Science & democracy

By Daniel Holz | January 28, 2009 1:17 am

Dennis Overbye has a nice opinion piece in the NYTimes. Although the right-wing will get distracted by his effusiveness for Obama, politics is most certainly not the main point of the essay. Overbye is discussing science as a model democratic society:

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.

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.

The article can be summed up in his line:

If we are not practicing good science, we probably aren’t practicing good democracy. And vice versa.

I’m very sympathetic with his point of view, and his basic message is important and timely. However, I think it is important to keep this argument in context. anthill (w/ lion)The practice of science certainly has a democratic feel to it. But, ultimately, science is an absolute dictatorship. Nature calls the shots. It doesn’t matter if every scientist is convinced that the Sun will rise at noon tomorrow. The Sun will most likely rise at 7:17am (at least in Aspen, where I’m presently attending a workshop on Understanding the Dark Sector: Dark Matter and Dark Energy, co-organized by esteemed fellow blogger Mark Trodden). Although science is a human practice, and can often feel like a meritocracy, at the end of the day Nature is an unyielding despot. This tension between democracy and tyranny is what makes science a truly unique and fascinating pursuit.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
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