On Science, Society, and Democracy


Test tubes

Image via Wikipedia

A few weeks ago a friend said something about science that helped me understand why many people misunderstand it. He said "science isn't the only way I have of knowing the truth." He was looking at science as a way for individuals to know things. Certainly science informs us all--and that's at the heart of the misunderstanding--but that's not the point of science. Science is how we as a society can know the truth about the world we live in.

Another example of a societal truth-finding system is the justice system. A court of law is a way to find the truth about events involving several people. While far from perfect, courts are still the best way we have to determine the truth in these situations and as a society we work very hard to ensure that they function well. We all have legally prescribed duties towards them like jury duty.

Science is best viewed the way we view democracy: Democracy is the best way for societies to organize themselves and make decisions in ways that respect and protect individual rights and freedoms. Science is the best way for society to understand the world around us and ourselves. Science and democracy serve each other and niether can long survive without the other.

If society comes to distrust science--and many do--then where will we turn for answers? What other system does our public discourse have for finding out about the world? Our democratic institutions depend on science being healthy and trusted. Democracy is no substitute. It's a great system for making decisions, but a rotton system for finding the truth. Science is the best societal tool at our disposal for knowing thing about our world.

I'm not arguing that science is infallible. Scientists are people and are consequently subject to all the same foibles as the rest of us. But like a court of law, there are rules in science that ensure that these human failings have limited affect on the result. Do scientists sometimes doctor results and cheat? Sure. Are they sometimes decieved? Sure. But, like a court of law or the democratic process, science is a system for getting good results in spite of these problems.

Politicians frequently misuse science. Anti-intellectual politicians (populists in all parties, but more so in the Republican party than the Democractic party as of late) dismiss it as just another special interest. Progressives and environmentalists (who I'm distinguishing from scientists, although a single person may, obviously, be both) frequently use science to scare us into adopting their agenda. Most people don't know enough science to distinguish the political wrangling from the science.

This is to bad, because it causes us to distrust science. People will always use social institutions like science, the courts, and democracy to get their way. That is human nature. The way we protect these institutions is by understanding them and being vigilant in their defense.

Most people, despite a dozen years of compulsory education in science as children don't understand it or how it works. Like democracy, the ultimate defense of science lies in education. My kids learn a lot about science facts. They learn little about the methods of science or how to read reports and think critically about what they read, using their knowledge of science.

I don't expect politicians to change anytime soon, but I do think more of us need to speak out in defense of science and what it represents for our society. Unless we do so, we will find our society adrift without any means of getting the good, trustworthy information that democracy needs to make good decisions.