The Fraught Relationship Between Democracy and Science

Courtesy Julia Galef, a great friend of mine and a gifted writer. Look for a joint blogging operation between Ms. Galef, myself, and a few others sometime in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, read this post of hers, exploring the perilous situations that emerge when America’s anti-elitist tradition falsely flags science as an enemy. An excerpt:

Dubious scientific claims also get a boost from an attitude that scientific theories merit the same pluralistic treatment as personal beliefs. America’s respect for diverse opinions and value systems is one of our core democratic principles. But science isn’t democratic. It has right answers, and it has wrong ones. “Maybe it’s the logical extension of the American ideal of wanting to be open-minded and fair. The instinct is good, it just doesn’t work in science,” says Offit. American populism and pride in autonomy have made the CRC’s second brainchild, “Teach the Controversy,” another wildly successful sound bite for creationism. The implication is: “Let us make up our own mind, we don’t want somebody in an ivory tower telling us what to think,” says Scheufele. And just as the ambiguity of the word “theory” helps the anti-evolutionists’ case, so does the ambiguity of the word “belief.” Whether unthinkingly or in an effort to be extra-judicious, journalists have been known to refer to people “believing in” evolution (as opposed to accepting it), adding more fuel to the fallacy that science is a matter of personal opinion.

That misguided pluralism in science coverage plays right into the media’s natural love of conflict. “The problem on the global warming story is that the science just keeps confirming that we’re in a tough situation and it’s getting worse, and that news does not lend itself to the kind of reporting that the media likes to do,” says Dr. Joseph Romm, editor of the blog Climate Progress. So in the name of “balance” and an interesting story, the media turns clear-cut scientific issues into he-said, she-said stories. “Frankly, it’s intellectually lazy,” Offit opines. Just like the instinct to treat all views equally, seeking a compromise may be a fine way of accommodating different preferences in a democracy. But it’s a misplaced impulse in science, where a “compromise” between a right answer and a wrong answer still yields a wrong answer. Elizabeth Culotta, contributing news editor at Science magazine, recalls, “I was once misquoted by a local reporter on intelligent design and called him to complain, and he apologized, then said, ‘But I was looking for some sort of middle ground.’”

Well done. In Adams’ words, “fact’s are deaf — deaf as adders! — to the clamor of the populace.”

Advertisements

13 comments

  1. Exactly. Science isn’t a democracy; it’s a meritocracy.

  2. I highly recommend Charlie Pierce’s “Greetings from Idiot America,” which formed the basis for his recent book.

  3. One thing that would help (if done correctly) is for anthropologists to be more clear about the holes in evolutionary theory and the areas we are pretty certain about. Then they need to really explain the gaps. Where Creationists are having un-earned ‘success’ (I use that word loosely) is in exploiting those gaps in our knowledge with people who don’t know any better or are skeptical to begin with it.

    It’s kind of like when Ames’ talks law and slings latin and jargon all over the place. Sometimes people who are knowledgeable about a field forget to take things down to a level the general public can understand. When they fail to do so, the loonies do it for them.

    1. You mean biologists, right?

      While you are right that the scientific community could do a better job of communicating the state of science to the masses, people shouldn’t have to be told time and time again that specific cases of “holes” in a theory do not invalidate the theory as a whole.

      1. no, i mean anthropologists…specifically biological anthropologists. Or at least that’s what we called them when I was working on my anthropology degree : )

        1. I think they’re still called some sort of anthropologist… the people who study all the extinct Homos, yes?

  4. “But science isn’t democratic. It has right answers, and it has wrong ones.”

    I don’t know. I’m sure it’d be great if science was the sort of idealised Popperian utopia* described here, where prejudices immediately and inevitably yield to experimental facts – but as Thomas Kuhn and his paradigm shifts show, that’s not always quite how things work.

    1. You are, unfortunately, entirely correct. A nuanced discussion of paradigm shifts and the way that even in science there can be an “old guard” that, set in its ways, reacts conservatively to new findings is exactly the kind of thing that fuels the know-nothings and lets them believe that science has ulterior motives and that nothing the established science community says has to be believed if you disagree with it.

    2. Humans are humans, and thus we fall prey to our biases sometimes. What counts is that the way science is supposed to work and, on average and over sufficient amounts of time, does work, corrects that and allows for an ever closer approximation of reality – in contrast to all other approaches except perhaps philosophy and mathematics if done well, but they are complementary to and not alternatives to science.

