David Frum

04.25.12

Bring Science to Public Policy

manzi-book

The New Republic favorably and thoughtfully reviews Jim Manzi's Uncontrolled:

The book is less interested in [testing methods] than in the limits of empirical knowledge. Given these limits, what attitude should we take toward government? As Manzi explains, our grasp of the universe is shaky even where, as in the case of physics, “hard science” plays the dominant role. The scientific method cannot establish truths; it can only falsify hypotheses. The hypotheses come from our daily experience, so even when science prunes away intuitions that fail the experimental method, we can never be sure that the theories that remain standing reflect the truth or just haven’t been subject to the right experiment. And even within its domain, the experimental method is not foolproof. When an experiment contradicts received wisdom, it is an open question whether the wisdom is wrong or the experiment was improperly performed. Thus, when a recent experiment appeared to show that neutrinos could travel faster than the speed of light, scientists did not chuck the theory of relativity, but looked for ways in which the experiment may have gone awry. Much of scientific knowledge turns out to depend on norms of scientific behavior, good faith, convention, and other phenomena that in other contexts tend to provide an unreliable basis for knowledge.

Under this view of the world, one might be attracted to the cautious conservatism associated with Edmund Burke, the view that we should seek knowledge in traditional norms and customs, which have stood the test of time and presumably some sort of Darwinian competition—a human being is foolish, the species is wise. There are hints of this worldview in Manzi’s book, though he does not explicitly endorse it. He argues, for example, that we should approach social problems with a bias for the status quo; those who seek to change it carry the burden of persuasion. Once a problem is identified, we should try out our ideas on a small scale before implementing them across society—except in those instances where an immediate all-or-nothing decision is called for, as occurs during wars and economic crises.