Thursday, November 11, 2004

The scientific method

Much of what's wrong with politics in the United States today is a result of the population's lack of basic scientific education -- that is, their failure to receive an education which provides an implicit faith in the scientific method.

I'm not suggesting that people need to know quantum mechanics to make reasonable political and cultural judgments. However, scientific reason -- embodied and proceduralized via the scientific method -- provides the only way to render judgment on the basis of something other than prejudice, and ultimately the only way to resolve differences of opinion in any way other than by force. If people don't learn to appreciate the scientific method, then prejudice and force will eventually become the source of laws.

The scientific method consists of several well-recognized steps. First, data is gathered by careful observation. (Our friend Bob, below, got off the bus right here, at the first stop.) Second, on the basis of inductive reasoning from the data, a preliminary generalization or hypothesis is formed. Third, this hypothesis may be refined by deductive reasoning, and the hypothesis is then tested by further observation and experiments. (To be legitimate, these tests must be designed to yield the possibility that, depending on the data returned, the hypothesis might be falsified.) Fourth, if the hypothesis successfully meets all the tests, then it is elevated from a hypothesis to a theory or a law. And finally, as more evidence is gathered, the theory may be progressively modified -- or it may even be discarded in favor of a new, more encompassing hypothesis (a intellectual event sometimes referred to as a "scientific revolution" or a "paradigm shift").

The argument I'm making here is that policy debates should undergo a similar rigorous process of data-gathering, and weighing and testing of alternatives. Policy formation should never work backwards, starting with a desired policy outcome, then looking for a theory to justify that outcome, and only at the end seeking evidence to justify the theory. That kind of policy making may let voters "know where you stand," but it's also undercutting an implicit but crucial pillar of an effective working democracy.

Benjamin Franklin was hardly alone among the founding fathers in realizing the unity of his political ideas and his scientific mindset. Let's hope our country can rediscover this unity.

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