Science and democracy

Contributed by
Jan 27, 2009
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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.