Libresco: Thinking scientifically to think clearly

It’s been a bad week for science. Senator Tom Coburn’s introduction of an amendment to prohibit the National Science Foundation from giving any grants to political scientists came hot on the heels of a front page example of scientific illiteracy.

In a New York Times article, “Swine Flu Shots Revive a Debate About Vaccines,” (Oct. 15), Leslie Arndt, an ordinary citizen without any higher training in the sciences, explained why she did not plan on being vaccinated. Arndt — who says she has read the positions on both sides — was unable to come to a firm conclusion on the effectiveness and necessity of receiving the swine flu vaccine and, thus, has decided not to seek vaccination. If this were a simple matter of insufficient data. Arndt’s concerns might be valid, but, rather than seek out more information, she dismisses the issue, stating “It’s an emotional topic.”

Actually, it’s not. The question of whether a vaccine works is empirically testable. The amount of emotional weight that people put on the outcome of these tests is entirely irrelevant.

Misunderstanding basic truth claims put forward by science is one kind of scientific illiteracy. Misunderstanding the basic nature and method of scientific thinking is another. Arndt is certainly guilty of the first, but Coburn’s proposal to gut funding for political science reveals him to be guilty of the second offence.

The social sciences have always been vulnerable to the criticism that, in contrast to hard science, they are incapable of proving anything. There are no universal, eternal laws to be discovered, and (especially in a post-Stanley Milgram age with stricter ethical standards for research) there are few definitive experiments to conduct. Yale excludes even the most statistically rigorous political science classes from being counted as a science distributional credit.

This way of thinking about science ignores the value of scientific thinking as a means to understand the world — a central tenet of political science. The questions that I must ask of papers in my political science classes are identical to those I ask in a ‘real’ science class. What hypothesis is being presented? Are the evidence and methods credible? Is the hypothesis capable of being disproved? How? Has anyone managed it yet?

What political science teaches us is analytical thinking: how to gather and evaluate evidence. It is a skill that is essential for scientists (political and otherwise) and also for citizens. Learning how to think critically about these questions is more important than simply providing data about both sides.

It’s considerably less important that Arndt understand the exact methods by which the swine flu vaccine is produced and tested or even that she understand the underlying biology of infectious disease. Arndt must simply understand that the efficacy of the swine flu vaccine is a matter of empirics not emotions.

No education system can make Arndt an expert on every system and every situation in which she may be asked to make a decision. What education, at Yale or elsewhere, is meant to do is provide a framework for making decisions and evaluating evidence.

Engagement with political science is excellent training for data-based decision making. Moreover, this discipline is situated in a sphere immediately relevant to everyone who calls him or herself a constituent of a government. To slash funding for this research, as Coburn wishes, does our democracy a grave disservice. All citizens need to be able to think critically, just like political scientists, and they benefit from the specific hypotheses and projections made by these academics. Arndt is asked to make decisions about the lethality of newly discovered viruses only rarely, but, presumably, she votes every year. I hope she makes those decisions more carefully.

Leah Libresco is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.

Comments

  • MJG

    The phrase “data-based decision making” makes me shudder. Politics is not a science. Coburn for President.

  • Gigi

    Political scientists are not always politicians.

    I would add that PoliSci *can* teach critical thinking — if combined with, say, mathematics ;-) — but like prisoners that use their time to study law, it can also lead to a mishmash of half-understood, half-baked ideas, or simply used to distort.

    That said, PoliSci is perhaps among the least offensive of the soft sciences.

  • ROFLCOPTER

    Political Science is NOT Science.

    The difference between Social Science and Science is the difference between phronesis and episteme.

  • skeptical

    Any subject can be studied analytically. Any corpus — literary, quantitative, or schematic — contains hypotheses that might be disprovable. Science is different because it uses empirical tools to push the boundaries of humanity’s understanding. Senator Coburn is right to observe that the Political Science departments of the last few decades haven’t done much for humanity’s understanding.

  • je09

    For those who want an education in clear thinking, Yale offers it. But so many of us satisfy our distributional requirements with an easy credit instead of a serious introduction. I have to wonder why they even offer courses like that.

  • Recent Alum

    What’s next, is the National Science Foundation going to subsidize Sociology or American Studies?