Science and Civil Rights

Posted on 2013 October 10


%22science and civil rights%22

What if science somehow proved that freedom of speech caused more human suffering than it prevented? What if science somehow demonstrated that freedom of religion was bad for a society? Would we accept the judgment of science and repeal our own freedoms? In other words, is it possible for science to change our minds about civil liberties?

Dr. Michael Shermer is one of the leaders of the Skeptic movement, which brings the bright light of science to bear on such woo-woo topics as ESP, alien abductions, psychic healing, and seances. He is also a longtime libertarian who believes in “personal liberty and individual responsibility.” But recently he took his own beliefs out behind the woodshed, where, self-chastened, he concluded that some of his libertarian ideas ran afoul of science.

He “read the science on guns and homicides, suicides and accidental shootings” and concluded that unfettered gun rights were probably destructive: “The libertarian belief in the rule of law and a potent police and military to protect our rights won’t work if the citizens of a nation are better armed but have no training and few restraints.”

Dr. Shermer also re-evaluated his own conclusions about climate change, deciding “ . . . that there is convergent evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that global warming is real and human-caused . . . “

Finally, at a major conclave of libertarians, he felt “so discouraged by the rampant denial of science that I wanted to turn in my libertarian membership card.”

The point of the essay was that even the most rational minds can fall prey to their own biases, and the most reasoned of political believers can resist new evidence that threatens their positions. I applaud Dr. Shermer for his forthrightness and willingness to call into question his own cherished beliefs. He sets an example for the rest of us. What I found most interesting about his essay, though, wasn’t the confession but the underlying assumption. Dr. Shermer seems to believe that we preserve freedoms because they’re useful to society, and that if the science shows they’re not, they ought to be modified or repealed.

Most of the rest of the world regards Americans’ love affair over guns with feelings ranging from bemusement to horror. And many people are confused about why gun ownership is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. “Sure, freedom of speech and all that, and fair treatment in court, but guns?!? Why? So they can shoot bears in the woods? Sounds crazy.” It’s as if the Framers accidentally included hunting licenses among the civil liberties.

In that tradition, Dr. Shermer questions the unfettered access to weapons that may have led to relatively high rates of shooting injuries and deaths in America over the decades. If guns are causing this much destruction, perhaps they should be restricted after all.

Science can serve our purposes, but it can’t dictate them. It can provide us with reams of data — like the evidence on gun ownership and shootings — but it can’t tell us what we “should” do about that data. Ultimately, political and ethical stances are arbitrary — they’re normative and can’t be proved or disproved. Science is objective, which is superb for accuracy but useless in determining our basic moral beliefs. What we do and what we “should” do are often different things, and there’s nothing in science that can calculate the correct “should”.

The reason guns were included in the Bill of Rights wasn’t so people could get enough to eat from the forest. And it wasn’t so they could protect themselves from criminals. It’s included so that citizens can, in an emergency, resist a tyrannical central government, should one arise. If, say, a president, threatened with impeachment or a devastating re-election loss, responds by declaring martial law — setting forth draconian edicts and making mass arrests — who’s going to stop it? Who’s even going to slow it down, if no one is armed?

On the other hand, history is littered with the corpses of powerful central governments that overstepped their authority and were taken down by ragtag groups of rebels. The Arab Spring, for better or worse, is the latest example, where demonstrators, often beweaponed, helped topple repressive regimes. So it’s not a hopeless gesture to arm a free people.

The point of the Second Amendment isn’t to guarantee useful tools for private convenience; it’s to create a firewall and a pushback against despotism. As such, it acts as a safety belt. Seat belts can be uncomfortable, and almost never are they called on to serve their emergency purpose, so it’s tempting not to wear them. In the same way, guns can cause pain and inconvenience to a society. But removing them from private hands is like driving without seat belts. We might need them only once in a lifetime. But that one time could save us.

And scientific research does not — in fact, cannot — take this aspect of American gun ownership into consideration. There’s no data on the Great Armed Citizen Uprising because it hasn’t happened. Not yet, at least. And maybe it hasn’t because the mere threat of armed civilian resistance has caused Congresses and presidents to hesitate when tempted to go too far.

Dr. Shermer believes guns should be registered, and users trained, to prevent needless shootings. And there are interesting arguments in favor of that position. But the downside is that, once you’ve registered your weapon, you’re on a list of people the Feds would grab first during a civil conflict. Such a list would provide, to a tyrannical government, one of its strongest weapons. (The counter-argument is that armed citizens subject to mass confiscation of guns would likely respond by opening fire.)

With these points in mind, I replied to Dr. Shermer’s essay. (Note that I employ an alternate argument on the gun-registration debate.) Here’s what I wrote:

It’s easy to conclude that, if the data agrees with what the liberals believe, then the liberals will automatically have their way in the public policy debate. It’s as if the science were dictating the political outcome. But proving that there’s a problem doesn’t also determine the solution.

I’d bet a lot of libertarians would side with Dr. Shermer on climate and guns, except they fear that reasonable accommodations would be taken as capitulation to their liberal opponents, who’d then move in for the kill. Any talk of compromise would smack of appeasement. The motivation for that reasoning is fear, rather than, say, garden-variety confirmation bias.

Libertarians need better arguments with respect to climate change and guns, both of which can impinge on the rights of others. Dr. Shermer could point out that, much like voting, guns are a pushback against tyranny, yet voting requires registration, so signing up one’s weapons might also be proper. Framing it this way makes clear to liberal opponents that registration enshrines, rather than limits, gun rights. (As for public safety, it could be left up to the states just how much gun training might be required, and the variety of those outcomes would improve the science and better inform the debate.)

Meanwhile, libertarians fear that admitting to climate change becomes the same thing as accepting an onerous regulatory regime. But the science for climate change doesn’t dictate a particular public policy outcome. Libertarians can argue that draconian regulations would likely damage economies and, ironically, throttle anti-pollution efforts.

Don’t give up on libertarians! Sometimes they just don’t know how to express things cogently. If anyone can clarify these distinctions between evidence and policy, Dr. Shermer can.

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being free.” And it’s definitely not easy to think about freedom and society. It helps, though, to remember that science is our servant, not our master, and that its conclusions involve what is rather than what should be. No set of data can “disprove” a civil liberty, as freedom is not something we deserve or earn, but something we choose.