Science and democracy

By Phil Plait | January 27, 2009 4:02 pm

The New York Times has an interesting OpEd piece by science writer Dennis Overbye (free subscription may be required). Overbye writes about Obama’s inauguration speech, where he said "We will restore science to its rightful place."

I cheered when Obama said that, but my brain, evil organ that it is, immediately then whispered, You know Bush probably felt exactly the same way while he was gutting it. But I suspect Obama has more of a respect for reality than Bush did.

But I wanted to point out something that Overbye said in his article:

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 agree. He goes on to say that democracy shares a lot of the same values as science, which is something I’ve been saying for a long time. Democracy is an experiment: it’s still in its early act on the world’s stage. It started with a hypothesis — people have a say in how they are governed — and it’s gone through a few versions since then. We try different things, even swapping out our equipment every few years when we need an upgrade. Our basic premise, the Constitution in our case, is updatable as needed. If the evidence that our choices were wrong becomes overwhelming, then we’re willing to start over again from the beginning.

And like science, it’s easy to follow the wrong but seductive path. But if we are honest with ourselves and are willing to pursue truth when we see it, and we use all the available evidence that we have that is untainted by rhetoric and authority, and we’re willing to unshakably and unflinchingly examine that evidence no matter where it leads, why then, we will walk the correct path.

Science and democracy: their price is eternal vigilance, and it’s a small one to pay.

Tip o’ the voting booth lever to The Big Bad Sister.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Science
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Comments (73)

  1. “Bush probably felt thhe same way when he was gutting it…”

    Hahahahahaha…. ROFLMAO, thanks, Phil, I needed the laugh!

  2. gar

    “You know Bush probably felt exactly the same way while he was gutting it.”

    I’m quite sure he didn’t. There was no mistaking the utter lack of curiosity former Pres. Bush had for anything, apart from his own self-interests. Whatever lip-service he gave to science was exactly that: lip-service.

  3. I don’t know if science really imparts any sort of universal set of values. The vast majority of the world’s population don’t really practice science, and when they do it, it’s without deliberate process.

    I would think that science’s similarities to democracy has more to do with common parenting more than anything. At least in the “Western” paradigm, the so-called Enlightenment made way for the idea that one’s own intellect was enough to fulfill one’s social, political, and technological needs.

  4. I don’t know about anyone else, but President Obama’s inaugral address made me feel proud numerous times! I even felt that I was an acknowledged citizen of the US finally (even though I have paperwork showing I’m a citizen since birth, just seems my ideology/philosophy was un-patriotic even though I am the sitting on an airbase in Southwest Asia….).

  5. Darth Robo

    “it’s easy to follow the wrong but seductive path.”

    …and if you choose the quick and easy path, you will become an agent of evil! Mmm…

    😛

  6. Bill

    gar said:
    >“You know Bush probably felt exactly the same way while he was gutting it.”

    >I’m quite sure he didn’t. There was no mistaking the utter lack of >curiosity former Pres. Bush had for anything, apart from his own self->interests. Whatever lip-service he gave to science was exactly that: lip->service.

    From one perspective, I’m quite sure that Bush felt that he was restoring science “to it’s rightful place.”

    In Bush’s case, that rightful place was well behind religious ideology and corporate interests.

  7. Spunk-Monkey

    Fantastic post; great quote and thoughts. Nuf said.

  8. Charles Boyer

    Bush’s firmly held belief was that his Imaginary Friend in the Sky ™ would take care of everything.

    History has proven how well that’s worked out. How many millions (or billions?) died too young as a result of that misbegotten belief?

  9. Mena

    Interesting article, and if people don’t want to register for the site and are running Firefox they can download an add-on called BugMeNot. It works for this.

  10. Scott

    Very nicely written. I believe that to a large degree we get the government we deserve in this democracy. I don’t believe most people make much of an attempt to be informed about issues, think about them, and involve themselves in making sure the government responds to what they want. Consequently, the government responds to those people who actually do these things consistently and as a regular part of their lives.

  11. “Democracy is an experiment: it’s still in its early act on the world’s stage. ”

    I’m horrible at political science but I believe the Greeks are recognized as the first to invent Democracy as a government. To really nitpick, I believe there are several variations of Democracy. It might be more correct to say “American Democracy” is relatively young in contrast to other forms of government

  12. Helioprogenus

    Another similarity between science and democracy is that not every thought is on even ground. Some may say that we live in a democracy, therefore it’s alright to burn a cross on someone’s lawn, or that as long as the majority uphold an opinion, therefore their will is spoken and we are powerless to change it. That’s like saying that since the majority of people in America believe in god, therefore god exists. In science, it’s not what the majority believe, but it comes down to whether the evidence supports the notion. Since the evidence, in every conceivable way, supports the theory of natural selection, regardless of the majority view, we must accept it.

