Carl Olson of the Insight Scoop notes an article noting a term which he predicts will be in our future, scientific authoritarianism. The cited article notes:

Scientific authoritarianism, as I am using it here, holds that political decisions should be compelled by the political preferences of scientists. It is a very strong form of the ‘linear model’ of science and decision-making that I discuss in my book, The Honest Broker. Hansen believes that the advice of experts, and specifically his advice alone, should compel certain political outcomes.

There are just a few matters that need to take into account in this matter.

  • First off, it is my experience that there are two features found in many of the first rank scientists in our midst. First off, the best and brightest scientists in various fields don’t have the slightest interest in giving advice to politicians and in fact when they do offer political advice they offer very bad advice. I might add that theologians and religious leaders as well, for the most part, also are very horrible when they enter into the political world. There are some good reasons for this. Skills are involved in politics. The ability to read people, judge motivations and to have an estimate of the possible and so on are political skills. To become talented and to rise to the top of a scientific discipline requires three things: talent or genius, a love for inquiry, and a concentration on that field virtually to the exclusion of all else in life. Those people who are at the first rank usually have no talent, or frankly, desire to spend any time with exercising any authority. For them, their life is wholly given to the chase for the truths hidden by and in nature. To make an analogy with popular culture from cinema, while we might hope for our scientific authority to rise from the Mozarts in our midst, we’re going to get the Salieri’s who are the ones who will sully themselves with such matters.
  • Second, those scientists who are not blinded by the possibility of exercise of political authority, i.e., those who are honest with themselves, are aware of the vast gulf between what we know and what is out there to be known. To put it baldly, any scientist who assures you that we “know” the best policy is a liar or a fool. We “know” so very little about ourselves, our universe, and how it is put together.
  • Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge offers for us a glimpse at how much we deceive ourselves regarding about the epistemological certainties in science. I cannot recommend this book enough (although I’ll ruefully admit I really do need carve out the time to finish it).

A joke which is part of the culture of Physics and the pursuit of knowledge in that discipline.

A policeman encounters a drunk one night, who is on his hands and knees searching for something in the night beneath a street light. The policeman asks him, “What are you looking for?”
The drunk replies, “My keys.”
“Where did you drop them?” asks the bobby.
“Over there,” the drunk points down the block.
“Why are you looking here then?”
“I can’t see over there, because the light is here,” replies the drunk.

Our search for the mysteries of the universe and ourselves are a lot like that. We search under the light. Our keys … our understanding is to be found, so often, elsewhere down the road … in the dark.

So much of physics and our physical understanding of the universe assumes linearity. The mathematical behaviour and our understanding of linear PDEs and non-linear ones are much like comparing oranges to not-oranges. We look at and search for understanding under the light of just a few lamps. Gradually we uncover and begin to use a few more. But, we are just beginning. To pretend otherwise is foolishness. My advice would be to spurn those offering to give us scientific authority are who are assured in their results and their knowledge and don’t first show evidence of humility and uncertainty and demonstrate they posses a firm grasp of the magnitude of our ignorance.

Filed under: Mark O.PoliticsScience

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