Bill Nye, the Misuse of Science Guy: Why Science Doesn’t Answer Public Policy Questions

The use of science in public policy has recently been in the news, most prominently in the “March for Science” at over 600 locations around the globe. Thousands rallied “for science,” including climate change activists, anti-vaxxers, and those who are either for or against GMOs, not to mention those who just generally protested Donald Trump. Science was championed as the answer to our problems, with scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and non-scientists like Bill Nye held up as messiahs for the noble cause.

Now Nye’s new Netflix show, Bill Nye Saves the World, has come along to rescue us and our policies from scientific ignorance. The underlying message behind the March for Science and Nye’s show is that science can “solve” public policy problems if we would just let the scientists and technocrats take over. In one episode of his show, Nye pondered whether we should have policies that “penalize people for having extra kids in the developed world[,]” in order to combat climate change. (Will all the “extra kids” please stand up?) Population control movements have a long and sordid history, and have been endorsed by everyone from environmental catastrophists to anti-immigrationists to eugenicists.

Without a healthy respect for individual rights and personal choice, the use of science in public policy can be incredibly harmful. In order to understand why, it’s helpful to look at when and how science has been abused.

Without a healthy respect for individual rights and personal choice, the use of science in public policy can be incredibly harmful.

On October 19th, 1927, Carrie Buck was forcibly sterilized by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Buck was the first victim of Virginia’s 1924 Sterilization Act, a law passed because “human experience has demonstrated that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy, and crime.” Buck was an average girl who unwittingly got caught up in a misguided quest to put the “science” of eugenics into real-world use so as to purify the human genome through forced sterilization.

Buck fought her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ratified her sterilization by a vote of 8-1. In the majority opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously wrote that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (See my extensive discussion of the case’s history here).

Throughout the 1930s (but actually continuing beyond that), at least 60,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized. American eugenics research was later put to use by Hitler’s Germany and was even cited at the Nuremberg Trials.

Many books and articles have been written about the eugenics movement more broadly, including some popular books of a recent vintage. The American experience with eugenics, as well as the Australian experience with stealing children in order to quicken the demise of the aborigines, to cite just two examples, demonstrate that concerns about the misuse of science are not confined to totalitarian, murderous regimes.

But was bad “science” to blame for the ordeals suffered by Buck and thousands of others, or was it a misunderstanding of science’s role in public policy?

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to ask a different one: What if criminality, poverty, and other social ills are strongly genetically correlated? Given what we now know about genetics, as well as how much we constantly are learning, it’s not far-fetched to believe that the vagaries of human genetics may eventually be understood. Rather than relying on poorly researched family trees and shoddy experiments — as they did in Carrie’s case — we may soon be able to identify specific genes for socially destructive behavior.

So, if the science is good, is some form of sterilization okay?

Of course not. Science — whether good or bad — does not solve our public policy problems. There is no “scientific” answer to how many “feeble-minded” people should be allowed to breed. That’s not because the science is bad, but because human rights are not playthings for the scientific establishment, whatever the prevailing orthodoxy. Given the stain of our eugenics past, most people probably understand this. But there’s also no scientific answer to how many people should smoke cigarettes or, yes, even to climate change. Science can, and should, inform public policy by discovering the likely outcomes and relevant causal factors, but it won’t tell us the relevant trade-offs we should make or what we should value. Science helps us understand how the world works. It doesn’t tell us what to do with that understanding.

Nye’s willingness to “go there” and consider some element of population control shows how those enamored with science as a solution to public policy problems can be easily led to monstrous conclusions.

Science has also been part of debates over questions where a little respect for individual rights and good sense was all that was needed. We don’t need scientists to discover a “gay gene” in order to conclude that prohibiting consenting adults from having sex is wrong, and we don’t need scientists to show us that children raised in same-sex households are well-adjusted in order to allow same-sex marriage and child-rearing. To even endorse such arguments is to imply that only genetically determined sexual preferences should be protected (sorry BDSM community) and that the state has the power to use “science” to generally determine (as opposed to specifically removing children from dangerous households) who is allowed to raise children. Finally, we don’t need science — and we especially don’t need horrible dance numbers from Bill Nye’s show — to tell us that transgendered people deserve our respect and care.

Without a vigorous respect for individual liberty, the tendency towards “scientism” can be dangerous. We haven’t entered a new golden age where the misuse and abuse of science in the name of public policy is no longer a concern. Science, in its trappings of authority, can be a dangerous enemy of individual rights and human freedom. Nye’s casual mention of population control shows how quickly scientific zealotry can lead to savagery.

Trevor Burrus is a Research Fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.