    Think about all the popular garbage that’s believed to be true because enough people support it: Astrology, the vaccine-autism link, 9-11 hoaxers, etc. Similarly in a democracy, we’ve come to realize that a majority rule, as it was during the support of slavery, or the separate-but-equal clauses in the South, isn’t always in the best interest of morality or ethics. The majority can and will be wrong, and only through digging deeply, and analyzing the information at hand can a rational view be exercised. Education therefore, is a key, not only to science but to a democracy as well.

  13. Luke

    I see science as a dictatorship, and a harsh one at that. When looking at the history of science whenever a person proposes an idea counter to what is scientifically known at the time, they are ridiculed and harassed, sometimes to the point of losing all credibility and livelihood, only to later be proven right.

    I am a geology student and was shocked to discover that it took until the 1960s for plate tectonics to be the accepted theory of bascially all of what we know about geology. Before that it was continental drift or even the lily pad theory.

    While I did not vote for Obama I would like to see science take a backseat for a little while longer and if we are going to be doling out trillions of dollars it should instead got to public works which will actually create jobs vs pet projects which do nothing or take over a decade to see any benefit.

  14. Randy A.

    Phil, you said: “Science and democracy: their price is eternal vigilance, and it’s a small one to pay.” I disagree. The price of democracy can be much higher. Thomas Jefferson said: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”
    Too many of us today are willing to fire off angry e-mails — but only if it doesn’t interrupt our favorite TV shows (yeh, me too). I fear that the tree of liberty is dying of lack of nourishment. How else can you explain that George Bush is walking around free despite his many crimes while in office?
    I a not advocating assassination or revolution — the days when those were appropriate are in the past. Today’s America needs a silent revolution of education. For all of you reading this blog: Get involved! Educate yourself and those around you!
    The next “George Bush” who crawls onto the national stage will get derisive laughter, and the tree of liberty will be nourished with the “blood” of stupidity.

  15. You meant that science’s “rightful place” was the gutter, in Bush’s view, correct? I just want to clarify, because it seems like Michael L and gar read your comment the other way…

  16. wolfwalker

    But if we are honest with ourselves and are willing to pursue truth when we see it, and we use all the available evidence that we have that is untainted by rhetoric and authority, and we’re willing to unshakably and unflinchingly examine that evidence no matter where it leads, why then, we will walk the correct path.

    A noble sentiment. Are you willing to back it up by agreeing that the evidence shows the last time government spending was used to stimulate an economy in crisis, it failed dismally?

  17. I saw part of an interview Obama did with the Al-Arabiya network this morning. He said “And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I’ve come to understand is that regardless of your faith – and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers – regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.” Emphasis mine.

    Still going with the non-believers line. This bloke may work out after all.

    On an another note. Sarah Palin is making noise about a come back…
    http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/shes-back–with-sarahpac/2009/01/28/1232818487888.html

  18. Helioprogenus

    @ Luke

    I’m assuming you’re probably trolling for comments, but if what you say is genuine, than you’re unbelievably misinformed, naive, and ignorant as far as the importance of science in our lives. Basic funding towards science and research and development can go an extremely long way towards securing out future in this competitive technological world. It is in the field of scientific discovery that the most successful will become leaders of the future.

    Plate techtonics wasn’t accepted until a preponderance of evidence was found in its favor. Science works on a progressive scale, and significant amounts of data was needed in order to overturn various scattered theories and develop a comprehensive explanation. What we needed was detailed satellite data from the ocean floor, and surface mapping, coupled with a better understanding of the subcrustal layers of the Earth. It’s one thing to bring up plate techtonics as a hypothesis, but another thing to explain what generates the motion of such plates. Without understanding the convective role that the Earth’s mantle plays, how would one explain the movement of the plates? Magical elves dwelling under the crust? Your basic premise is wrong and it’s the main reason why many of us string-theory opponents fight against the growing acceptance of a subatomic theory that has no experimental data to help support it. Perhaps history will show us as obstructionists, but science is a rigorous process and we can’t get ahead of ourselves in a temporary excitement that might just be a fad. I’m sure that many geologists were just as cautious in the first half of the last century.

    Further, I would like to know how much geology you’ve actually taken, or in how many science classes you’ve actually stayed awake. There must be an explanation as to why your understanding of science is so flawed. Aren’t you aware that a lot of new developments are based on the very research that is done through the funding of science? The race to the space age provides us with many of the materials we now use on a daily basis, and that you yourself take for granted. You can’t continue to lead such an obtuse life without looking deeply into your flawed reasoning.

