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Of Democracy and Science

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capitol.jpgBY JOEY REID

I have a friend who likes to argue for the sake of argument. I once had an argument with him about Newton's laws of physics. Although he had never taken college physics, he had very passionate arguments. It should come as no surprise that he became a lawyer. After all, lawyers are not trained to argue the truth, but to convince a jury that they are right.

Of the 535 representatives in the U.S. Congress, 222 are lawyers, three are scientists and six are engineers. The heavy bias towards lawyers would suggest that Congress makes decisions based not on truth but on conviction. In fact, many politicians are proud of just that, shunning scientific knowledge as elitist while embracing religious and emotional sources of knowledge. Of course, science does not prescribe policy; it provides facts that get combined with other considerations. The use of emotion and faith in policy formation is both unavoidable and necessary, but the policy must be built on fact for emotion and faith to be useful. So, why has science been shunned? What threat does it pose to the powerful people who run our country?

In last Wednesday's Frontiers on the Environment talk, and in his book "Fool Me Twice, Fighting the Assault on Science in America," Shawn Otto claims science is not partisan, but is always political. As a scientist, I was initially taken aback by that statement, but it's not hard to see why it's true. Science is a process for knowing reality. As such, it is inherently anti-authoritarian. In an authoritarian world, knowledge comes from an authority, like a king, or a priest. But science is a process that is open to anyone, not just a small handful of priests and rulers. So through the power of knowledge alone, science disrupts the power of vested interests.

Thumbnail image for fmts.jpgThe question Otto posed was, "Can democracy survive the age of science?" I initially thought that was backwards. Isn't science the one at risk as policies dilute and distort science education, science funding and the availability of scientific knowledge to our leaders? However, the threat to democracy doesn't come directly from science, but rather through the threat its anti-authoritarian nature poses to vested interests. As these powerful interests are threatened by scientific knowledge, they put enormous effort into distorting the "virtuous circle of democracy." In a healthy system, a governance problem is put to members of an informed public, who rely on scientific knowledge to debate the best policy. This in turn leads to effective governance and an informed public. By replacing the power of an informed public reliant on scientific knowledge with vested interests who use authoritarian knowledge, that loop is reversed into a vicious circle that degrades both science and democracy.

Otto is not content to simply illustrate the problem and sit back. He presents an array of solutions for turning the vicious anti-science and democracy circle back into the virtuous circle of democracy. First, scientists need to engage with the public. Second, we need to reform the tenure system to allow and encourage scientists to do so. Third, we need to hold the media accountable for distorting the balance of evidence and failing to hold politicians accountable to reality. Fourth, we need to speak up for tolerance and reason. Fifth, we need to reform education to emphasize the importance of scientific knowledge in healthy civic life. Sixth, we can demand that candidates for office sign the American Science Pledge to vote based on knowledge, rather than unsubstantiated opinion. Finally, we should encourage candidates to return to a rational debate based on scientific knowledge, as proposed by sciencedebate.org.

In the end, reality exists, there is a world out there that we can know through endless probing and interaction. That probing and interaction is what we call science. It's the best game in town for generating reliable knowledge. When we ignore that, we ignore reality, and we create policies the make our problems worse, often to the benefit of a few vested interests. My lawyer friend eventually did take a college physics course, and was floored by the ability of Newton's laws to explain the world he interacted with. Scientific knowledge is empowering, and it is the ultimate basis of a functioning democracy.

Joey Reid is a teaching assistant with the Institute on the Environment's Boreas Leadership Program. Photo of full moon over the U.S. Capitol by dbking, reused under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

1 Comment

Haha, yes indeed, but we must confess that this is a gift very few people owe - the ability to make the audience agree with your point of view! London Removals

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Hoff published on February 14, 2012 1:14 PM.

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