Barack Obama ran his campaign as if his principal opponent were George W. Bush. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, he has attempted to extend his misplaced rhetoric well past last November’s election. In his first address as president, with Bush looking on from behind, Obama declared that he intended to change the direction of the country on practically all fronts. But one phrase stood out chiefly: A single, awkwardly placed line indicating the direction of his future science policy: “We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs.”
Many listeners understood the line as a partial repudiation of Bush’s 2001 decision to restrict federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. One person who must have especially anticipated that line, or something similar, was Yuval Levin, a member of Bush’s domestic policy staff and author of the recently published Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy, a concise treatment of the proper relationship between politics and science.
Imagining the Future, published in the month before the election, stakes out a position critical of Obama’s previously stated position on science’s role in politics. Citing a position enunciated by the then-junior senator from Illinois, Levin writes:
Responding to a presidential veto of a bill to loosen funding limits on embryonic stem cell research, Illinois Senator Barack Obama told reporters, ‘the promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.’
As President, Obama used similar language on March 9 to revoke Bush’s ban with a new executive order that appeared to cede the executive branch’s regulatory authority over government stem cell research to the National Institutes of Health—that is, to the researchers themselves.
In the aftermath of this latest, sweeping order, Levin’s book looks both prescient and profound. Levin characterizes then-Senator Obama’s words as an “elevated view of the authority of science as the chief interpreter of truth [which] poses a profound challenge to the basic liberal tenet of self-government.” By “truth” Levin means not just the validity of scientific theories but the values and ideals that ought to govern action.
According to this view, science needs no political regulation, because science itself is able to discover and reveal knowledge of good and evil. Scientists become the moral authorities, replacing all others, whether those authorities are based on divine revelation or even secular moral reasoning.
Science, however, is incapable of actually serving as the basis for moral authority, says Levin. “The supposed supremacy of scientific authority is rooted in the fact that science builds its understanding cumulatively—so that it always knows more today than it knew yesterday.” Thus, “Science is inherently progressive.”
This progressive approach undermines the claim that science can provide access to moral knowledge. For how can one think that he has found the good when his entire approach to inquiry and research assures him that something greater will be found in the future? The good remains elusive, and what one finds is at best only just that—the best of what is available. In short, the very method that seems to support science as the supreme authority itself undermines the notion that science can give us moral knowledge.
So what begins as faith in science’s capacity to ferret out the truth turns into the opposite: the acknowledgment, often tacit, that the good can never be discovered by mankind. Thus, the morality that emerges from science is, ironically, an historicist based moral relativism.
Perhaps this has some connection to the fact that faith in science has become one of the core beliefs of the American Left. Despite all his claims to want to “change” American politics, Obama has merely re-integrated the standard position of the Left, says Levin. As he puts it, “The left has also adopted an easygoing relativism about moral and cultural questions, so that science has come to be seen as the only source of objective knowledge—of knowledge equally true everywhere and all the time.” But to rely on the “judgment of science” to decide stem cell research or any other issue of scientific and public interest is not to rely on objective knowledge, but on the subjective values of the scientists and experts who are conducting the research.
However pure and sincere the motives of these individuals, this in essence amounts to allowing the few to control politics rather than the many. Thus the Left’s faith in scientific objectivity becomes a threat to democracy—an ironic outcome given the populist rhetoric coming from the Left these days.
But if Levin finds the Left’s approach to science problematic, he also shows that American Right’s approach is often no better. Conservatives frequently discount the idea that scientific discovery of any kind can have a bearing on moral thought. Levin’s former boss, George W. Bush, said in the context of a speech about health policy:
The powers of science are morally neutral—as easily used for bad purposes as good ones. In the excitement of discovery, we must never forget that mankind is defined not by intelligence alone, but by conscience. Even the most noble ends do not justify every means.
Albert Einstein once said much the same thing. But this “proposition [that] seems at first perfectly reasonable” is not correct. Conservatives, Levin says,
push too far in asserting limits to the reach and relevance of science, and seek to deny material facts because they take them to entail certain moral conclusions. They in effect adopt the very scientific determinism they are trying to combat; and they accept the proposition that the claims of evolution are in direct competition with the claims of Biblical religion or traditional morality, when in fact each offers answers to a different set of questions altogether.
The consequence of this tendency is that the political Right tends to ignore scientific inquiry. Levin wrote this book because he finds both the Left’s and the Right’s approach to the relationship between science and politics wrongheaded. Science isn’t morality’s savior; nor is it of no use in the spheres of morality, values, and politics. There must be a middle ground.
Imaging the Future seeks that middle ground. The Left is wrong because it ignores and misunderstands ethics; the Right is wrong because it misapprehends the implications of scientific knowledge. Understanding how science teaches and helps us has enormously benefited civilization in the past—as it will surely do in the future, too. And surely, the debate itself can help its participants better understand the very nature of morality.
Levin’s book is profound for more than a couple of reasons. In terms of the debate over politics’ role in science, the author successfully confronts a topic of great importance in a sober, thoughtful manner, absent the shrill nonsense that frequently characterizes such debates. More importantly, however, Levin’s approach is philosophical: He draws primarily on Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, two modern thinkers (that is, post-Machiavellian thinkers) who shaped our earliest ideas about how science should be viewed in modern societies. Bringing moral philosophers into contemporary political debates should be applauded, of course. But is doing so asking too much of the general public?
The public tends to approach scientific debates with gut-feelings and limited information. They primarily argue in terms immediately familiar and applicable to themselves. Hence, abortion comes down to “choice” or “life”—with little serious reflection about how those terms subtly shape the society we live in, or even what they mean.
One certainly wishes this were not so. But a serious observer of the American political scene such as Levin ought to account for this thin surface-layer of public debate. That he hasn’t done so means, unfortunately, that few who have not already made up their minds on the subject will use this book as a primer.
Those who do, however, will have a better grasp of the monumental challenges scientific progress will pose to human society in the Obama era and beyond. They will understand that science and politics cannot be fully separated, nor should they be.
As Levin recently wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post, “Science is a glorious thing, but it is no substitute for wisdom, prudence or democracy.”
—Daniel Halper regularly writes on politics, foreign policy, and the Middle East at Commentary’s blog Contentions.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire