You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that when a politician talks about taking the politics out of a scientific issue, there is apt to be—dare one repeat the word yet again—something political going on. Commentators such as Charles Krauthammer and Yuval Levin have been quick to notice this in the remarks President Obama delivered last week when he lifted by executive order the funding restrictions put in place by President Bush on research involving human embryos and embryonic stem cells. The new president had promised in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place,” and he reiterated that theme in his remarks, calling his new order “an important step in advancing the cause of science in America”:

It is about letting scientists . . . do their jobs, free from manipulation and coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda—and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.

There is nothing terribly wrong with this formulation of the principle of “scientific integrity”—the term used in an accompanying memorandum—but it raises rather than answers the question of what is the scientist’s job, what are scientific data and decisions, and what is the proper place of politics.

Let’s start by clarifying what we mean by politics, for like most words it is not free from ambiguity. First, we sometimes talk about politics as the struggle over who gets offices and honors and benefits: politics in this sense is likened to a game in which there are players and teams, rules and game-plans, winners and losers, triumphs and defeats. Second, we see politics in deliberation about public policy, in making decisions about the best means to achieve agreed-upon ends; today we generally agree, for example, that we need an economic policy that will ensure the return of prosperity, but our political parties show characteristic differences in the sorts of policy they are inclined to endorse toward that end. Finally, political dispute sometimes reaches beyond issues involving the means to agreed-upon ends to include debate about the ends themselves: Should public policy favor excellence or equity? Should the law encourage justice or protect freedom?

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All can agree, I think, that scientific integrity requires that the determination of the truth of facts and causality in matters properly within the domain of scientific inquiry ought to be free from political interference. There might be “politics” in every lab or every agency, but it is the duty of scientists to set considerations of gain and celebrity aside when determining whether a scientific paper ought to be published or whether a scientific theory is true. The standard is evidence and argument, not power and influence, and the evidence and argument ought to be such that it is publicly available and contestable, for in that way error can be discovered and corrected. In deciding whose evidence is best and whose arguments are sound, it should not matter what powerful forces in society wish the truth to be: whether the icecaps are melting; whether if so the cause is human activity (such as burning fossil fuels) or natural events (such as storms on the sun); whether intelligence can be measured and, if so, whether it varies by ethnic group; whether animal embryos are living organisms that develop on their own given favorable conditions or are clumps of cells that behave like cultured tissue. If truth is suppressed because one or the other political team finds it “inconvenient,” to use the President’s language, something has gone wrong.

Things get complicated when we have to deliberate about which means to choose in the formulation of public policy. Here science often has a useful role to play. Sometimes it takes the form of scientific studies that document otherwise uncertain dangers to the public, for example the health risks of tobacco use. Sometimes scientific instruments and technology provide the government with essential tools for important services, for example weather forecasting or space exploration or a thousand military purposes. Sometimes social science evidence informs policy-making, for example economic analysis or the assessment of student achievement. In all these matters it can never be said that science dictates rational policy on its own without additional human judgment.

Whether tobacco harms human health is a scientific question, but whether government should ban its use, ban its advertisement in certain venues, or merely warn the public of its dangers is not a question that can be answered scientifically, only politically. The risks of air or water pollution might be scientifically calculated, but how much risk is acceptable and who should have to bear it are political issues. It is not a political question whether a scientific instrument measures what it is supposed to or executes the operation for which it is designed, but the use to which it should be put and whether its cost is worth its benefit can only be answered by politics. Here the temptations to compromise scientific integrity may be great, but they can in principle be resisted by scientifically literate administrators and an informed public, able to distinguish judgments of fact from judgments of value. When the question involves the social sciences, fact and value are inevitably tangled, requiring even more vigilance to distinguish empirical findings from political interpretations; perhaps the best that can be expected is that scientific results be kept in perspective and not be asserted by political figures to prove more than the researchers who discover them can scientifically claim.

