337. Ferris on science and liberty
March 2, 2010 § Leave a comment
so we start with thin logic about important events.
As he sees it, the standard account of the history textbooks — with the Renaissance giving rise to the Scientific Revolution and thus preparing the way for the Enlightenment — fails to identify the primary causal relationship. Democratic governance and individual rights did not emerge from some amorphous “brew of humanistic and scientific thinking,” he argues, but were “sparked” by science itself — the crucial “innovative ingredient” that “continues to foster political freedom today.”
But the review ends interestingly
Nor is it clear, as Ferris would have it, that science furnishes the ideal template for liberal democracy. Science, he notes, is antiauthoritarian, self-correcting, meritocratic and collaborative. As John Dewey, one of his heroes, put it, “freedom of inquiry, toleration of diverse views, freedom of communication, the distribution of what is found out to every individual as the ultimate intellectual consumer” are all as “involved in the democratic as in the scientific method.” In a like vein, Ferris also cites the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin: “Good science comes from the collision of contradictory ideas, from conflict, from people trying to do better than their teachers did, and I think here we have a model for what a democratic society is about.”
But crucial distinctions are lost in these comparisons. The scientific community may be open to everyone, in principle, but it has steep and familiar barriers to entry, as any layperson who has tried to read the research papers at the back of journals like Nature or Science can attest. When not distorted by its own personal and political rivalries, modern science is, in the most admirable sense, an aristocracy — a selection and sorting of the best minds as they interact within institutions designed to achieve certain rarefied ends. Experiment, equality and freedom of expression are essential to this work, but it is the work of an elite community from which most people are necessarily excluded. Thankfully, participation in the everyday life of democracy does not require a Ph.D., nor are theories and ideas its basic medium.
Scientists today are understandably eager to shape policy debates on a number of urgent issues (like climate change, to which Ferris devotes much of his closing chapter). But they have to appreciate the many ways in which scientific discourse, even in its experimental mode, makes an awkward fit with democratic politics. Only then will they find it easier to talk to — and persuade — the rest of us.
My own view is that science is seen also, yes, also, as the source of Hiroshima and world population increase through medicine without guidance. Hence science is not to be trusted, so some people think.