Science and Democracy

By Mike Koetting June 26, 2019

In 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched…..But I know that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered…institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.

Not surprising from Jefferson. He was a man with boundless interest in and reverence for discovery, science and the empirical understanding of human nature.

But the sentiment is not unique to Jefferson. The American revolution could not have happened before the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, stretching all the way back through time, nature was explained by religion and kings were the natural order of things. But, as the Dark Ages turned into the Renaissance, people asking old questions started finding new answers. This was partially due to emerging technological developments which showed “facts” in a different light, But, as both cause and effect, the underlying paradigm started to shift. People were asking not what did the Ancients say, but what do the empirical facts show. This changed everything. Astronomy, physics, chemistry and geology started to paint a new picture of the world. Toward the end of the 17th Century, this new attitude exploded into philosophy and politics—”what does reason tell us” began to take precedent over history and tradition.

This was the milieu into which Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton and the rest came to develop a set of political considerations which, while having clear roots in earlier thinkers, were as radical to politics as had been the idea to astronomy that the earth circled the sun. The growth of understanding reality empirically and the rise of democracy are inextricably linked. Our founding fathers understood and believed that as the world around us can be better understood through scientific propositions, we would be better able to organize ourselves democratically in pursuit of a common good.

Accordingly, I am upset with the amount of “anti-science” in the GOP. It is ignorant and wrong-headed, but the point I want to make is more general: science is an integral pillar of democracy. The poster “Science is not a liberal conspiracy” is correct primarily in that it is completely out in the open. In truth, science is inherently liberal.

The term liberal comes from the Latin word for free or of freedman. The Oxford Dictionary defines liberal as: “Willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.” This is the essence of democracy and without a liberal world view—the acceptance of differing ideas—there is no science and no democracy.

Paul Bloom, writing in The Atlantic says:

Science establishes conditions where rational argument is able to flourish, where ideas can be tested against the world, and where individuals can work together to surpass their individual limitations.

These are the beliefs in which democracy can flourish. Science provides a critical standard against which assertions about reality can be evaluated. It is these beliefs, particularly when incorporated into a democratic government, that keep people from being burned at the stake for having new ideas. And while today’s Republicans are not executing anyone, they have embarked on a dangerous course by trying to suppress and distort science.

We all know how this has played out in the discussion over climate change. Going from a bipartisan consensus on the need to address environmental issues in the 1970’s, to a campaign of denial and distortion specifically designed to further a partisan divide.

Instead of just lamenting how wrong this is, let’s consider the underlying concern. Science is not simply the accumulation of facts. It is the assembly of facts (each one of which is capable of empirical verification by means of replication) into a testable theory that successfully predicts how the future will behave in the presence of given conditions.

Michael Shermer in Scientific American describes how he went from being a climate skeptic to a believer:

I went to the primary scientific literature on climate and discovered that there is convergent evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that global warming is real and human-caused: temperatures increasing, glaciers melting, Arctic ice vanishing, Antarctic ice cap shrinking, sea-level rise corresponding with the amount of melting ice and thermal expansion, carbon dioxide touching the level of 400 parts per million (the highest in at least 800,000 years and the fastest increase ever), and the confirmed prediction that if anthropogenic global warming is real the stratosphere and upper troposphere should cool while the lower troposphere should warm, which is the case.

The salient point here is not simply that he concluded there was something to be worried about, but that he followed the scientific process. He went from skepticism to belief by reviewing individual (potentially refutable) pieces of evidence, looking at the results of their prediction model, and concluding that this met a standard of proof that is accepted by people who believe in science the world over. If one decides this standard of truth does not apply in this or that circumstance, one shuts not only the door on that discussion, but indeed, potentially all discussion by making empiricism conditional on the whim of the decider—who has concluded his belief is somehow above the otherwise impersonal standard of science.

This does not imply all particular scientific conclusion are “right”. That is manifestly not true. But neither does it suggest science is simply one ideology pitted against another. Science is the proposition that the goal is empirical validation and the commitment to allow, even encourage, all tests against any particular validation. As physicist Richard Feynman says, science is the process of leaning over backwards to be proven wrong. In the process, mistakes are corrected and understanding improved. It is an imperfect process, but superior to all known forms of inherited knowledge.

I suppose as a theoretical matter one could imagine some kind of democracy that was structured in such a way that all ideas were treated as equally good and the only test was who got the most votes. But it is hard to see how that works in the real world, particularly if one accepts the premise that one of the main roles of government is to provide for the common good. I can think of no workable construct where the common good was served by disavowing science. Science leads to understanding and understanding allows effective action—diseases are conquered, space is explored, new products are invented. It is no accident that the greatest advances in science have been made in democratic societies that as part of their construction have embraced empiricism as a way of life.

I also note—more as a matter of intellectual completeness than any worry readers will be confused—that any scientific statements about climate change need to be also tested since the importance of the issue is expressed primarily in predictions, not just the facts on which they are based. Nor is it simply a matter of predictions converging. As has been proven over and over, consensus does not create facts. Additional information is collected and some previous theories will be found to be less compelling…or just plain wrong. Accordingly, not everyone who raises questions about this or that piece of climate change predictions is a Know-nothing. People with different facts or different interpretations of fact are as welcome at the table of science as everyone else. Which is why science is so inherently democratic.

But that is not a license to suppress findings because you don’t like the implications, to fudge the findings by changing the measurements, to knowingly muddy the findings because they threaten your economic interests., or to reduce funding for science because you can’t predict the outcome. These are undemocratic actions because they keep the people from making their decisions based on the best information available.

By nature, scientists are some of the first responders when it comes to making democratic decisions. Ignore that process and the whole house is at risk.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

2 thoughts on “Science and Democracy”

  1. Yet another good article! I’ve felt for some time that the Electoral College was created to preserve the influence and sway of slaveowners rather than that of landowners or (what we now call) rural areas. IMO, the continued existence of the EC is primarily a construct / tool of the political right wing to preserve their minority majority status.

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    1. The history is less important than the present. As I tried to show, the problem is less the EC per se but the Winner Take All approach that is really to enhance the power of political parties by discouraging third party candidates. It is now favoring the right wing, but that’s just at the moment. (Have only to go back to 1992 to see that it can benefit Democrats as well.) In all events, the EC is an item well past it’s “sell-by” date. While I think it’s important to protect minority opinions, I can’t see the rationale for empowering minorities to overrule majorities.

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