Friday, March 18, 2005

Myopic Seeing-eye Dog

Adam Keiper's recent article, "Science and Congress," makes a convincing case for Congress to re-establish an office to access technological matters—something resembling the late Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

After sweeping Congress in 1994, Republican lawmakers nullified the OTA. Keiper recounts a number of reasons the Republicans disliked this agency, but to my mind the most significant is its (perceived) liberal bias. Quasi-conservative Richard Nixon actually signed the law that brought OTA into existence in 1972, but the father of OTA was Connecticut Democrat Emilio Daddario. In the 1970's Congressmen on the OTA's governing board appointed their own staffers at the office, which compromised the agency's political independence. This problem became accute in 1977 when both Republicans and Democrats accused Senator Kennedy of making OTA into a personal sandbox. The second OTA director was liberal Republican (later Democrat) Russell Peterson. Peterson's brief but significant leadership was succeeded by former experimental physicist Jack Gibbons. In the mid to late 1980's, the OTA took fire for its negative assessments of anti-ballistic missile ("Star Wars") technology or SDI. Many Republicans came to believe, as Keiper says, "the agency used the mantle of 'scientific objectivity' and 'policy neutrality' to undermine conservative policy ideas and promote liberal ones."

Keiper points to Congress's woeful need for expert guidance in technological matters.

But there is a grave danger in this populist disparagement of expertise. When it comes to science and technology, most members of Congress, including many of those most deeply involved in the relevant policy fights, are dreadfully ignorant. They need serious and reliable advice and information, and the present structure of staff and support agencies is not sufficient to meet this need. To pretend that no such need exists is foolish; and to conclude, without trying, that a new advisory body would inevitably become an ideological nightmare is defeatist, and unworthy of a majority party that seeks to govern responsibly for years to come.

He minimizes the obvious danger of creating a liberal-leaning agency, which would undermine lawmakers' broader perspective (which includes the full range of human goods).

The Republican aversion to expert bureaucracies—the fear that a new agency will quickly fall into reflexive left-wing advocacy as so many old agencies have before it—is by no means unfounded. That has indeed been the pattern of the new departments, agencies, and bodies created by the federal government over the last several decades, perhaps including OTA.

Before I continue, let me note that my own narrow self-interest as a science-policy specialist would incline me to support his point of view. Even if I could not find employment with the new OTA, it would at least draw others out of the market and increase my "stock." That said here is that I think: creation of a new OTA is not playing with matches, but playing with cyanide.

It is undeniably important for lawmakers to receive expert advice on science and technology matters. Mr. Keiper is certainly right in warning against "populist disparagement of expertise"—this country is known for its anti-intellectualism. And this distrust encourages the elitism of intellectuals. Or rather this populist distrust and intellectual elitism are part of a vicious cycle of sociological dualism (a practical manifestation of philosophical dualism). Elites eschewing "common things" is as much responsible for distrust as any attitude on the other side (cf. Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?).

But on the putative "defeatism" of expecting the worst from an advisory body, I respectfully beg to differ with Mr. Keiper. This is a simple acknowledgement of reality and no more defeatist than admitting that "all men are mortal." A successor to the OTA will inevitably gravitate toward the left, not only because it is "on the take" from the Nanny State.

But on top of that, Keiper's argument smacks into a main topic on this blog: most scientists are at best agnostic about moral issues. Qualities and purposes are not part of science or science education. Unless there is purpose in nature, any morality is "unnaturally imposed from without" or simply wishful thinking. As surely as night follows day, a randomly selected group of scientists will tilt decisively leftward on many critical issues, including life issues, especially when they stand in the way of research. Most scientists have no philosophical training to combat the notion that the world is an arbitrary agglomeration of matter, and that there are no "things" or units, that is substances, but only collections of atoms. If substance is illusory, then it makes no reasonable sense to speak of the transcendent dignity of the human person, because the concept "human person" is a delusional fantasy; only cultural inertia prevents such atrocities as human vivisection.

The difficulty of finding morally-trained scientists is precisely the reason that President Bush has had such a difficult time with some members of the Bioethics Council. That the Council depends largely on the genius of Leon Kass, and would quickly disintegrate without him, is a strong testimony to the rarity of scientists like him.

Yes, Congress has limited vision in technological matters and needs a seeing-eye dog. But the only thing worse than going without a seeing-eye dog is having one that's untrustworthy: without a dog, one at least knows one's blindness.

Adam Keiper, "Science and Congress," The New Atlantis (Fall 2004/Winter 2005), 19-50.

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