  19. But what about...

    The fact that George Bush did get elected twice? You may not like him, but he was elected. I did not vote for President Obama, but I am very interested to see what he does in the next four years, or longer.

    President George Bush should be in jail, or worse? Why then did you not get your senators and congressmen to begin impechment proceedings? I will say that regardless of all else, Bush stood up for what he thought the American people belived in. As will President Obama, and unless and until the American people remove him from his current office, he will be the head of one third of the US government.

    If you believe there’s a great enough danger in something, act. Don’t complain, whine, or moan, but actually act. That’s what I hope President Obama and all future heads of the Executive Branch do.

  20. Utah dude

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/01/27/2012.maya.calendar.theories/index.html

    Dr. Plait I thought of you when I read this article..thought it might interest you.

  21. Luke

    Funny you bring up string theory as I was about to as well. The people who are for it have very little evidence to back it up and yet fight tooth and nail to keep it in the textbooks.

    The fact that many things we use today came from the space race does not mean we need to fund NASA more and more. We need to fund R&D more. All I am saying is wait a couple of years to create some new programs and endowments. We need people to get our their and working now, not doing something which will takes years to see any benefit. These can wait until we come out of this recession and people are back to work and out of debt.

    My understanding of science is not flawed and my example was merely showing how a weak yet widely held theory will trump a stronger yet brand new theory for many many years.

    Getting back to the new developments. Much of the money spent on research grants is wasted and only a tiny bit is ever used in a practical way. I do not want a million dollar grant going to study the mating habits of some reptilian species in the amazon when others are out of work. However if the money was spent on researching a new type of engine or new type of plastic then I would be all for it.

    The government could also help out by offering rewards for new inventions, like they did in the past. Imagine if the government would give 1 billion dollars to the company that could invent a car battery which could go 250-500 miles on one charge?

  22. Randy A.

    @ Luke
    It is true that politics played a role in the resistance to Wegener’s theory. It’s also true that had he lived longer he might have been able to advance his theory.
    The history of science is full of… human beings. And even scientists have all the regular human failings. Since you plan to major in geology, let me tell you that many (most?) real geologists consider sitting around the campfire (or hotel bar) and drinking beers an important part of field work.
    On another subject — if a company were able to “invent a car battery which could go 250-500 miles on one charge,” they wouldn’t need any prize money! If it was competitive with gasoline, a billion in profits would be only the start…
    Please continue your education (see my comments at 6:42). And if your dislike for science continues, change majors! Your goal should be to find a job where you want to go to work each day! Good luck.

  23. Then Again

    “Overbye writes about Obama’s inauguration speech, where he said “We will restore science to its rightful place.”

    Now it all depends on what you consider the “rightful place” of Science is.

    So what is Science’s rightful place?

    Different people will give very different answers.

  24. Then Again

    @ Randy A :
    ‘The history of science is full of… human beings.’

    The history of just about everything is full of flawed, fallible, human beings. (perhaps not the planet itself or flora /fauna but even then uncovering what that is, is.)

    This is kind of stating the obvious. As is this post too.

  25. Bein'Silly

    @ Randy A :

    “Since you plan to major in geology, let me tell you that many (most?) real geologists consider sitting around the campfire (or hotel bar) and drinking beers an important part of field work.”

    Darn! I shoulda been a geologist! Is it too late to get a job there? 😉

  26. StevoR

    But what about… said on Jan. 27th, 2009 at 7:57 pm :

    “The fact that George Bush did get elected twice? You may not like him, but he was elected. I did not vote for President Obama, but I am very interested to see what he does in the next four years, or longer.

    President George Bush should be in jail, or worse? Why then did you not get your senators and congressmen to begin impechment proceedings?”

    Actually a lot of people tried.

    I was one of the many millions of people who protested, wrote letters, held vigils, was even arrested trying to get the voice of the anti-war majority who disapproved of the illegal invasion and ocupation of Iraq based on
    the lie that Saddam had WMD’s heard.

    (Incidentally, Israel has secret WMD’s incl. nukes & gets away it – isreal also regularly invades and terrorises its neighbours,committs warcrimes, murders political opponents, tortures, imprisons and tretas as second -class citizenbs awhole sectionof its people and has been
    violating UN & international law since 1967 and .. nothing happens to stop it.)

    Let me be clear : I regard Bush II along with Tony Blair, ex-Aussie PM John
    Howard, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the other war-mongering neo-conspiracists as war criminals as bad as the WWII Japanese leaders. Like them they attacked innocent countries for imperialist reasons, showed no regard or remorse for their victims and are ethically just despicable and tyrannical. They have brought incalculable misery and death to millions of innocent civilians.

    It is a disgrace that they have not been indicted and faced trial – and, yes, execution, for their crimes. Bush is a believer in capital punishment -he should have been on the same gallows as Saddam Hussein.

