A rather remarkable essay
at Science Friday
, with my commentary.
Has Science Outgrown Democracy?
BY SHAWN LAWRENCE OTTO
"Whenever the people are well-informed," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "they can be trusted with their own government."
If you are in Washington D.C., you can step inside Jefferson's library -- it has been recreated at the Library of Congress. It's a roughly round room that contains books outlining virtually the entirety of what was know in Jefferson's day. It was his version of the Internet.
Nonsense. No library has contained even a miniscule fraction of human knowledge. What Otto is referring to is mostly knowledge of natural science, which, even in the late 18th century, far exceeded anything that Jefferson could hoard or even understand.
And much of knowledge in other massive spheres of human understanding-- theology, literature, art, philosophy, history, were far beyond Jefferson's purview. He had some wisdom-- political wisdom for sure-- but he was a man for a season. His knowledge of theology, for example, was sophomoric
But today it's no longer possible for one person -- even a scientist and someone as well-read as Jefferson -- to know all that there is to know.
It never was, at least not since Aristotle.
And for the rest of us who lead busy lives outside the spheres of science and policy, it's virtually impossible to keep up with the pace of science, much less to actually read scientific papers and understand what scientists are basing their conclusions on. Science is increasingly becoming a matter of belief.
Science always was, and always will be, a matter of belief. The sharp "demarcation" between science and other kinds of knowledge is a fallacy. Science is a discipline of philosophy-- natural
philosophy-- and is a node in the web of epistemology and metaphysics and theology and logic and ethics that constitutes human knowledge.
No kind of knowledge is an island.
So what happens to Jefferson's insight today, in a world dominated by complex science?
Thomas Jefferson... 'Endowed by our Creator"... "unalienable rights"... "We the People"... times have changed... irrelevant to the modern world... everything is different...
Just say it, Shawn. We know where this is going.
Science influences every aspect of life, yet very few people have a good understanding of most science.
Actually, logic influences more areas of life than science. Mathematics does too. Religion too. Philosophy too. Ethics too.
Especially ethics. We lived for millennia without science. How long would we last without ethics?
Perhaps we'll find out.
Is the ever-increasing burden of education that science places on the people making it hard for democracy to continue to function as a viable form of government? And if it is, what's the alternative?
The alternative is rule by self-appointed elites.
Using science, we've vastly multiplied our power over nature. Science has given us control over the reproductive cycle, it has doubled our average lifespan and it has multiplied the productivity of our farms by some 35 times -- all in the last 140 years.
Science has many blessings. And curses. Just like religion. Just like every kind of knowledge.
Much of the radical improvement in our health and longevity has come about because of a reduction in childhood mortality, largely as a result of prevention of epidemics by effective public health measures-- good sewage systems, etc. Actually, rather low tech stuff.
Relativity and quantum mechanics and human genetics are fascinating and important, but have not played a significant role in human longevity.
Evolutionary biology has contributed nothing at all to human flourishing, and applied
evolutionary biology-- eugenics-- has caused much suffering. (contra the Darwin fan-boys, the management of microbial resistance to antibiotics is dependent on microbiology, pharmacology, physiology, etc. 'Just-So-Stories' about survivors surviving play no role).
It has also enabled a population explosion. We have created a system that cannot support our population without posing serious challenges to our environment.
The population increase of the past century is leveling off, and is becoming an implosion in many parts of the world. Our environment is doing just fine-- technological advance and free markets have made our environment much cleaner and healthier.
The most environmentally filthy places on earth are in the old socialist/communist paradises, ruled by scientific socialists (like Mr. Otto).
That's the way it is with power: it carries with it responsibility.
1) It would be irresponsible to acquire the power to eradicate malaria, and then for ideological reasons ban the agent most effective for that eradication. That could kill a lot of people.
2) It would be irresponsible to acquire the power to control human reproduction, and then for ideological reasons based on politicized junk science impose totalitarian control of reproduction on billions of people. That would be a crime against humanity.
3) It would be irresponsible to acquire the power to make fuel from corn, and then for ideological and crassly political reasons to jack up the price of corn by converting a major portion of the United States' corn crop to ethanol. That could cause food riots
Luckily environmental scientists were on the right side of these issues, right?
Using science, we are just now coming to understand complex systems and how to manage our power in more sustainable, responsible ways.
Just now? What the hell have we been doing for the last few centuries, if we haven't been "understanding complex systems" and "understanding how to manage our power in sustainable, responsible ways".
Perhaps Mr. Otto is saying that now that he is on the scene, we're finally getting smart.
But with a democratic form of government that relies on the votes of the people, we've been increasingly unable or unwilling to enact regulations that help us act responsibly in our use of power.
'We've been increasingly unable or unwilling to enact regulations preferred by Shawn L. Otto."
We have created a global economy with no global regulatory system
Global regulatory system
? Chosen by... whom? Run by... whom? Accountable to... whom?
and placed our corporations in a feudal chase after the cheapest labor, the least-restrictive environmental regulations, and the easiest methods of exploiting natural resources.
Free enterprise. The most effective method ever found for human flourishing and
maintaining a healthy environment. If you don't believe me, visit any city saddled with 80 years of "scientific socialism
Of course, Mr. Otto wouldn't be advocating an economic system based on science and... socialism.
And those are just the problems left over from the last century of science. In the next 40 years, we are poised to create as much new knowledge as we have acquired in the last 400.
Imagine the policy challenges that new knowledge will create as we master genomics, neuroscience, and nanotechnology -- just to name a few emerging fields that have huge public policy implications.
Thank goodness we have scientific socialists to help us muddle through.
So what's the answer?
Shawn's gonna tell us. Let me guess: it has something to do with giving unprecedented power to guys like Shawn L. Otto.
Has science outgrown democracy?
Should candidates for public office be required to have degrees in science?
Or at least 'should politicians who hawk scientific theories
be required to get more than a "D" in college science?'
Should we require everyone to have more science education?
They need to be taught the stuff that Shawn L. Otto believes!
Even when they do have an adequate foundation of science knowledge, why do so few people seem to understand how important science is?
Only people like Shawn L. Otto understand how important science is.
Should we have science-civics classes?
Why not science-civics camps, for deniers.
Or do scientists simply need to be more communicative?
They sure don't talk enough
Of course these are questions I delve into in my new book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.
Shawn's been fooled a lot more than twice.
The theme of Shawn's book tour is "If voters don't appreciate science like Shawn L. Otto, let's question the relevance of democracy".
But they are also questions that I and others are seeking to address by creating a new form of political debate -- a presidential science debate -- to tackle the big unresolved questions that increasingly revolve around science.
This year's big science question in politics: "How can we keep spending more money than we have?" Actually, it's a math question.
We want to address these questions in a way that adults are used to taking in complex information -- within the context of our national public policy dialogue.
That's why science guys like Shawn and his Darwinist/warmist buddies keep trying to stop people from discussing controversies in science classrooms.
A presidential science debate isn't some wonky quiz about the third digit of Pi; it's an exploration of our greatest aspirations as a country, and a chance to reorient our discussion on not just the next election, but also the next generation.
Right, Shawn. We need a debate organized by a coven of half-educated narcissists with science degrees and undiagnosed Asperger's to tell us how important it is to give them more money and do everything they say.
So, back to Shawn's original question: "has science outgrown democracy?"
imperative, however, that democracy outgrow scientism.
(HT: Wesley Smith @ Secondhand Smoke)