Perspective: Science’s Uncertain Authority in Policy
Science’s Uncertain Authority in Policy
Scientists view science as the ultimate authority on the laws of the universe, but that authority has no special standing when it comes to the laws of nations. The rigors of the scientific method may be humanity’s most reliable approach to attaining rational and objective “truth,” but the world’s leaders very often follow other routes to policy conclusions. Society’s decisionmakers acknowledge the power of science and invoke its support for their decisions, but they differ greatly from scientists in the way they understand and use science. My years as White House science advisor made me aware that science has no firm authority in government and public policy. Scientists might wish that it were otherwise, but if they want to play an effective role in policymaking, they need to understand the political process as it is. A few examples will illustrate my point.
In November 2001, following what were then regarded as incidents of terrorism involving mailed anthrax, Homeland Security Advisor Tom Ridge called me seeking urgent advice on what to do with a very large quantity of anthrax-laden U.S. mail. Working with my staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, we formed an interagency task group to evaluate and recommend methods to neutralize the spores. The answer we were seeking could not be found in the literature, so we commissioned some research and delivered what was truly “applicable science on demand.” We were able to give the U.S. Postal Service precise instructions on how to employ electron-beam irradiation with equipment normally used for food sterilization. Our directions addressed all aspects of the procedure, including the setting for radiation intensity. The Postal Service officials were delighted, and they enthusiastically went to work destroying anthrax—perhaps too enthusiastically. They reported back to us that some of the first batches of mail burst into flame.
We discovered that our guidance, which I would describe as a narrow form of policy advice, was accepted as to method, but not as to degree. Someone surmised that if five on the intensity dial were good, ten would be better. That agent substituted his or her judgment for a well-defined policy recommendation based on careful science and unambiguous data. Much, of course, was at stake. The Postal Service was responsible for delivering mail that would not be lethal. Better to be safe than sorry. When the intensity was throttled back to our recommended level, the treatment worked just fine. You may smile at this minor episode, but it is a relatively benign example of a potentially disastrous behavior.A serious consequence of ignoring expert technical advice occurred in January 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle launch rocket failed, killing seven astronauts. The best brief account I know of this tragedy is contained in Edward Tufte’s 1997 Visual Explanations, which includes a detailed analysis of the manner in which the advice was given. “One day before the flight, the predicted temperature for the launch was 26° to 29° [F]. Concerned that the [O- rings] would not seal at such a cold temperature, the engineers who designed the rocket opposed launching Challenger the next day.” Their evidence was faxed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where “a high-level NASA official responded that he was ‘appalled’ by the recommendation not to launch and indicated that the rocket-maker, Morton Thiokol, should reconsider… Other NASA officials pointed out serious weaknesses in the [engineers’] charts. Reassessing the situation after these skeptical responses, the Thiokol managers changed their minds and decided that they now favored launching the next day. They said the evidence presented by the engineers was inconclusive.”
Even more was at stake when secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports to the White House starting in April 2001 advanced the opinion of an analyst—by reasonable standards a well-qualified analyst—that certain aluminum tubes sought by Iraq were likely for use in a nuclear weapons program. That claim was challenged immediately by Department of Energy scientists, probably the world’s leading experts in such matters, and later by State Department analysts, who refuted the claim with many facts. The administration nevertheless decided to accept the CIA version in making its case for war. Thanks to a thorough July 2004 report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the aluminum tubes case is very well documented. This episode is another example of policy actors substituting their subjective judgment in place of a rather clear-cut scientific finding. Did the small group of senior officials who secretly crafted the case for war simply ignore the science? I was not invited to that table, so I cannot speak from direct experience. But I suspect that the process was more complicated than that.
From the evidence that has become available it appears the decision to invade Iraq was based more on a strong feeling among the actors that an invasion was going to be necessary than on a rigorous and systematic investigation that would objectively inform that decision. I will not speculate about the basis for this feeling, but it was very strong. My interest is in how the policy actors in this case regarded science. They were obviously not engaged in a process of scientific discovery. They were attempting to build a case, essentially a legal argument, for an action they believed intuitively to be necessary, and they therefore evaluated the conflicting testimony of credentialed experts from a legal, not a scientific, perspective. The case against the CIA conclusion, although overwhelming from a scientific viewpoint, was nevertheless not absolutely airtight based on material provided to the decisionmakers. It was reported to the policymaking group by nonscientists who were transmitting summary information in an atmosphere of extreme excitement, stress, and secrecy. I assume that the highly influential CIA briefings on the aluminum tubes did make reference to the Energy Department objections, but this information was transmitted to the decisionmakers in a way that left a small but real opening for doubt. From a strict legal perspective, seriously limited by the closed and secret nature of the process, that loophole was enough to validate the proposition in their minds as a basis for the desired action.
What is important about these examples is that, as a point of historical fact, the methods of science were weaker than other forces in determining the course of action. The actors had heavy responsibilities, they were working under immense pressure to perform, and the decisions were made within a small circle of people who were not closely familiar with the technical issues. Scientists, and many others, find the disregard of clear technical or scientific advice incomprehensible. Most of us share a belief that the methods of science are the only sure basis for achieving clarity of thought. They are not, unfortunately, the swiftest. The methods of science, as even their articulate champion C.S. Peirce himself observed, do have their disadvantages. Peirce, an eminent logician and the founder of the philosophical school of pragmatism, argued in his famous essays that there are four ways to make our ideas clear and that science is ultimately the only reliable one. However, to quote the Wikipedia entry, “Peirce held that, in practical affairs, slow and stumbling ratiocination is often dangerously inferior to instinct, sentiment, and tradition, and that the scientific method is best suited to theoretical research, which in turn should not be bound to the other methods [of settling doubt] and to practical ends.” That the physical evidence for Saddam’s hypothetical nuclear program was virtually nonexistent, that its significance was appallingly exaggerated in statements by high public officials, and that the consequences of the action it was recruited to justify were cataclysmic, is beside the point. The fact is that although many factors influenced the decision to invade Iraq, science was not one of them, and it is a fair question to ask why not.
