I sometimes hear people say things like, “If science supports X policy, it should be enacted.” Hiding behind the word science for your moral or political beliefs is a bad idea, because science doesn’t exist as something that can be accountable or take responsibility.
Of course there is a method of inquiry called the scientific method. It is particularly useful in the study of physical objects, forces, and relationships – what we call the physical sciences. But science doesn’t say anything, and it certainly can’t do or enforce anything. Science isn’t a person with positions on issues or an ability to clearly articulate and act on them. It’s a tool and a way of thinking. It’s a process that helps people test and falsify and eliminate possibilities and make better theories.
Even if smart people using the scientific process arrive at a theory about the physical world and say they believe certain policies should be enacted, it’s not a trump card to then say that science demands legal action. Science can’t demand anything. Scientists can demand legal action, but they almost always do so based on a romanticized view of the political process.
Putting aside the fact that there is no such thing as “settled” science – indeed, it is an open and ongoing process, not a body of accumulating, unchanging facts – even when research reveals certain relationships it does not follow that policies imagined by scientists should be enacted. Political-made law is not like the laws of science. People with incentives having nothing to do with the facts or the outcome must posture and pontificate and make deals before passage. The end result only passes if it sates the appetites of enough rent-seeking interests, regardless of whether it resembles what high-minded scientists imagined. Enforcement is even worse. Carried out by unaccountable armies of bureaucrats (some armed, all dangerous), laws are a cudgel used selectively by those in power to further cement it.
When you hear people loudly demanding political action based on ‘settled science’ don’t give them a pass. If a theory about the physical world is really sound, there’s a built-in incentive to adapt to it without resorting to force. It may happen imperfectly and slower than some experts would like, but ten times out of ten I’d trust the market process more than the political one to discover the best trade-offs.