science" dictates their preferred policy solutions and claiming that any disagreement constitutes an attack on science. But, even assuming that scientists agree on the facts, science can only tell us something about the state of the world. It cannot tell us what policy is the best to adopt. Scientists' preferences are not "science." You cannot go from an "is" (science) to an "ought" (policy). Social science, particularly economics, can tell you something about the likely tradeoffs (hence some of my frustrations at Aspen). But it can't tell you which tradeoffs to make.

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