The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Science & Democracy

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 29, 2009

Yesterday I read an amazing essay in the New York Times titled “Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy” by Dennis Overbye about how the pursuit of science & governing by democracy are inextricably linked. By the time I’d read to the end, I almost had tears in my eyes – I cannot really do it justice, so I will simply recommend that you read it in its entirety. Allow me to share a few of the highlights.

How some criticize modern science:

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

Overbye’s response to those critics:

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

I especially like this part – science is a methodology employed by all people, regardless of tribe or creed:

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

How science & democracy go hand in glove:

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.

Overbye’s point about science and democracy is well made. If you study the history of science, you will learn that it grew out of the Western tradition of natural philosophy handed down by the Ancient Greeks. Most historians of science trace the origins of natural philosophy to Thales of Miletus, who famously proposed a theoretical understanding of the basis for all things in the cosmos – Thales believed that everything was made of “water”. This idea may sound silly to us now, but the thought processes put in place in ancient Greek natural philosophy gradually evolved into what we now call modern science. Consider, if you will, that many physicists have drawn a page from Thales when they contemplate that all matter & energy in the universe is an expression of ultra-microscopic strings.

That same ancient Greek civilization is also the birthplace of democracy. It was the contemporaries of Thales who created the rudimentary institutions of democratic government, including electing representatives from the community to meet, debate, and vote about the politics of the day. Both modern science & modern democracy are the descendants of Thales and his fellow Greeks, and we have inherited both traditions.

In closing, I’ll leave you with one final thought from Overbye’s New York Times article. It’s a warning, echoed by most scientists, about placing limits on our explorations:

But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.

And, as Carl Sagan stated in the closing chapter (“Real Patriots Ask Questions”) of his famous book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen – or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for the Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

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