    I simply cannot understand why the USA failed to impeach Dubya
    who lied his nation into needless war and war crimes whilst Bill Clinton was nearly impeached over what were really pretty harmless lies about a
    domestic, personal sexual relationship. :-(

    I really just cannot understand how the American peoples standards and
    priorities can be so wrong and how Bush the lesser can get away without being made accountable for his actions and their murderous, counter-productive consequences.

    That will always be a huge stain on the reputation of the US.

    I hope this changes and one day Bush II, Blair, Rumsefld, etc .. face a
    proper war crimes trial and are made to answer for what they did.

    Obama could do a lot worse than making this an immediate priority with thenew administartion.

  27. Has anyone read that new article about the lhc at foxnews.com if so any thoughts. off topic but this the only blog that let me leave a comment

  28. John Keller

    I’m holding my breath on Obama. In my 47 years, I’ve seen presidents from both parties promise to support science and then nont follow through.

  29. IAmMarauder

    @CSolid83: I am guessing you mean this article: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,483477,00.html

    I read it and it is a big appeal to emotion, and very light on facts. Actually, the facts it does have show that the scientists they are quoting aren’t that concerned – the article quotes them as saying:
    “Casadio, Fabi and Harms think the black hole would lose out, and pass through the Earth or out of the atmosphere before it got to be a problem.

    We conclude that … the growth of black holes to catastrophic size does not seem possible.”

    The strange thing is this comment:
    “FoxNews.com can think of a few other things that didn’t seem possible once — the theory of continental drift, the fact that rocks fall from the sky, the notion that the Earth revolves around the sun, the idea that scientists could be horribly wrong.”

    None of them were possible until someone sat and figured out the science (and maths) behind it. In the case of the LHC most of that is already known – they are just applying this knowledge in a controlled experiment (that is the scientists are controlling as many variables as possible).

    Personally, it is an article to whip up fear, and very anti-science. Pretty much what I expect of Fox News.

  30. IAmMarauder

    Speaking of crappy Foxnews articles, here is one that you might enjoy commenting on Phil: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,477084,00.html

  31. Troy

    This is quite provacative. I think Bush saw science (and its well deserved reputation) as a tool to skew policy towards the ideals Bush had and constituants he served (Religious right, Industrial, and Business). It is incredible that Bush was never really taken to task to the degree that he should have been on what he was doing. I also think Bush’s take on things to some degree is behind many of his failures as president.
    Will Obama fare any better? I agree with your apprehension. It is tempting and all to human to look at the world with blinders and selective extract things that agree with our prejudices and ignore the rest. This is behind not just Bush science, but many of the other pseudosciences this blog is forced to deal with all the time. The trap for Obama may be that he sees where Bush biased science to serve his interests and then he turns around and does the same thing. Yes, the results would be different, but no less wrong.

  32. Dan Veteran

    We wonder why Congress cannot get anything done? They are a reflection of the persons whom elected them. George Bush is no longer the President, yet too much time is still spent bashing him. We need to learn from history and stop dwelling on the past. This country needs to come together and fix our problems, not continue this insane infighting. Lincoln said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” Our house is divided and if we continue to listen to the Rush Limbaugh’s and Nancy Pelosi’s this house will never come together!

  33. Sion

    “Our basic premise, the Constitution in our case, is updatable as needed. If the evidence that our choices were wrong becomes overwhelming, then we’re willing to start over again from the beginning.”

    Except on guns, eh?

  34. Gonzo

    “Now it all depends on what you consider the “rightful place” of Science is.”

    It’s rightful place is anywhere not driven solely by ideology. No matter what Jebus says.

  35. David D
  36. I’m reminded of the words of H.L. Mencken, who said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

  37. Rob P.

    Henry Petroski from Duke had an essay on this line in last Sunday’s Washington Post. I don’t necessarily agree with his perspective, but his point was essentially that the nation needs not science (which he reads as basic research and fundamental understanding) but engineering (which he reads as implementation, even in spite of a lack of fundamental understanding of the science). One of his examples of engineering over science is the Wrights’ work on flight despite a lack of comprehension of the fluid dynamics that make it work. It’s certainly worth reading.

  38. Jonathon

    You know, there are some conservatives who support science…but we generally do not spend much time around “progressives” because you incessantly bash Bush.

    He’s gone. He’s not the President anymore. You can move on. Or can you?

  39. papageno

    Rob P: “Henry Petroski from Duke had an essay on this line in last Sunday’s Washington Post. I don’t necessarily agree with his perspective, but his point was essentially that the nation needs not science (which he reads as basic research and fundamental understanding) but engineering (which he reads as implementation, even in spite of a lack of fundamental understanding of the science).

