The Specter of Unscientific Public Policy

There needs to be more science-based public polices, right? According to a lot of people, there does. According to me, the entire idea that there should be such a thing as public policy is absurd. But, much to my chagrin, most people still seem to be worshiping at the alter of statism so I find myself having to shoehorn ideas into that frame of reference. So I will say that I don’t believe there needs to be more science-based public policies because science is not the appropriate tool for determining public policy. What is the appropriate tool then? A healthy respect for individual rights. Let’s take a brief look at what happens when science is relied on for creating public policy instead of individual rights:

Throughout the 1930s (but actually continuing beyond that), at least 60,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized. American eugenics research was later put to use by Hitler’s Germany and was even cited at the Nuremberg Trials.

Many books and articles have been written about the eugenics movement more broadly, including some popular books of a recent vintage. The American experience with eugenics, as well as the Australian experience with stealing children in order to quicken the demise of the aborigines, to cite just two examples, demonstrate that concerns about the misuse of science are not confined to totalitarian, murderous regimes.

The science of genetics allowed us to better understand how certain traits are passed down from parents to offspring. After acquiring this new understanding people started arguing over what to do with it. This is where philosophy came into play. One camp, the pragmatists, thought that this knowledge must be acted on by passing legislation that legalized forcibly sterilizing people with undesirable genes. Another camp, what we might today refer to as classical liberals, thought that forcibly sterilizing people was a violation of their individual rights and therefore unacceptable even if they contained undesirable genes.

Today the predominate belief appears to be that the eugenics-based public policies of the past were a mistake. But humanity is still arguing about what to do with our scientific knowledge. Pragmatists are still arguing about what public policies to implement based on the latest scientific knowledge. Supporters of individual rights are arguing that that public policies should be based on individual rights, not scientific knowledge. As somebody firmly in the latter camp I agree with what the author wrote:

Science has also been part of debates over questions where a little respect for individual rights and good sense was all that was needed. We don’t need scientists to discover a “gay gene” in order to conclude that prohibiting consenting adults from having sex is wrong, and we don’t need scientists to show us that children raised in same-sex households are well-adjusted in order to allow same-sex marriage and child-rearing. To even endorse such arguments is to imply that only genetically determined sexual preferences should be protected (sorry BDSM community) and that the state has the power to use “science” to generally determine (as opposed to specifically removing children from dangerous households) who is allowed to raise children. Finally, we don’t need science—and we especially don’t need horrible dance numbers from Bill Nye’s show—to tell us that transgendered people deserve our respect and care.

Having a healthy respect for individual rights means you respect, even if you don’t necessarily like, the rights of everybody. Pragmatists, on the other hand, will only respect an individuals’ rights if they believe doing so will provide the most good to the largest number of people. What rights they’re willing to respect and for what groups largely depends on what they consider to be good.

Unscientific public policy shouldn’t be a specter. Public policy, if we’re going to have it, should be based first and foremost on individual rights, not scientific research. That’s the only way to guard against the pragmatism that lead to forcible sterilizations under the name of science. Whenever new public policies are being considered the question of whether or not such laws would bring the violence of the State upon nonviolent individuals should be the guiding principle. If they will then the policy should be dropped regardless of scientific research, if they won’t then the policy could be considered and scientific research could then come into play.

2 thoughts on “The Specter of Unscientific Public Policy”

  1. Tell this to Denmark. The Danes appear to be aborting their population clean of Downs syndrome.

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