Thursday, 7 July 2016

Wherefore Rationalia?

New Scientist - A rational nation ruled by science would be a terrible idea

Inane though Tyson's suggestion is, I can't help but cringe when people like Jeffrey Guhin (see article above) invoke Godwin's Law to attack "scientism" - a label which is itself problematic because while yes, there are certainly overzealous science enthusiasts out there, the term is too often used to attack anything its user doesn't like which happens to come from the mouths of scientists or science communicators, which makes it a tool of unreason and anti-science as often as it's a tool for legitimate critique of the overzealous.

Anyway, while I think the goal of a rational society is laudable, the trouble is it's never entirely clear what is meant by that. If we mean rational in the narrow sense of "sensible, intelligent, shrewd, judicious" etc., then of course this isn't a very contentious suggestion. Is anyone going to argue that society should be run senselessly/foolishly/unintelligently? This doesn't actually get us anywhere though because as soon as we start asking which policies are most sensible/intelligent/shrewd/judicious we're right back to square one, and while it might be a good start if we could agree to ground that discussion on empirical evidence, politics simply doesn't lend itself towards the kind of reductionism that hard scientists are used to - it's almost impossible to control for external variables in studying any substantive policy question, and it is very easy to find studies which will support almost any policy position you can think of, including ones which contradict each other. Don't get me wrong, empirical data is the best tool we have for testing the viability of political hypotheses, but you don't often get unambiguous answers.

The backlash to Tyson's comments though comes I think from a not-unjustified suspicion that his "rationality" entails something else, either a) the dubious assumption that the correct methodological approach to policy making would resolve this ambiguity, and/or b) a world-view, that is, a pre-established set of doctrines about what is or is not true which the architects of Rationalia have deemed fit to smuggle in under the umbrella of "rationality", as every utopian architect has done since the dawn of modern science.

Maybe Tyson is - in his own way - simply calling for a greater respect for reason and evidence in public debate and policy making, which I can 100% get behind, but if you want to advocate for a new form of government you need to actually apply that reason in order to develop some idea of how you're going to get there and what its institutional arrangements are gonna look like. Just saying "we should use reason" isn't very insightful, and it's a shame so many of science's more vocal advocates seem to think otherwise.

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