    Faraday, Maxwell and Hertz were doing fundamental research, not engineering. And look what came from it: the whole electricity-based technolocy and tele-communications.

  40. Todd W.

    Small nitpick, but the American government is a Republic, not a Democracy.

  41. world wide web news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090128/ap_on_go_pr_wh/obama_team_of_czars

    Front page Yahoo article on how Obama is setting up his myriad of czar positions in his White House. Pertinent to this blog are that a significant portion of them deal with issues that involve looking at hard science.

    I think like the author of the article that maybe Obama is going a little too overboard with creating so much new bureaucracy too quickly. But I hope he’s right.

  42. Peptron

    To Todd W.:
    Aren’t the two definitions unrelated and that the US is a case of being both a republic and a democracy?
    Canada would be a democracy that is not a republic and North Korea would be a republic that is not a democracy; the US being both a republic and a democracy.

    I say that with those definitions in mind:
    -Republic: a state in which the head of government is not an hereditary monarch. (As opposed to a kingdom or an empire.)
    -Democracy: a state in which the head of government is elected directly or indirectly by its citizen. (As opposed to a theocracy or a dictatorship.)

  43. Todd W.

    @Peptron

    I was going by the following definitions:

    Republic: a state in which the power rests in a body of elected representatives of the people.

    Democracy: a state in which the power rests directly in the hands of the people.

    In other words, to decide issues that face the government, according to my definitions, a republic relies on the voiced opinions of the representatives, while a democracy would decide the issues by a vote from each and every citizen.

  44. @BA “He goes on to say that democracy shares a lot of the same values as science, which is something I’ve been saying for a long time.”

    Well, as usual, I’m going to have to disagree with that one. Science and scientists have served the interests of various political entities of different stripes. Thus, we have Werhner von Braun (who incidentally was not just a member of the Nazi party but an officer in the SS, a colonel I think he was) serving the interests of a fascist regime, Andrei Sakharov (father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb) serving the interests of a communist regime, and J. Robert Oppenheimer serving the interests of a democracy. All three of them were pursuing science and following the scientific method. If science shares the values of democracy then why does it flourish so well under non-democratic regimes? I think there is very little correlation between science and the type of government where it is practiced.

    Also, one must be a little more specific in terms of what values of democracry science supposedly shares. Perhaps one might be thinking of openness and the free exchange of ideas as one such value. Even in the United States science as it is really practiced is very far from participating in these ideals. The so called “black budget” of super secret science projects is something like ~$30 billion annually. Citizens are not permitted to know the results of these projects or even what the projects are. Science as practiced by a variety of private companies is also subject to varying levels of secrecy with the results not being openly available for a variety of proprietary reasons.

  45. @StevoR “I hope this changes and one day Bush II, Blair, Rumsefld, etc .. face a proper war crimes trial and are made to answer for what they did.
    Obama could do a lot worse than making this an immediate priority with the new administartion.”

    Your hero, Obama, has already pretty much indicated that there will be no prosecutions of Bush administration members for anything they did. They are all going to walk away scot free. Here is what he said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos a few weeks ago:

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2009/01/obama_interview_with_george_st.html

    “STEPHANOPOULOS: The most popular question on your own website is related to this. On change.gov it comes from Bob Fertik of New York City and he asks, “Will you appoint a special prosecutor ideally Patrick Fitzgerald to independently investigate the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping.”

    OBAMA: We’re still evaluating how we’re going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth. And obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. And part of my job is to make sure that for example at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering.

    STEPHANOPOULOS: So, no 9/11 commission with Independence subpoena power?

    OBAMA: We have not made final decisions, but my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing. That doesn’t mean that if somebody has blatantly broken the law, that they are above the law. But my orientation’s going to be to move forward.

    STEPHANOPOULOS: So, let me just press that one more time. You’re not ruling out prosecution, but will you tell your Justice Department to investigate these cases and follow the evidence wherever it leads?

    OBAMA: What I — I think my general view when it comes to my attorney general is he is the people’s lawyer. Eric Holder’s been nominated. His job is to uphold the Constitution and look after the interests of the American people, not to be swayed by my day-to-day politics. So, ultimately, he’s going to be making some calls, but my general belief is that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed looking at what we got wrong in the past.”

  46. Wayne Conrad

    Our government was originally conceived as a constitutional republic. You will not find the word “democracy,” in any form, mentioned in the constitution or the declaration of independence. However, we have mutated, in stages, to a more democratic form of government. See, for example, the 17th amendment and the recent trend of our children being incorrectly taught in schools that we are a democracy. The founding fathers distrusted democracy. Examining contemporary writings will show that they considered democracy an unsafe form of government, one which inevitably moved to tyranny. I think they were correct. Many of the recent infringements upon our rights have been incorrectly blamed upon one political party or another. The blame instead should rest upon that most foul form of government, democracy, and upon the increasing and gross power of government contrary to the constitution.

