I Hate False Choices

As many of you know, I’m actively exploring routes to re-engage with my Canadian…er…roots. One of those routes is a policy fellowship program. I recently went through the application process, which included responding to the following question:

In policy making, science and evidence can clash with values and perspectives. What should take precedence and why?

False choices like this one are a special hate of mine. So I thought I’d share my brief rant with you all. (If you share my special hate, or hate my special rant, let’s chat!)

begin rant

The premise that “science and evidence” stand in opposition to “values and perspectives” is fatal to the project of liberal democracy.

The ultimate consequence of this premise is precisely the crisis that we now face in our politics today—namely, the emergence of new, competing truth machines to support value-based policy agendas that were consistently denied validity by the truth machine of “science and evidence.”

This error goes all the way back to the Enlightenment, when we separated science from values, elevated science to the status of higher truth and gave science a privileged, value-free position from which to survey the unenlightened.

That act of hubris planted the seed for the present-day rebellion by every value that is “held” (and therefore is real at some level) yet denied the status of reality.

So long as we frame this tension between science and values as a clash, as an either/or that must be decided in favor of one side or the other, this rebellion will spread until it enfeebles, not just policy-making, but the whole liberal democratic project.

If science and evidence ought to take precedence, then logic will ultimately lead us to the China model of “democratic dictatorship.” There, the people chose a government in 1949 (via popular revolution), and it has been running policy experiments and gathering evidence ever since. Some experiments have been successful, some spectacularly not-so, but the Party retains the authority to learn, to adapt and to lead the people, scientifically, toward a material utopia. By force, when necessary.

If, instead, values and perspectives ought to take precedence, then far from wringing our hands at the proliferation of “fake news” and “alternative truths,” we should celebrate it. Now every value, not just Enlightenment values, has a truth machine that spews out authority, on the basis of which groups that hold a particular value can assert righteousness. Excellent! But then we ought to strike the “liberal” from liberal democracy, since constraints upon the exercise of authority have no privileged ground to stand on.

The only way to avoid these inevitable destinations of the either/or premise is to reintegrate science and value—at the level of policy-making and public discourse. We need a New Enlightenment. That is the task which the irruption of post-truth politics now makes urgent. To accomplish it, the Enlightened must first wake up to the values and intuitions that underlie our questing for evidence. For example: a sense that harmony with nature or with strangers is good; a conviction that we ought to preference the welfare of future generations over our own; a feeling that security is a good in itself.

We, the Enlightened, must reverse the order in which we validate our values—from “Here is the evidence, and therefore this is what we should value” to “Here is what I value, and here is the evidence that helps explain why it’s good.”

end rant