Catherine Z. Elgin is Professor of the Philosophy of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of True Enough, Considered Judgment, Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary, With Reference to Reference, and co-author with Nelson Goodman of Reconceptions in Philosophy and Other Arts and Sciences.
Policy makers are practical. Their job is to design executable plans of action. They rely on scientists for information, expecting that information to be clear, determinate, exact, and demonstrably true. Science cannot provide it. It relies on models and idealizations that are known to be false. They are inexact and based on assumptions about facts, methods, instruments, and measurements. They are justified by measurements with margins of error. They are open to revision and correction based on further findings. These, I maintain are features, not bugs. But the stereotype of science as a source of exact, incontrovertible truth leads policy makers and the public to misunderstand the contributions of science. I will discuss how scientific models afford understanding. I will then ask how the models science has the capacity to develop can be of use to policy makers, even though they are not wholly accurate or immune from error.