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Science and Statesmanship

January 22, 2008

Science and Statesmanship

It is commonplace these days for politicians to run political campaigns against politics itself.  This bit of propaganda fits well with the disdain most Americans have for politics. And so we find candidates for office trying to persuade us that the policies they will advance will somehow proceed devoid of politics.  It is if a chef announced that henceforth he would continue in his task as a chef by promising not to cook.  A recent episode in America’s ubiquitous “€œanti-political politics”€ concerns Hillary Rodham Clinton’s efforts to put an end to the Bush administration’s “€œWar on Science.”€  Following a speech at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, Hillary Clinton said that “€œWhen science is politicized, it is worse than wrong . . . It is dangerous “€“ dangerous for democracy”€.  Were she elected, science under her administration would proceed outside the grip of politics, for it would seem that the unfettered “€œprogress”€ of science is desirable and good.

Mrs. Clinton does not believe this.  I suspect that she is as concerned as anyone in the Bush administration is about the proliferation of scientific knowledge that would lead to, say, the creation and distribution of biological weapons.  Surely this is an issue that concerns politics; to depoliticize it would be a serious dereliction of a politicians”€™ duty.  It is not that science and politics often walk hand in hand “€“ that they often cannot do otherwise.  Rather how and on what terms politics makes a claim on science.  These are the questions.  “€œWe have to be steered by values and morals,”€ Mrs. Clinton also says in her remarks about science and policy.  Which is to say that she endorses the intercession of “€œvalues and morals”€ on behalf of scientific policy.  I now wonder if scientists and democrats are getting nervous.   Whence those “€œvalues and morals”€ Mrs. Clinton has in mind when guiding scientific policy?

It would seem that those “€œvalues and morals”€ come from science itself.  “€œI believe in evolution, and I am shocked at some of the things that people in public life have been saying.”€  According to Mrs. Clinton, evolution provides the “€œvalues and morals”€ upon which reasonable people agree.  “€œI am grateful that I have the ability to look at dinosaur bones and draw my own conclusions.”€  In what looks like an acknowledgement that not all see human life through an evolutionary lens, Mrs. Clinton turns to the American founders who “€œhad faith in reason and . . . faith in God.”€  One “€œof our gifts from God is the ability to reason.”€  It is hard to tell whether this is endorses the view that those with “€œfaith in God”€ can also have “€œfaith in reason”€ or whether “€œfaith in God”€ is acceptable only insofar as it does not interfere with “€œfaith in reason,”€ which for Mrs. Clinton means the truths of evolution.

When stripped of its rhetorical veils, Mrs. Clinton’s speech and interview amounts to the claim that evolutionary science provides us with the “€œvalues and morals”€ that should guide public policy.   This is curious on two fronts.  First, it flies in the face of scientists who subscribe to the strict separation of scientific “€œfacts”€ and “€œvalues,”€ that science itself is about how things “€œare”€ not how they are “€œsupposed to be.”€  This is an age-old dichotomy that goes back to the Scottish philosophy David Hume who claimed that the “€œought”€ cannot be derived from the “€œis.”€  Parts of Mrs. Clinton’s speech seem to place her firmly in the Humean camp.  And if this is so we must ask how she proposes to bridge the divide between science and “€œvalues.”€  Second, if she has “€œfaith”€ in the reasonableness of evolution to provide us with “€œvalues and morals,”€ what exactly does evolution teach us about ethical comportment?  Survival of the fittest?  Selfish genes?  How would Mrs. Clinton’s “€œethics of evolution”€ help us to understand our public goods and purposes?  And how does it help us navigate within a political arena in which evolution does not for many Americans provide an adequate account of what it means to be an ethical human being?

Eduardo Velásquez is the author of A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse: Why There Is Not Cultural War in America and Why We Will Perish Nonetheless, published by ISI Books.   He teaches political philosophy at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA.

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