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collective model….you have an externalized model that everyone agrees to abide by.

WW: Yeah, which is exactly the way science works[1].

There’s a fantastically deep point here: one that (it seems to me) has been underemphasized by both philosophers of science and political philosophers: to a very great extent, policy disagreement is model disagreement. When we disagree about how to solve some social problem (or even when we disagree about what counts as a social problem to be solved), our disagreement is—at least in large part—a disagreement about what model to apply to some aspect of the world, how to parameterize that model, and how to use it to guide our interventions[2]. Nowhere is this clearer than when public policy purports to be guided by scientific results. Taking the particular values that we do have as given,[3] a sound public policy that aims to make the world a certain way (e.g. to reduce the heavy metal content of a city’s drinking water) is best informed by careful scientific study of the world—that is, it is best informed by the creation and examination of a good model of the relevant aspects of the world.

One consequence of this is that some of the difficulties of designing good public policy—a practice that we can think of, in this context, as a kind of social engineering—are inherited from difficulties in model building. In our deliberations about which laws to enact, or which policies to reform, we may need to appeal to scientific models to provide some relevant data, either about the way the world is now, or about how it will be after a proposed intervention is enacted. We


  1. Ibid., emphasis mine
  2. This is not to suggest that policy can be straightforwardly “read off” of scientific models. Understanding relevant science, however, is surely a necessary condition (if not a sufficient one) for crafting relevant public policy. See Kitcher (2011) for a more detailed discussion of this point. For now, we shall simply take it as a given that understanding scientific models play a role (if not the only role) in deciding public policy.
  3. I want to avoid becoming mired in debates about the fact/value distinction and related issues. None of what follows rests on any particular theory of value, and the reader is encouraged to substitute his favored theory. Once we’ve identified what we in fact ought to do (whether by some utilitarian calculus, contemplation of the virtues, application of Kant’s maxim, an appeal to evolution, or whatever), then we still have the non-trivial task of figuring out how to do it. Public policy is concerned with at least some of the actual doing.

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