(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Jay’s proposed reforms to the way Gates handles science are relevant far beyond the Gates Foundation, and foundations generally. He’s helping us think about how to wrestle with a deeper problem.
Public policy arguments need an authority to which they can appeal. The percentage of the population that is both willing and able to absorb all the necessary information to make a responsible decision without relying on pretty sweeping appeals to authority is very small. And even for us wonks, you can’t reduce the role of authority to zero; life doesn’t work that way. (Economists call this “the information problem.”)
So it’s normal, natural and right for public policy arguments to make some appeals to authority. The problem is that increasingly, our culture has no widely recognized authorities other than science. When there are many potential loci of authority, there is less pressure to corrupt them. If the science doesn’t back your view, you can appeal to other sources of authority. Where there is only one authoritative platform, there’s no alternative but to seize it.
As I once wrote:
Say that you favor a given approach – in education, in politics, in culture – because it is best suited to the nature of the human person, or because it best embodies the principles and historic self-understanding of the American people, and you will struggle even to get a hearing. But if you say that “the science” supports your view, the world will fall at your feet.
Of course, this means powerful interest groups rush in to seize hold of “science,” to trumpet whatever suits their preferences, downplay its limitations, and delegitimize any contrary evidence. If they succeed – which they don’t always, but they do often enough – “the science” quickly ceasees to be science at all. That’s why “scientific” tyrannies like the Soviet Union had to put so many real scientists in jail – or in the ground.
We need other sources of wisdom and knowledge – and hence of authority, because those who are recognized as having wisdom and knowledge will be treated as sources of authority – besides science. As Jay has written:
Science has its limits. Science cannot adjudicate among the competing values that might attract us to one educational approach over another. Science usually tells us about outcomes for the typical or average student and cannot easily tell us about what is most effective for individual students with diverse needs. Science is slow and uncertain, while policy and practice decisions have to be made right now whether a consensus of scientific evidence exists or not. We should rely on science when we can but we also need to be humble about what science can and can’t address…
My fear is that the researchers, their foundation-backers, and most-importantly, the policymaker and educator consumers of the research are insensitive to these limitations of science. I fear that the project will identify the “right” way to teach and then it will be used to enforce that right way on everyone, even though it is highly likely that there are different “right” ways for different kids…
Science can be corrupted so that it simply becomes a shield disguising the policy preferences of those in authority. How many times have you heard a school official justify a particular policy by saying that it is supported by research when in fact no such research exists? This (mis)use of science is a way for authority figures to tell their critics, “shut up!”
To summarize the whole point, our group of school choice researchers put it well (false humility aside) in our Education Week op-ed earlier this year:
Finally, we fear that political pressure is leading people on both sides of the issue to demand things from “science” that science is not, by its nature, able to provide. The temptation of technocracy—the idea that scientists can provide authoritative answers to public questions—is dangerous to democracy and science itself. Public debates should be based on norms, logic, and evidence drawn from beyond just the scientific sphere.
What can we do about it? Beyond building in checks and balances to ensure that science isn’t being abused, we can make a deliberate effort to appeal to non-scientific sources of wisdom. There’s nothing unscientific about relying on “norms, logic, and evidence drawn from beyond just the scientific sphere.” In Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley comments that it would be more rational if there were more conversation and less dancing at balls; her brother comments that this would indeed be “much more rational, I dare say, but much less like a ball.” It might be more scientific if our civic discourse appeals to nothing but science, but it’s much less like civic discourse.
For a good example of what I mean, check out Freedom and School Choice in American Education. When it came out, I commented on how it showed the diverse values that had led the authors to support school choice:
What’s particularly valuable about this book, I think, is how it gives expression to the very different paths by which people come to hold educational freedom as an aspiration, and then connects those aspirational paths to the practical issues that face the movement in the short term. Jay comes to educational freedom with an emphasis on accountability and control; against the Amy Gutmanns of the world who want to set up educational professionals as authority figures to whom parents must defer, Jay wants to put parents back in charge of education. Matt comes to educational freedom with an emphasis on alleviating unjustified inequalities; against the aristocrats and social Darwinists of the world who aren’t bothered by the existence of unjustified inequalities, Matt wants social systems to maximize the growth of opportunities for those least likely to have access to them. And I come to educational freedom with an emphasis on the historical process of expanding human capacities, especially as embodied in America’s entrepreneurial culture; agaisnt all forms of complacency, I want America to continue leading the world in inventing ever better ways of flourishing the full capacities of humanity. And each of the other contributors has his or her own aspirational path.
Individual liberty; the lifting up of the poor and the marginalized; the American experiment in enterprise culture. These are fine things worth fighting for, and they would remain so no matter what the science says.