Philosophy professor Gary Gutting writes:
Public policy debates often involve appeals to results of work in social sciences like economics and sociology. . . . How much authority should we give to such work in our policy decisions? . . . The core natural sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology) are so well established that we readily accept their best-supported conclusions as definitive. . . . But how reliable is even the best work on the effects of teaching? How, for example, does it compare with the best work by biochemists on the effects of light on plant growth? Since humans are much more complex than plants and biochemists have far more refined techniques for studying plants, we may well expect the biochemical work to be far more reliable. . . . While the physical sciences produce many detailed and precise predictions, the social sciences do not.
OK, fine. But then comes the punchline:
Given the limited predictive success and the lack of consensus in social sciences, their conclusions can seldom be primary guides to setting policy. At best, they can supplement the general knowledge, practical experience, good sense and critical intelligence that we can only hope our political leaders will have.
This all makes sense but I’m a bit confused. In no area are scientific conclusions “the primary guides to setting policy.” Political and business leaders rule policy; the rest of us can just supply advice. It’s not like physicists are in charge of energy policy (if so, I expect we’d have a big fat carbon tax), nor are biologists in charge of the teaching of evolution in many states. So I’m not quite sure what Gutting is talking about.
The only place where I see social scientists controlling policy is (some) economists’ influence over economic policy. But this is a well-known issue, usually framed not as a matter of scientific expertise (or lack thereof) but in terms of massive conflicts of interests (for example, Lawrence Summers’s multimillion-dollar payoff from a hedge fund). But this can’t be Gutting’s point: if it were, he’d talk about economists, not social science in general. But in that case I just don’t get it. It’s not like there are a bunch of number-crunching sociologists running around telling the government what to do!
It seems to me that, the field economics aside, policy is run just as Gutting would like: “our political leaders” (as he puts it) can pretty much do what they’d like, constrained by the political opposition but feeling no particular obligation for science (social or otherwise) to be “primary guides to setting policy.” I’m not complaining here—I don’t know that science should be a primary guide in most contexts (if it were, maybe we’d all be riding flying cars by now, with all the parking problems that would entail)—I just don’t see what Gutting is getting at.