Science and democracy

Dennis Overbeye made one of the most interesting comments on President Obama’s inauguration speech (see the New York Times essay Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy). Together with many other commentators Overbye welcomed Obama’s promise to “restore science to its proper place” – and then went on to discuss what that “rightful place” is. That’s where the essay gets really interesting.innovation_obama

Overbye rejects the idea that science cannot provide ethical values – or, worse, that science undermines the ones we already have by robbing the universe of its “magic and mystery.” He declares this “balderdash”, saying:

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

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

“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.” ….

“Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.”

“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.”….

“Arguably science is the most successful human activity of all time. Which is not to say that life within it is always utopian, as several of my colleagues have pointed out in articles about pharmaceutical industry payments to medical researchers.

But nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant. There is always room for more data to argue over.

So if you’re going to get gooey about something, that’s not so bad .

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”…

This is important. We should recognise that threats to science are essentially threats to democracy. And we do face threats from fundamentalist clerical propagandists who wish to ring-fence parts of reality like the origin and evolution of the universe and life. These people declare these as outside the allowed role of science, and want to hand them over exclusively to theology.

Science may not have imprisoned anyone for their view of the Hubble constant but oppressive political regimes have certainly done this and worse to people guilty of honestly pursuing objective knowledge

As Overbye points out one thing inevitably leads to another:

“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. . . “

Such ring-fencing threatens democracy.

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3 responses to “Science and democracy

  1. Slightly Off Topic but I thought everybody might like this…

    Should be required listening for every fundy.
    Not that they would but oh how they should.


  2. Cheers Cedric, I did enjoy that one.


  3. Storm – great find Cedric. Thanks. I hadn’t heard of Tim Minchen before but now seem to see him everywhere. There was an article in our Saturday newspaper and then this morning I heard him interviewed on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast (Skeptics’ Guide To the Universe #184 – Jan 28 2009). Also found his website and blog.


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