To my knowledge, no nation has an official policy that requires its laws or actions to be based on the methods of science. Nor is the aim of science to provide answers to questions of public affairs. That science nevertheless does carry much weight in public affairs must be attributed to something other than the force of law. It is worth asking why advocates of all stripes seek to recruit science to their cause and why we are so offended by actions that “go against science.” Studying the source from which science derives its legitimacy may shed some light on conditions under which it is likely to be superseded.
Max Weber, the father of sociology, lists three “pure types of legitimate domination” based on different grounds as follows: (1) “Rational grounds—resting on a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands.” This Weber calls legal authority, and he furnishes it with all the bureaucratic trappings of administration and enforcement of what we would call the rule of law. In this case the authorities themselves are rule-bound. (2) “Traditional grounds—resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them.” This is the traditional authority of tribes, patriarchies, and feudal lords. And (3) “Charismatic grounds— resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” Weber applies the term charisma “to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person.”
Weber intended these types to be exhaustive. It is an interesting exercise to attempt to fit the authority of science in society into one or more of these categories. If we admit that science is not sanctioned by law, then of the two remaining choices charismatic authority seems the best match. But to a scientist this is an absurd conclusion. It is precisely because the operation of science does not require charismatic authorities that we should trust it to guide our actions. We tend to accept the authority of science as uniquely representing reality, and to act against it as a mild form of insanity. Experience shows, however, that such insanity is widespread. (Consider only public attitudes toward demonstrably risky behavior such as smoking or texting while driving.) Unless it is enforced through legal bureaucratic machinery, the guidance of science must be accepted voluntarily as a personal policy. Science is a social phenomenon with no intrinsic authoritative force.
The fact that science has such a good track record, however, endows its practitioners with a virtue that within the broad social context closely resembles Weber’s “exceptional powers or qualities” that accompany charismatic authority. And indeed the public regard for science is linked in striking ways to its regard for scientists. Contemporary Western culture gives high marks for objectivity, and science, as Peirce compellingly argued, is unique among the ways of making our ideas clear in arriving at objective, publicly shareable results. In the United States, at least, there is broad but voluntary public acceptance of science as a source of authority. Its authority is not mandated, but those who practice it and deliver its results are endowed with charismatic authority.
The National Academies and the National Research Council inherit this charismatic quality from the status of its members. I was never more impressed with the power of the Academies and its reports than in a series of events associated with the development of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The story began with a 1992 law requiring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to base its safety regulations for the facility on a forthcoming National Research Council report. When the report appeared in 1995, it implied that science did not preclude drafting radiological safety guidelines extending over very long times—up to a million years!—related to the half-lives of certain radioactive components of spent nuclear fuel. Rule-making required estimating the impact of potential radiological contamination of groundwater on populations living in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain over more than a hundred thousand years. The science of such regulations requires constructing scenarios for both the physical processes of the storage system and the human population over that time period. There is no credible and empirically validatable scientific approach for such long times, and the EPA acknowledged this through a change in its methodology after 10,000 years. When the regulations were challenged in court, the U.S. Court of Appeals, to my amazement, ruled that the EPA had not adhered to the letter of the NRC report as required by law and told EPA to go back to the drawing board. A member of the committee that produced the report, a respected scientist, said that he never expected the report to be used this way. It had become a sacred text. In 2008 both the secretary of energy and the EPA administrator asked my advice on how to proceed, but the issue had passed far beyond the bounds of science. I speculated that in far fewer than a thousand years advances in medical science would have altered completely the significance of hazards such as exposure to low level ionizing radiation. But such speculations play no role in the formal legal processes of bureaucratic regulation. Yucca Mountain has become a social problem beyond the domain of science.
What emerges from these reflections is that the authority of science is inferior to statutory authority in a society that operates under the rule of law. Its power comes entirely from voluntary acceptance by a large number of individuals, not by any structured consensus that society will be governed by the methods and findings of science. At most, science carries a kind of charismatic power that gives it strength in public affairs but in the final analysis has no force except when embedded in statute. Advocates who view their causes as supported by science work hard to achieve such embedding, and many examples exist of laws and regulations that require consultation with technical expert advisory panels. The Endangered Species Act, for example, “requires the [Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service] to make biological decisions based upon the best scientific and commercial data available.” Also, “Independent peer review will be solicited … to ensure that reviews by recognized experts are incorporated into the review process of rulemakings and recovery plans.” The emphasis on “experts” is unavoidable in such regulations, which only sharpens the charismatic aspect of scientific authority. The law typically invokes science through its practitioners except when adopting specific standards, which are often narrowly prescriptive. Standards too, however, are established by expert consensus.
At this point the question of the source of scientific authority in public affairs merges with questions about the nature of science itself, and its relation to scientists. That society does not automatically accept the authority of science may not come as a surprise. But in my conversations with scientists and science policymakers there is all too often an assumption that somehow science must rule, must trump all other sources of authority. That is a false assumption. Science must continually justify itself, explain itself, and proselytize through its charismatic practitioners to gain influence on social events.
John Marburger, vice president for research at Stony Brook University in New York, was science advisor to President George W. Bush.