Book Review: The Beaker and the Ballot

Ari Schulman reviews two books in the WSJ and argues that “Those on both left and right who invoke ‘science’ as a cover for political positions actually undermine public trust in science.”  Amen to that.  Once you start cherry-picking results it’s ideology, not science.

Central to that narrative, and to both of these books, is the practice of claiming that science simply says that one side of a political argument is right. Such claims typically misrepresent partial scientific understanding and invoke the authority of science as a cover for moral, philosophical and political premises that have not been argued or accepted. And this practice gets to the root of our science problem. What makes science special is that its claims don’t rest on authority but are available for anyone to rigorously question and verify. Yet there are far too many scientific advances today for anyone to know them all, and most are impractical for nonscientists to replicate. Thus we must place our trust in scientific authority. But when science is invoked as the final word on claims for which it obviously isn’t, it subverts this very authority. What results is a general public distrust—irrational but in a sense reasonable—of science, providing grounds for people to resist findings that undermine their beliefs. Books written with the transparent aim of satiating the partisan palate may be as inevitable as politics itself, but the ones that abuse the authority of science to do so make worse the very problem they claim to be fighting.

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