The Essential Parallel Between Science and Democracy

D.C. Science / by Sheila Jasanoff /

The sound conduct of science and the sound conduct of democracy both depend on the same shared values.

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Presidential speeches are symbolic acts. The momentous ones, which inaugural speeches often are, capture the spirit of the nation at a turning point in its history. They diagnose a set of needs and they put forth a vision of how to meet them. So the question for thoughtful Americans, interested in the future of science and technology and reflecting on President Barack Obama’s historic inaugural address, is not, What is science’s rightful place?, but rather, What do the president and his administration see as science’s rightful place? And, as critical consumers of both science and democracy, is it a vision that we, the people, can comfortably embrace?

Let’s begin by recognizing that there is no place in modern societies from which science is wholly absent.

A few months ago, I heard a distinguished biologist declare, holding his laptop in his hands, “Without these things, we all die.” A bit of hyperbole perhaps, but not so far from the truth. We are citizens of the empire of technology founded on the bedrock of scientific knowledge, from the moment we wake to bursts of radio news and cups of automatically brewed coffee, through the innumerable daily routines of transportation and communication, of meeting and eating, all regulated by expert advice, to the ends of days on which, thanks to lightbulbs, email, and global call centers, the sun never sets. Judged by our consumption habits, we are all science junkies, since we are irredeemably addicted to the technologies that science enables. Science, as opinion polls continually remind us, underwrites our most fervent hopes for the future, whether they center on education or health, on sustainable environments or relief from hunger, on better jobs or more efficient production, on winning wars or keeping peace.

That science has a place in our lives is not in doubt. The question is, what is that place? As a nation, we Americans own science: We accept it, we support it with money and enthusiasm, we celebrate it, and considerable numbers of us practice it. But public respect for any institution, no matter how powerful or pervasive, requires visible affirmation. For the law to enjoy respect, for example, justice must not only be done but also done visibly. The same is true for science and technology. That public show of support has been noticeably absent in the past eight years. The new administration has signaled that disregard for science is neither its intent nor its policy.

The main lines of the “Obama Restoration” of science are already clear, and many of the president’s early actions deserve praise. In speech after speech, Obama has stated that science and technology will feature in his administration as both instruments and objects of public policy. Prominent scientists and engineers, with long experience of public service and advising governments, were named to key posts early in his presidential transition. The administrative rank of the president’s science adviser has been raised, placing him on an equal footing with the president’s other top aides. The alliance between the White House and religious extremists on science and medicine has been decisively broken, and policies ranging from development aid to stem cell research will now be carried out without ideological constraints reflecting America’s peculiarly corrosive politics of abortion. The hollowing out of scientific competence at federal regulatory agencies will cease, as will the dangerous US fence-sitting on climate change. Programs to benefit the environment through green innovation and renewable energy research will not go begging as in recent years. On a host of technology-intensive policy issues, there is reason to believe that a president who prides himself on listening to all sides will not be afraid to heed uncomfortable advice conveyed by the nation’s brightest.

Many have interpreted these moves as welcome signs of Washington’s renewed respect for science, and they are right to do so. But if understanding stops there, then we’re in trouble. For the restorative steps Obama has taken vis-à-vis science are praiseworthy not so much because they respect science as because they respect the grand institutions of democracy. This is no accident, because the very virtues that make democracy work are also those that make science work: a commitment to reason and transparency, an openness to critical scrutiny, a skepticism toward claims that too neatly support reigning values, a willingness to listen to countervailing opinions, a readiness to admit uncertainty and ignorance, and a respect for evidence gathered according to the sanctioned best practices of the moment.

A common mistake is to claim these virtues for science alone. Writing in the New York Times on January 26, 2009, six days after the inauguration, veteran science writer Dennis Overbye said about science: “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.” Elevating science, Overbye argued, elevates democracy. This gets cause and effect backward. The values Overbye rightly cherishes are not taught by science, as if the scientific enterprise has some unique claim on them. Rather, the sound conduct of science and the sound conduct of democracy both depend on the same shared values.

History supports this analysis. For all practical purposes, the birth of experimental science coincided with the rise of democratic accountability in politics. Where democracy is strong today, there science also enjoys a respected place. In strengthening democratic values, we also renew the preconditions for scientific discovery and technological innovation.

The converse, however, is not always true. Modern science is a clutch of complex institutions and practices, carrying tendencies that do not always converge with the aims of democracy. Accordingly, simply throwing more money at science, or even listening to the best-qualified scientists for policy advice, may not ensure that research and development are conducted for the public good. Care must be taken to avoid the tunnel vision that frequently accompanies expertise. Studies of disasters — Challenger, 9/11, the financial meltdown — all confirm a sadly recurring story. Complacent or arrogant technical experts refused to heed early warning signs that could have prevented the worst consequences from materializing. It would be a pity if the present administration lost sight of the need for powerful countervailing voices to question conventional technocratic wisdom.

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