For many years I have been of the opinion that the least trustworthy class of people in politics is scientists. To put the matter as starkly as possible, and with apologies to Mr. Buckley: I'd rather be governed by 200 homeless people off the street than by 200 scientists.
This is not because I think scientists are singularly bad people or something. Rather, it is because the scientific cast of mind is uniquely unsuited for politics and statesmanship. In free states, be they democracies, republics, constitutional monarchies, or blended regimes, the central virtue in politics is prudence. Related to judgment, to equipoise, to perfect ordering of things, prudence has been called the charioteer of the virtues. Even according to the cynicism of Machiavelli the importance of this quality of careful judgment, balance and intuition, is plain. And the simple concrete necessity of prudence is obvious enough when one reflects on the amount of patient deliberation and compromise involved in governing as free peoples.
Who are our heroes of statesmanship after all? They are men whose genius was that unique capacity to take high principles and apply them to the messy web of practical public life. This is prudence. Lincoln had it in abundance. Churchill was a man of extraordinary prudence. Edmund Burke is the very exemplar of prudence in statesmanship. No one in his right mind would ever accuse these men of lacking in principle. On the contrary, they are loved and cherished precisely for their success at bringing great and true principles to bear effectively even in the midst of passion and fear and strife and war. It was their prudence which gave concrete form to the principles they championed.
Any thoughtful man can develop profound principles worthy of admiration, or sketch out utopias of the mind; only the rarest of men possess the excellence of prudence to take in hand some true principle and vindicate it in public life. In politics, the greatest virtue is prudence; and it is prudence which produces great statesmanship.
But what does science know of prudence? Where in the scientific method does compromise with social circumstances enter? The scientist is trained to be single-minded; there is even a degree of ruthlessness to him, which is evident in the language of the early theorists of science. Does the scientist negotiate with gravity, or set out with an appeal to the deliberate sense of electromagnetism? No, he sets out to extract their secrets by any means available to him.
Scientists may later learn the art of politics, and politics might certainly impinge on science; but in and of itself the practice or activity of science, and thus the scientific mind, is uniquely unsuited for politics.
And sometimes, alas, the scientific mind grows frustrated with the warp and woof of democratic politics, which looks so untidy and bewildering -- and in its frustration rushes off into oblivion. The mad scientist whose lunacy begins in good intention is a common trope of our literary and visual arts. The mad scientist, we might say, represents the abandonment of prudence.
Now it seems to me that medicine is one area where we perceive an unusual interaction or overlapping between science and politics. The doctor is not merely a scientist; he is a leader, a representative, a counselor; his office is nearly a political one, whether he nominally works for the state or for a private corporation.
So could it be that part of the agitation and revolt over a massive health care reform actually derives from a deeper tension between science and politics, which tension (contrary to view of many) actually derives from the overreach or impatience of science rather than the undue intrusion of politics? Could it be that people may trust their own doctor, but they sure as shootin’ don’t trust the scientific mind, often applied by means of vast bureaucracies, that employs him? Could it be that people do sense the furtive callousness behind the scientific enterprise, do perceive that chill wind of materialism, that rationalizing reductionism which would banish prudence in favor of statistics?