    Democracy is bad in government for the same reason that a hypothesis is science is not correct just because many people think it is so. Truth in science depends upon an adherence to ideals, to the philosophy of science. Similarly, the rights of the people depend upon adherence to the principles of a constitutional republic, which do not permit the majority to vote away the rights of the minority, not matter how disliked the minority may be or how inconvenient may be those rights. A democracy does permit those rights to be voted away, and a government with unlimited power permits them to be easily infringed once voted away.

  47. TheBlackCat

    @ Rob P.: I once heard about an analysis done by a businessman who was on the NIH grant board. He found that for every dollar spent on pure research in medicine had, on average, a return of something like $300 to the economy within a very short period of time (I think it was 5 years). Many ideas didn’t contribute anything, but there was no way to know beforehand which ones would be useful and which ones would not.

    Pure research provides the raw materials on which engineering is built. Engineering only works with what we already know, or makes very small improvements on it. In order to really move forward we need pure research to get us new knowledge. For instance it may seem silly to be playing with electric sparks for no apparent reason, but that led to the discovery of radio waves. Shooting a beam of electrons at a block of metal may seem like a waste of time, but that was how x-rays were discovered. Painstakingly detailed and careful measurement of the mass of substances before and after a chemical reaction gave us oxygen. Screwing around with jellyfish gave us green fluorescence protein, one of the most important tools for biological research. At the time none of these would seem like particularly promising avenues of research but they resulted in discoveries that have become critical to our way of life.

    That is not to say engineering is not useful, it also plays an essential role in taking scientific discoveries and making them useful to society. But engineering is not responsible for the discoveries itself, at least not very much, which means it can’t push us forward as far or as quickly as science can.

  48. TheBlackCat

    If science shares the values of democracy then why does it flourish so well under non-democratic regimes?

    I fail to see your reasoning here. Science can work under any form of government as long as it is allowed to operate its own way. Science can flourish under totalitarian regimes as long as they let science do its own thing. But if any government, including a free one, tries to force science to behave differently science will fail. It is no different than, say, a democratic government existing within a region of a totalitarian one. As long as the totalitarian regime allows the democratic region to operate freely in those areas under which it has jurisdiction, it can continue to operate as a democracy. But if the totalitarian regime tries to interfere, the democracy will fail. Same basic idea.

    In the Soviet Union, for instance, the study of genetic and evolution was essentially outlawed and replaced with a communist-based ideology now called “Lysenkoism”. As a result Soviet biology was stunted for decades, and their agricultural system practically destroyed when the government tried to force it to work with Lysenko’s ideas. Countless people starved to death. By contrast the West used evolutionary principles and their agricultural system flourished. Similarly, although the Soviets beat the U.S. to space the U.S. space program had much more control given to scientists and as a result the U.S. space program was much more productive from a scientific standpoint. The Van Allen belts, for instance, were discovered by the U.S. because the Soviets refused to listen to their scientists who wanted to put scientific instruments on their satellites.

  49. @TheBlackCat “Science can flourish under totalitarian regimes as long as they let science do its own thing. But if any government, including a free one, tries to force science to behave differently science will fail.”

    That is basically making my point which is there is no inherent connection between science and democracy. Science can work in even a totalitarian regime provided the circumstances are appropriate. The way I like to think of it is this. Science is a technique for interrogating nature. As such, many different types of societies can use this technique including those which we might find abhorrent. Being a technique, science is amoral (i.e., without morals) and value-less (meaning not connected with moral values as opposed to valueless meaning of no use).

  50. TheBlackCat

    @ Tom Marking: No, you are missing the point entirely. Phil said that science shares values with democracy, then you used examples where science functioned under a non-democratic government. My point is that the values a certain system has is unrelated to the government it operate under, all that matters is that the government does not try to interfere in its functioning. A democratic local government can work just fine under a totalitarian national government as long as the national government does not try to interfere in the local government. The democracy is still a democracy, it still has democratic values. Similarly, science can work just fine under a totalitarian national government as long as the national governments does not try to interfere with science. It is still science, it still values the same thing scientists elsewhere value. Your examples in no way contradict Phil’s point, that was my point.

  51. @TheBlackCat “Similarly, science can work just fine under a totalitarian national government as long as the national governments does not try to interfere with science.”

    Yes, but that is a long way from demonstrating that science is imbued with democratic values. I don’t think it’s even a serious discussion unless there is some definitive enumeration of what these supposed values are. It’s not clear to me that every democracy shares the same values. Are the values of India the same as the values of the United States? So which democracy are we talking about?