What makes science inadequate to settle debates over means is the fact that human goods are plural and incommensurable. Usually for any individual, and always for complex communities, there are many competing goods and no simple or universal formula by which they can be weighed against one another. Disputes over ends need not be irresolvable in principle, however. There is a long tradition in philosophy that aims to do precisely that, and religion and other forms of culture have often claimed and sometimes succeeded in fostering a widespread consensus on fundamental things that limits political disagreement. The reason that these disputes become political in our society is because by embracing religious freedom and free speech, we have accepted heterodoxy on first principles and thus have left to political ingenuity the forging of public opinion even on matters of fundamental concern. Much more can be said on this score—pointing, for example, to the role of constitutionalism in holding society together, or, as Tocqueville pointed out, to the unofficial but nevertheless tyrannical pressure of democratic majorities over thought. For our purposes here what is essential is to note that modern science has nothing, or almost nothing, to say about the human good.

This bears underlining. Whereas classical science asked about the essences of things and about their ends, modern science is empiriological, classifying and measuring phenomena in their observed relations. Its form is logical rather than ontological; rather than asking what things really are or what they are for, modern science typically aims to describe reality mathematically. Modern science answers how events happen, not what is the substance of things. Its spectacular achievements come as a result of its narrowed scope. But even that is only part of the story, for practicing scientists are usually convinced that they have made discoveries about the way things really are, not just that they have described mathematically the relations of appearances; except for the sake of maintaining an argument, no practical physicist believes that “physics, too, is only an interpretation and exegesis of the world,” as Nietzsche said. Scientists confidently acquire real knowledge by limited but effective means, and sometimes claim that what they know is all that can be known about the things they study. To them—and, frankly, to our culture at large—all claims to knowledge are either ‘scientific’ or ‘unscientific,’ the latter including everything from ethics to prejudice. Perhaps for peace in the university scientists concede some dignity to nonscientific disciplines, but it is hard not to think that, except for those who draw on resources of personal faith, they consider it all to be nonsense and treat it with silent contempt.

On the other hand, humanists and other non-scientists lazily rely on Nietzsche’s adage or on Nietzschean philosophers of science, thinking they can treat scientific knowledge as optional in itself and not essential to their own concerns. They rarely understand science or what drives it and so are surprised when scientists ignore their concerns. To the humanist, science should pause before ethical imperatives, or at least human experience, which includes, as Levin and Krauthammer remember, harrowing tales from the twentieth century of science going horribly astray. But to the scientist, the humanist himself treats ethics or religion as interpretation, not knowledge, so proposed restrictions on scientific research seem arbitrarily imposed. As a physicist friend has pointed out to me, to a modern biologist the embryo is today what the atom was to physicists a few generations ago: the central, most powerful thing within their field of study, and just beginning to be truly understood for the first time. This is why, as scientists, they consider it irrelevant that pluripotent stem cells can be produced by other means: they want to know what makes the embryo work and resent anything that stands in their way, confident that the knowledge gained will in the long run yield the greatest benefits to well-being.

Hence our current predicament: scientists who want to really know, but are only half aware of the limits of their empiriological method; humanists (not to mention religious believers) who have abandoned claims to comprehensive knowledge even of their appointed spheres; and politicians eager as ever to exploit the opportunities that ambiguity creates. Though laws remain in place that still restrict the grasp of science—for example, regulating the composition of federally mandated boards to review research on human subjects—the problem is more fundamental and not to be resolved without serious intellectual work. It is not enough, for either liberals or conservatives, to rest democracy on “values voters” as able to resist the authoritarian claims of modern science. Not unexplained values, but genuine knowledge, is needed to establish that the “rightful place” of science in its modern form is not above the people and their faith and their Constitution, but in their service, for the questions of substances and ends retain authority over instrumental questions concerning processes and systems. In other words, the inconvenient political fact is that law must restrain scientists within ethical boundaries so long as their method itself is amoral, but the better way in the long run is toward recovery of a serious science of human being.

James Stoner is Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Louisiana State University. He sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse. He gratefully acknowledges his reliance on the writings and conversation of Anthony Rizzi of the Institute for Advanced Physics in developing this essay.