Columnist Considers Placebo Effect in Politics

But incomplete knowledge, much greater scientific uncertainty, and an exorbitant price tag have not deterred the administration from attempting to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to embark on a strategic missile defense. It has even agreed to share the non-existent technology with our allies (and I'm planning on giving away all the money from the second lottery I win next year).

As many scientific organizations have maintained, there is little evidence that such an anti-missile system can be made to work and good reason to believe that testing it will bring about an arms race in space. Committing the United States to developing a $100 billion missile defense appears to be, and I return to the term once again, an unwarranted reliance on the power of will and not a scientifically reasonable defense policy.

Arguing Insufficient Evidence

There are many other examples, most notably the opposition between evolutionary theory and so-called creation science and the topical issues that … umm … stem from this opposition. Many people believe in creation science so much that they would force its inclusion in high school biology curricula. Oddly enough, these proponents of creationism also cite "the incomplete state of scientific knowledge," which increasingly seems to be a prelude to a willful ignoring of accepted science. Some of the resistance to stem cell research is of this deliberate know-nothing variety.

Despite the enormous complexity of these varied issues, one lesson should be clear. Although science is tentative, scientific facts are stubborn (and nonpartisan), and believing that one can will what these facts should be is the height of hubris.

Placebos work about as well in politics as they do in healthcare.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on appears on the first day of every month.

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