  52. TheBlackCat

    @ Tom Marking: That’s irrelevant. The argument you made, that the fact that science can function under a totalitarian regime proves it does not share values with democracy, is flawed.

    “I don’t think it’s even a serious discussion unless there is some definitive enumeration of what these supposed values are.”

    I agree, which is why Phil spent two paragraphs discussing them.

    “It’s not clear to me that every democracy shares the same values. Are the values of India the same as the values of the United States?”

    The country as a whole might not, but the principles on which the government is based do. They may disagree on exactly how power is split up between the various branches, but for the most part they set up to operate in a fairly similar manner.

  53. @TheBlackCat “The argument you made, that the fact that science can function under a totalitarian regime proves it does not share values with democracy, is flawed.”

    You’d have to be more explicit on what you mean by a value in science. Typically, when we say that a society has a value it can be framed as a proposition: A is morally good, B is morally bad, etc. Does science generate such propositions: X is morally good, Y is morally bad, … ? If you say yes then you need to show how the scientific method of hypothesis, test, revise can generate such propositions. I don’t think science can generate such propositions. It can only generate propositions of the form: X exists in nature, Z exists in nature, X is related to Z by formula Y, etc.

    “I agree, which is why Phil spent two paragraphs discussing them.”

    The only thing I got from Phil’s paragraphs was the following:
    1.) People have a say in how they are governed
    2.) We try different things
    3.) We swap out equipment every few years when we need an upgrade
    4.) The Constitution is updatable as needed
    5.) If evidence arrives that our choice was wrong we start over from the beginning

    I’m not sure if this is the comprehensive list of values or not. It seems to me that democracry has others such as “one person, one vote” which I’m not sure applies to science.

  54. TheBlackCat

    “I’m not sure if this is the comprehensive list of values or not. It seems to me that democracry has others such as “one person, one vote” which I’m not sure applies to science.”

    It isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive list, Phil specifically said “a lot of the same values”, not “all of the same values”.

  55. papageno

    Tom Marking: “If science shares the values of democracy then why does it flourish so well under non-democratic regimes? I think there is very little correlation between science and the type of government where it is practiced.

    Which has nothing to do with what the BA actually said.
    He was referring to how scientists operate in research, not to their political or ideological purpose.

    Tom Marking: “Also, one must be a little more specific in terms of what values of democracry science supposedly shares. Perhaps one might be thinking of openness and the free exchange of ideas as one such value. Even in the United States science as it is really practiced is very far from participating in these ideals. The so called “black budget” of super secret science projects is something like ~$30 billion annually.

    How much of the research performed by the world-wide scientific community is secret? What is the ratio between open research and secret research in the US?

  56. @papageno “What is the ratio between open research and secret research in the US?”

    We can’t answer that question with any degree of assurance because the U.S. government won’t tell us the exact figure for the so called U.S. “black budget”. Various folks have estimated it to be in the range $30 to $40 billion annually.

    That compares to $17 billion for NASA’s 2008 budget, $6.4 billion for the National Science Foundation 2008 budget, and $29 billion for the National Institutes of Health. I’m sure there are some other miscellaneous agencies that would qualify as part of the science budget, but if we just take these 3 for simplicity then the secret “black budget” is 35 to 45 percent of the total science budget. But like I said, that’s just a rough estimate. Nobody really knows.

    “Which has nothing to do with what the BA actually said. He was referring to how scientists operate in research, not to their political or ideological purpose.”

    Are the scientists who are working on the secret “black budget” projects also behaving in a way consistent with democratic values?

  57. “Nobody really knows.”

    Well, of course, somebody must know but being a member of the unwashed masses, I am not in the group that knows.

  58. @papageno “How much of the research performed by the world-wide scientific community is secret?”

    I do remember Carl Sagan mentioning in his book “Cosmos” that roughly half of the world’s scientists were employed on defense projects. I don’t know where he got that statistic from or if that statistic has changed since the end of the Cold War or not.

  59. papageno

    P.: “Which has nothing to do with what the BA actually said.
    He was referring to how scientists operate in research, not to their political or ideological purpose.”

    Tom Marking: “Are the scientists who are working on the secret “black budget” projects also behaving in a way consistent with democratic values?

    You are still missing the point. It is not about politically democratic values. It is about the method used to determine the correctness of their conclusions. Even in “black projects” the researcher follow the scientific method.

    P.: “How much of the research performed by the world-wide scientific community is secret?”

    Tom Marking: “I do remember Carl Sagan mentioning in his book “Cosmos” that roughly half of the world’s scientists were employed on defense projects. I don’t know where he got that statistic from or if that statistic has changed since the end of the Cold War or not.

    Translation: “I have no idea.”
    Which means that you have nothing to support your claims about how science is really practiced.

