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Sunday, March 02, 2003

Sneering at Science

Commenting on a post by John Quiggin, Kevin Drum says this about political attituides to science:

More and more, over the past decade, it strikes me that partisans on both the left and the right have increased their skepticism toward scientific results that clash with their ideology. This is easy to do with the social sciences, of course, since results are almost always statistical in nature and generally deal with wildly complex subjects. This makes them easy to dismiss simply by throwing mud at them and claiming that (a) the methodology was wrong, (b) the investigators were biased, (c) the statistics are suspect, and (d) common sense tells you the results are all wet anyway.

The general attitude here is that anything too complex for the common man to understand can be ignored. What do pointy headed intellectuals know, anyway?

This is an attitude to be avoided. In every field there are fringe elements, and it's undeniable that occasionally they turn out to be right. But it doesn't happen very often, and whether the results support your own beliefs or not, the mainstream of science is far more likely to be right than wrong. Ignore it at your peril.

Very true. This does not mean that all that academics say must be taken seriously, or that they have a monopoly on the truth; the knowledge, however, that science brings to policy should not be dismissed in pursuit of simple ideological purity.