Daily Government Policy Repost

Science versus an ideological approach: data versus magical thinking

I have written before in this column about the propensity for both politicians and the general public to confuse science and ideology. A scientific analysis collects reliable data, analyses that data, and then develops interpretations of the data to support hypotheses concerning the significance of the data. An ideological approach does not use data.

An ideological approach to a problem starts with an assumption of what is real and then test all data and interpretations against that assumption. In mathematical terms, the ideological assumption becomes an axiom.  The definition of an axiom is a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true (Oxford). 

The ideological approach views data in terms of supporting or contradicting the axiom. The axiom is a self-evident truth, so data that contradicts it is clearly wrong. Also, interpretations that are contrary to the axiom are wrong. The volume of data and facts opposing the axiom are irrelevant since the axiom represents a susposed truth. This approach is a head-in-the-sand (HITS) approach.

The ludicrous nature of the ideological approach is clear to anyone who works in science and research, but for many Americans, the ideological approach is comforting. There is no need to worry about data and facts since you already have the answer. It is the lazy way out.


The response of the administration to the 2020 coronavirus has many of the characteristics of an ideological approach. The fact is that the preparation and execution of a response to the virus was badly bungled. Proper supplies were not stockpiled. Also, the CDC was utterly unprepared for virus testing to track the progress of the illness. 

This failure is not a matter of people not knowing what to do. Instead, it is a case of systematically ignoring scientific advice in favor of an ideological response. Our government ignored appropriate scientific advice and also gutted the capabilities of the CDC during the first three years of the Trump administration. Policymakers deemed science irrelevant.

When faced with the reality of an outbreak, the administration consistently responded that a vaccine was a month or two away. The scientific reality was that the vaccine was over a year away. Science lost out in favor of an ideological response. Magical thinking dictated that since we wanted the vaccine in a month, it must be a month away.

Sadly, many Americans are incapable of reading about the virus and extracting the relevant information to understand it. Instead, they choose to either panic or believe it is a hoax (as the administration has repeatedly implied)

Sea Walls, New York, and New Jersey

Recently funding was unexpectedly cut on a multiyear study to prepare the New York and New Jersey waterfront for future storm surges. This project was not to actually build infrastructure. Instead, it represented a scientific study aimed at collecting data and assessing the future threat to the coast. 

The normal scientific process encourages low-cost front-end-loading for collecting data and making assessments that provide information for policymakers. However, the administration has an ideological view that climate change is a hoax. From their standpoint, collecting data is a waste of funds since they already know the truth. Magically, for them, there is no future threat to the New York and New Jersey coast.

Unfortunately, wanting something to be true does not make it true. The ideological approach requires no data collection, no analysis, and no interpretations because the answer represents a desired outcome, not an outcome based on any assessment of reality.


A faulty CDC coronavirus test delays monitoring of disease’s spread (Carolyn Y. Johnson, Laurie McGinley and Lena H. Sun; Washington Post) – https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/02/25/cdc-coronavirus-test/ Also:

Coronavirus Is What You Get When You Ignore Science (By Farhad Manjoo; The New Youk Times) – https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/opinion/coronavirus-science.html Also:

Administration freezes a study that considered a NYC sea wall that Trump called ‘foolish’ (By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson; Washington Post) – https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/02/25/administration-freezes-study-that-considered-nyc-sea-wall-trump-called-foolish/ Also:

Feature Image: PrecisionOptics  (By CSIRO) – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PrecisionOptics_Achim2.jpg  – This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

Bury your head in the sand (by Sander van der Wel ) – (Modified) – This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.