    P.: “What is the ratio between open research and secret research in the US?”

    Tom Marking: “We can’t answer that question with any degree of assurance because the U.S. government won’t tell us the exact figure for the so called U.S. “black budget”. Various folks have estimated it to be in the range $30 to $40 billion annually. [SNIP!]”

    What makes you think that I was referring to budgets?
    How much work is done in open research compared to secret research?

  60. @papageno “How much work is done in open research compared to secret research?”

    open: 8.5E12 joules
    secret: 4.6E12 joules

    C’mon. Ask something that can be answered for a change.

  61. @papageno “It is about the method used to determine the correctness of their conclusions.”

    If you are suggesting that democracy uses the scientific method then please provide evidence for your claim.

  62. papageno

    Tom Marking: “C’mon. Ask something that can be answered for a change.

    Don’t blame me if you cannot support your assertions.

    ———–

    Tom Marking: “If you are suggesting that democracy uses the scientific method then please provide evidence for your claim.

    Could you stop trying to put words into other people’s mouths?
    I said: “It is not about politically democratic values. It is about the method used to determine the correctness of their conclusions. Even in “black projects” the researcher follow the scientific method.”
    Even it is secret, researchers know that the scientific method yields results. Therefore, even within the secret environment, they apply it.

  63. Buzz Parsec

    If you don’t publish your results, it isn’t science.

  64. David D

    @Tom–
    There are some “Mavericks” here who just find it impossible to disagree with Phil. You have discovered a few of them.

  65. @papageno “Don’t blame me if you cannot support your assertions.”

    Don’t blame me if you can’t define your question properly (e.g., what “work” would mean in this context and how will it be measured).

    “Even it is secret, researchers know that the scientific method yields results. Therefore, even within the secret environment, they apply it.”

    Nonresponsive. What is the linkage to democracry? Please provide evidence for said linkage.

    @Buzz Parsec “If you don’t publish your results, it isn’t science.”

    Ahh, but they do publish their results. It just so happens that the reports they generate under the “black budget” projects are classified as top secret so you need a security clearance to read them.

    @David D “There are some “Mavericks” here who just find it impossible to disagree with Phil. You have discovered a few of them.”

    I prefer the term “book-licking lackeys” personally. :)

  66. Egad, that should have been “boot-licking” not “book-licking” although I’m sure BA would approve of the latter just so long as you are licking “Death from the Skies”. :)

  67. Greg in Austin

    Sorry I’m late.

    Phil said,

    “Democracy is an experiment: it’s still in its early act on the world’s stage. It started with a hypothesis — people have a say in how they are governed — and it’s gone through a few versions since then. We try different things, even swapping out our equipment every few years when we need an upgrade. Our basic premise, the Constitution in our case, is updatable as needed. If the evidence that our choices were wrong becomes overwhelming, then we’re willing to start over again from the beginning.”

    I take this to mean that the method for establishing and maintaining a Democracy is similar to the scientific method. You try something new, you make changes, you try it again, and so-on. I think some people are confusing “Democracy is like science,” with “Science is like a Democracy.”

    8)

  68. papageno

    Tom Marking: “Don’t blame me if you can’t define your question properly (e.g., what “work” would mean in this context and how will it be measured).

    You brought up secret reserach and “black budgets”. It is your burden to show that this reflects on research as a whole, since you made a generalization.
    I simply pointed out that budget is not necessarily a good quantification of research.

    If you are unable to quantify sensibly the ratio between open and secret research, then you are in no position to make the generalization that “Even in the United States science as it is really practiced is very far from participating in these ideals.”

    ———-

    Tom Marking: “What is the linkage to democracry? Please provide evidence for said linkage.

    You are still missing the point. Read the original article again.

  69. @papageno “You are still missing the point. Read the original article again.”

    Feh

  70. Greg in Austin

    Tom Marking says,

    “The so called “black budget” of super secret science projects is something like ~$30 billion annually. Citizens are not permitted to know the results of these projects or even what the projects are.”

    “We can’t answer that question with any degree of assurance because the U.S. government won’t tell us the exact figure for the so called U.S. “black budget”. Various folks have estimated it to be in the range $30 to $40 billion annually.”

    “I’m sure there are some other miscellaneous agencies that would qualify as part of the science budget, but if we just take these 3 for simplicity then the secret “black budget” is 35 to 45 percent of the total science budget. But like I said, that’s just a rough estimate. Nobody really knows.”

    Tom, where are you getting these numbers? Are you making them up yourself? Do you have sources for these claims?

    8)

  71. Greg in Austin

    Oops. Forgot to end the blockquotes.

    8)

  72. Mark Vance

    Hey, hows this working out? The hope and change thing?

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