When people say “follow the science,” often what they’re really saying is “follow our plan.”
On his first day as president, Joe Biden, flanked by a portrait of Ben Franklin, called on the federal government to “advance environmental justice” and “be guided by the best science.”
In many ways, Biden’s words came as no surprise.
Biden didn’t stop there, however. He included the mantra in one of the first executive orders he signed, noting that it would be his administration’s official policy to “listen to the science.”
The phrase seems harmless enough. The scientific method is highly trusted, and for good reason. It has been a boon to humanity and helped bring about many of the marvels of our modern world.
Yet distinguished thinkers new and old have warned us to proceed with caution when confronted with pleas to “listen to the science.”
Mises: There’s No Ought in Science
The economist Ludwig von Mises once observed the problem with using scientific claims to shape the modern world. He suggested that in many cases people invoke science simply to tell people what they must do.
“The planners pretend that their plans are scientific and that there cannot be disagreement with regard to them among well-intentioned and decent people,” Mises wrote in his 1947 essay “Planned Chaos.”
Most people agree that science is a useful tool, and Mises was certainly one of them. The problem Mises was getting at was that science can’t actually tell us what we should do, which is the realm of subjective value judgments. Science can only tell us what is.
“[T]here is no such thing as a scientific ought,” Mises wrote, echoing a famous argument by David Hume. “Science is competent to establish what is.” (For a deeper dive on the is-ought problem, read Hume’s celebrated 1729 work, A Treatise on Human Nature.)
The economist continued:
“[Science] can never dictate what ought to be and what ends people should aim at. It is a fact that men disagree in their value judgments. It is insolent to arrogate to oneself the right to overrule the plans of other people and to force them to submit to the plan of the planner.”