      It is interesting to note that there are different types of people who make the mistake described in this post:

      There is a certain kind of person who is used to thinking so much in terms of conflicts of interest and ulterior motives, often because their primary sphere of interest is politics, that they simply cannot imagine scientists being motivated only to find the best model or explanation. It helps to ask them directly where they see the financial/power gain motivation that would be strong enough to account for the maintenance of a supposed evolution, climate or whatever conspiracy. If you are lucky, it gets them thinking; if not, it becomes clear just to what degree they are demented (“they are in the service of Satan!”, “it’s a communist plot to install a new world order!”).

      The second type is infected by postmodernism and thinks that there is no objective reality, and it’s all just perception, ideology and discourse. To this I usually reply that you go splat if you jump out of a high window no matter what you ideology, so there you have an objective reality, but these people are usually too much in love by their own armchair philosophy to be swayed by any kind of argument.

      The third type, and I am even thinking of a very good friend here, are idealistic democracy-lovers who think that every sphere of society should operate bottom-up. She once astounded me by suggesting that scientific conferences should have democratic decision processes. I was at a loss for words – consider that a good number of the participants are grad students who are still learning how to do science at all, and they severely outnumber the most accomplished of our field of research!

      1. To this I usually reply that you go splat if you jump out of a high window no matter what you ideology, so there you have an objective reality, but these people are usually too much in love by their own armchair philosophy to be swayed by any kind of argument.

        I’m not surprised they’re not swayed by that, because that’s not the point at all. Obviously a physical reality exists – but the point of postmodernism (depending on type, obviously, it’s hardly a unified movement) is that this reality can’t be described without the use of language, and the moment you introduce language, you also introduce “perception, ideology and discourse”. Because language does not just carry meaning, it creates meaning simply by being used.

      2. That may or may not be the point of postmodernism if understood correctly, but that does not mean that there are no people who will try to shoehorn it into an excuse for wishful thinking or the arrogance of ignorance. Well, I have met people like that. Some of them will perhaps not even be able to remember the word postmodernism, but this is the kind of thinking they picked up from others. It is like quantum mechanics, which is also tortured into serving for the weirdest kinds of apologetics by people who have not understood any of it.

    3. Julia Galef · ·

      Lanfranc,

      As far as I can tell, you’re making one of two arguments. Either:
      (1) Scientists often arrive at wrong answers.
      (2) All answers are equally right/wrong.

      As for (1), that’s unquestionably true, and consequently it’s wise to keep in mind that science doesn’t ever “prove” anything beyond any doubt. (Side note: Even Popper’s falsification principle which you allude to — i.e., that science may not be able to prove theories but it can at least DIS-prove theories — doesn’t really work. After all, even if an experiment seems to contradict your theory, it doesn’t follow that you should necessarily abandon the theory. How do you know there wasn’t a flaw in the experiment or in your interpretation of the experiment?)

      However! Some theories are contradicted by evidence so many times (or have to tie themselves into so many complicated knots to explain the evidence) that we can legitimately say they are bad theories. And generally, science abandons those theories in favor of less-flawed theories. That’s why paradigms shift. Some people think Kuhn was saying that scientists shift paradigms solely based on sociological or political reasons, as opposed to their judgments of the actual quality of the new vs. old paradigms… but that’s arguably a misreading. (Not that it really matters — even if it had been what Kuhn was really saying, that just means he would’ve been wrong.)

      As for (2): Like Mintman, I have encountered pomo enthusiasts who make that claim, but (also like Mintman) I seriously doubt they actually believe it. I’m not even sure if they believe they believe it.

    4. Julia, to the extent that I have a consistently formulated point in the first place, it’s not one of those two – but rather that all too often when discussing “science” or “scientists”, we get the impression of some sort of idealised fairytale where valueless scientists sit around all day in their laboratories in a dedicated pursuit of “science”.

      The problem is that this does not seem to reflect reality very well, both because scientists, being humans, are not objective and because they do not work in a vacuum apart from the rest of society.

      On the contrary, the practice of science is affected by a whole range of external factors: Political concerns determine which research projects and institutions get funding and which do not, and which results get an impact on actual policy. Business interests obviously have a huge say in the process as well, both because corporations have their own research projects, and because they extensively cooperate with public research institutions. Ethical concerns may deem certain approaches or even entire fields unacceptable. And then there’s academic workplace politics which is a whole chapter in itself.

      As far as postmodernism is concerned, its great contribution is to show us that the moment you take physical reality and express it through language, you also unavoidably introduce interpretation and subjectivity.

      By no means does any of this invalidate the results of science in itself, but it shows that the way science actually happens, rather than how we would ideally like it to happen, is much more complex than a simple question of “right and wrong answers” – and that sometimes scientific progress is as likely to happen in the lunchroom as in the laboratory, as it were.

%d bloggers like this: