Science, Values and Politics

Today’s NYT features a front page, above-the-fold story about former surgeon general Richard Carmona’s charge that the Bush administration interfered with his office by (in the words of the NYT) ”repeatedly [trying] to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations.” He made the charge yesterday in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Carmona described Bush administration behavior that ranged from petty (urging him not to attend Special Olympics events because of the Kennedy family’s connection to the program) to outright worrisome (directing him, again in the words of the NYT, “to put political considerations over scientific ones”). His claims add to the image of a Bush White House in which political considerations and ideology trump all others.

However, Carmona’s prepared statement suggests that the Bushies aren’t the only folks caught up in ideology.

Carmona considers himself a person of science, and scientists have an important role in policymaking. They try to determine the existence of various empirical relationships (e.g., certain emissions trap heat in the atmosphere; exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of cancer) and use those determinations to make predictions about the future (e.g., ongoing emission of greenhouse gases at certain levels will affect the climate; reduced tobacco use will decrease the incidence of cancer). In this way, science informs policymaking by predicting the outcomes of various policy choices.

But though science informs policy choices, it cannot make those choices. Science is a non-normative endeavor, and cannot answer such questions as whether climate change should be avoided, and whether reducing tobacco use should be used as a means to reduce the incidence of cancer. Those are the subject of value judgments — and, for public decisions, of politics.

Many “people of science” do not appreciate this limit on science’s role in policymaking. They assume that once a relationship is established scientifically, policy choices cogently follow. In making this assumption, they enter their own value judgments as suppressed premises in their analyses. Many doctors see bad health outcomes as not just undesirable, but so undesirable that they should be avoided even at high costs; many environmental scientists have the same opinion about environmental damage. Hence, they would argue that “objective, nonpartisan science” calls for policies to limit greenhouse emissions and reduce smoking. In fact, science can do no such thing; value judgments call for (or against) various choices.

To better understand this, consider the role of a doctor. Five separate times in his testimony, Carmona refered to the surgeon general as “the nation’s doctor” (conjuring the image of 300 million Americans sticking out their collective tongues and saying “ahh”). I trust my doctor to make a scientific determination of the state of my health and to lay out various courses of action concerning my health (e.g., lose weight, take medication, exercise more, quit smoking). But I am the one who sets policies concerning my health — I decide whether the costs of some course of action (e.g., the side effects of some drug, or the pleasure forgone by dieting) is worth the health benefits. Likewise, public health policy should be set by elected representatives who are directly accountable to the citizenry, not by “the nation’s doctor.”

But Carmona apparently wants the surgeon general to become a policymaker. He told the House committee:

[T]he Surgeon General [should] speak and act openly and as often as necessary on contemporary health and scientific issues so as to improve the health, safety, and security of the nation.

Indeed, that role may be too modest for Carmona’s surgeon general; he repeatedly argued that the surgeon general should “serve the people and the world.” He offered lawmakers a five-point plan for the U.S. Public Health Service that included the following:

  • Recognize and plan for the fact that tomorrow’s best hope to achieve millennium goals, extinguish asymmetries, eradicate social injustices, and make the world [a] healthier, safer and more secure place may be the newer, softer force projection of health diplomacy via prospective ongoing sustainable missions globally.

So, instead of just being the nation’s doctor (with policymaking power), Carmona’s surgeon general would be a force projector for the world.

Carmona is correct that politicians should not interfere with the scientific analysis of the surgeon general — the surgeon general should follow an empirical question wherever the science leads. And he may even state his personal opinion — couched as such — on the value judgments that ensue from the science. But the surgeon general should not supplant the politicians in making public policy decisions, nor supplant private individuals in making personal health decisions. And, of course, the surgeon general should not doctor scientific findings to conform them to his own value judgments.