Joel Mokyr’s article in the Atlantic regarding the invention of the idea of “progress” is worth some close attention. His core point is something that Thomas Kuhn or Richard Feynman would recognize instantly: progress is the product of the “received wisdom” being found wrong. People saw, in the Age of Discovery, that the ideas of ancient thinkers about faraway worlds that, to be fair, the ancients had no way of knowing about, were bullshit with their own eyes. Progress was founded on the data contradicting the received wisdom and concerted attempts at reconciling them with how we think about the universe. In other words, progress was founded on the spirit of true scientific progress. In other words, progress is built on bad theories and good data.
Wonkism is the opposite of science. Wonkism starts with an agenda, and the faith that the agenda is justified by theories of science. The agenda is supposed to be right, for reasons of morality, and thus must be the theories of science that justify it. Data that contradicts it, therefore, must be wrong. In other words, wonkism is built on good theories and bad data. Since theories cannot, in science, ever be unconditionally “good”–if theories are so good that they are never wrong, there can be no progress–wonkism actively hinders science and progress.
I am not against scientific theory providing useful basis for policymaking. But policymaking should not presuppose that, because theories are “scientific,” they are automatically “good.” Theories are good only as long as they are sustained by data, and data is never self-explanatory. A lot of “personal prejudice” goes into interpreting data, which, in turn, is complex enough to permit multiple interpretations that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Maybe theories are wrong and the policy won’t work as hoped for. If policy does not work, one should not be afraid to change it. But one should always be ready to learn from failed policy so that we have both better theory and better policy. But one should never assume that because the theories must be good, policy cannot fail, and make no contingency plans in case they do. Sailors may be superstitious, but superstition causes them only to be more cautious, not less. They are not so superstitious so as to take on more risk than necessary because superstition says they should. Maybe they know something about the universe than those who laugh at their superstition, specifically, that the universe is a pretty darn risky place even if you cannot enumerate all sources of risk conclusively and that taking extra precautions, if you could afford it, is not a foolish thing.
Mokyr’s story about Samuel Johnson, bears this out. “truth is, that little had been done compared with what fame had been suffered to promise.” Scientific progress cannot be expected to have an impact on real life until how the pieces fit have been worked out. It is necessary to weed out the junk from the good, to sort the good parts of the theories from the bad, and place them in proper context. That takes time, perhaps generations. The latest article even in the best academic journal should not be expected to have a bearing on policymaking today, for it has not been properly assayed yet. If the publications in academic journals are, as wonks would want, to be used in policymaking immediately, science would be replaced by mesmerism, offering immediate cures for all manner of illnesses, literally or figuratively, without regard for evaluating theories and understanding how the many moving parts of the world fit together. That is not much of a progress.