I've recently read this article from two self-declared scholars affiliated with the conservative think-tank The American Enterprise Institute.
The article is entitled 'Science turns authoritarian' and presents the results of an empirical research done using the Lexis Nexis database. The authors basically counted the number of entries of expressions such as 'science says we must', 'science says we should', 'science tells us we must/should', 'science commands, requires, dictates, compels'. They compiled the results in a graph showing that since the 1980's the use of such expressions has risen considerably.
Now here's the tricky part. The authors conjecture that the increased use of these expressions shows that science has become authoritarian in the sense that it has started telling us how we should live, abandoning the good old habit of just telling us how things are. Most conspicuously, it is climate change science and science relating to research into the negative effects of tobacco and the like that have started this negative trend, according to the two researchers. They conclude that we should go back to the previous attitude and put science in its proper place.
Here are a couple of key passages from the article:
"In the past, scientists were generally neutral on questions of what to do. Instead, they just told people what they found, such as “we have discovered that smoking vastly increases your risk of lung cancer” or “we have discovered that some people will have adverse health effects from consuming high levels of salt.” Or “we have found that obesity increases your risk of coronary heart disease.” Those were simply neutral observations that people could find empowering, useful, interesting, etc., but did not place demands on them. In fact, this kind of objectivity was the entire basis for trusting scientific claims.
But along the way, an assortment of publicity-seeking, and often socially activist, scientists stopped saying, “Here are our findings. Read it and believe.” Instead, activist scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen, heads of quasi-scientific governmental organizations such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, editors of major scientific journals, and heads of the various national scientific academies are more inclined to say, “Here are our findings, and those findings say that you must change your life in this way, that way, or the other way.”
The public’s trust is further undermined by scientific scandals, such as the recent ClimateGate affair, when it became apparent that climate scientists, if not overtly cooking their books, were behaving as partisans out to create a unified perception of the climate in order to advance a policy agenda. The climate community is probably the biggest user of the authoritarian voice, with frequent pronouncements that “the science says we must limit atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 350 parts per million,” or some dire outcome will eventuate. Friends of the Earth writes, “For example, science tells us we must reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent dangerous climate change.” America’s climate change negotiator in Copenhagen is quoted by World Wildlife Fund as saying, “China must do significantly more if we are to have a chance to solve the problem and to arrive at an international agreement that achieves what science tells us we must.” Science as dictator—not a pretty sight.
If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.” If they say that often enough, and loudly enough, they might be able to reclaim the mantle of objectivity that they’ve given up over the last 40 years by letting themselves become the regulatory state’s ultimate appeal to authority.
There are a couple of things worth noting here.
For starters, by taking a closer look the argument appears to be quite dubious. To say that science (what is that anyway?) "turned" (they allude here probably to the language of treason, as in 'it turned on us') this or that (here authoritarian nonetheless) is very vague give the empirical basis. A search in Lexis Nexis cannot tell us much or for that matter anything about what science is or was or how it changed in the last couple of years.
In fact, the research reveals not something about science but about the language usage and public attitude or to be more specific about the language and attitude of journalists, commentators, public spokespersons of academic, public or private institutions and activists, as reflected in the media. It is thus about the cultural attitude and our expectations viz-a-vis the results of scientific research. Now, this is indeed not entirely uninteresting. If the results of the two authors are correct, it actually means that since the 1980's public communications about science are accompanied by expectations of science telling us how we should live and that we talk about science in terms of it telling us how we should live.
Secondly, the general mechanism of the argument at the level of implications deserves some attention. It runs on the following schematic: science telling us only 'what is' is objective; science that tells us what should be is authoritarian. The article wants us to draw the conclusion that authoritarian science is wrong, which is of course false: people abhor authoritarianism, authoritarianism is bad but this doesn't make it necessarily wrong. It is very interesting how this operates - the article tries to convert at the level of implications a decision about ethics into a decision about epistemology.
This brings me to the last point I want to make. The German sociologist Peter Weingart (See Die Stunde der Wahrheit, 2005)has analyzed controversies between experts and politicians and between experts themselves and has remarked a very interesting structural occurence which he called Verwissneschaftlichung der Politik/Politisierung der Wissenschaft which translates into the badly sounding politicization of science/scientifization of politics. He remarked that when politicians want to sell a particularly controversial set of policies they tend to say that it is not a political decision, that experts and science compel them to act. Conversely, when they strongly disagree and/or dislike because of ideological reasons a result of scientific research or a statement made by experts and scientists, they try to show that it is political and interested.
This article fits the profile in two ways: it tries to demonstrate that the science it disagrees with is political (stamping on it the label authoritarian) and presents itself as an outcome of science as the authors profess to be scholars which present results of research.