“Follow the science.”
For the past year and a half, policymakers and public health officials have repeatedly used this phrase to justify their decisions about how we must live our lives. Stay home. Close your business. Wear a mask. The science says so.
They told us their decisions were based on empirical evidence, and that this, by itself, was enough. But what happens when the empirical evidence is exaggerated, contradictory, or just flat-out wrong?
Too often, it is. One review of over 6,700 academic studies found that 80% of the findings were inflated to appear twice as large (or more) as they actually were. Elsewhere, two researchers tried to replicate findings from 67 economic studies using the same data and code, in addition to the help of the authors themselves, only to fail more than 50% of the time. And still more studies are outright false.
Why is this? Maybe it’s because experts are fallible and the world is complex. Experts aren’t robots. They often experience the pull of political ideology, pressure to appease funding sources, and other biases. On top of this, the complexity of our world presents an immeasurable number of confounding variables. It’s no wonder that agreement among experts is evasive and the collected data incomplete.
To be clear, empirical evidence can be valuable. But it’s not enough. Using additional sources of knowledge—like experience, tradition, faith, and philosophy—can dramatically improve the credibility and accuracy of decisions otherwise based solely on empirical evidence.
The first of these, experience, is a form of subjective knowledge comprised of the choices we’ve made and (as the name suggests) things we’ve experienced. It can help us better understand the nature of problems by providing additional insight where empirical evidence is lacking. A researcher who regularly interacts with homeless people in addition to studying data likely has a more complete understanding of the problem of homelessness than a researcher who has only studied data and never talked with a homeless person in his life. In this way, experience can be a helpful supplement to empirical evidence.
Tradition is another source of knowledge that lends itself to improved decision-making. Tradition looks at history as a continuous series of natural experiments in what works and suggests that long-standing customs are useful guides for the future. Marriage, the greatest institution of social stability and child-rearing since the beginning of time, is a powerful example. But tradition is only an indicator of what may work; it’s not a guarantee. Customs may arise simply because humans are copying other humans. In this sense, a tradition may be arbitrary (like tie-wearing) or even harmful (like hazing). Still, using tradition along with experience and empirical evidence will lead to a more complete analysis.
Beyond the human wisdom of experience and tradition, faith can connect us with divine wisdom. Some of the truths embedded in public policy simply cannot be discovered through academic studies. No amount of data will lead to the conclusion that every human has intrinsic value. Faith will. Science won’t tell us that all people, regardless of race or sex, are worthy of dignity and respect. Faith will. Understanding what humans are is foundational to public policy, and faith is essential to that end.
Similarly, philosophy can provide answers to questions that empirical studies cannot.
Studying data can tell us about what a policy might do,but it can’t tell us if we should do it. There are trade-offs that only philosophy can answer. If a cost-benefit analysis shows that smoking reduces government expenditures (because shorter lifespans lead to healthcare savings) should the government promote smoking? A policy may be supported by empirical evidence, yet completely devoid of justice and fairness. Adding philosophical debate to policymaking could reveal and, ultimately, change this.
Empirical evidence has its shortcomings and using it as the sole basis for making decisions is fraught with problems. Unfortunately, this is exactly what much of the current expert class—the collection of government bureaucrats, economists, social scientists, academics, public health officials, and analysts who either make or influence policy—does.
The Federal Reserve and Treasury Department rely on economic research that may be irreproducible. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention claims to “follow the science as [its] guide,” which, as we’ve seen, can be a mess of contradictions. And the Environmental Protection Agency bases much of its rulemaking on studies that use data not available to the public, and thus not open to outside scrutiny.
There are always going to be “experts” of a certain kind—people need guidance, and they look to those they consider competent to issue it. So our goal should not be to eradicate expertise. It should be to seek and train real experts—experts who can draw not only from empirical evidence but also from experience, tradition, faith, and philosophy.
How might we create this holistic expert class? To start, by using the tactics of the Left against them.
As Claremont Senior Fellow Ronald Pestritto has detailed at length, Progressives were able to build the administrative state in part by taking control of trends in political philosophy, starting in academia. The cultural revolution occasioned by Marxists in this country, with which we are still living, was famously the result of a similar tactic: seize the institutions and make a “long march” through them until you transform the whole regime.
To counteract this, conservatives should use Progressives’ blueprint for co-opting the administrative state and reshaping the expert class. Starting in academia, right-of-center think tanks and university professors should elevate the other forms of knowledge that supplement the strictly scientific kind. This is where institutions like Claremont are most impactful: they teach philosophy and tradition to fill in the gaps left by think tanks that only focus on social science. Additionally, more universities should update their curriculum to include courses that incorporate tradition, faith, and philosophy, specifically as they pertain to the study of public policy.
Next, legislators can enact laws to improve the decision-making of federal bureaucrats. Congress could pass a law that all studies used as the basis for regulations must be reproducible. It could also pass a transparency requirement that all data used by government agencies must be made public. These measures, and others like them, would lessen the harm done by an overreliance on empirical knowledge.
Lastly, we need more organizations to train young professionals to be in the expert class. One new group, American Moment, was formed for such a purpose. Regardless of whether one agrees with their positions, they’ve got the right idea. The model of credentialing and cultivating individuals to implement public policy ought to be emulated. A network of institutions with fellowships, seminars, and workshops dedicated to fostering more well-rounded experts is desirable–and necessary.
While empirical evidence can be informative for policymaking, a far better approach is a holistic one that incorporates experience, tradition, faith, and philosophy.
So, no, don’t just “follow the science.”