The recent concerns voiced here and elsewhere about respect for science and science education are at their foundation about more than science. There is a connection between science and democracy that is only dimly recognized and rarely discussed.
The best articulation of that connection that I’ve encountered was in a 2010 book by Timothy Ferris, titled The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason and the Laws of Nature.
As Ferris notes, the nation’s founders were creatures of the Enlightenment, and well acquainted with the experimental nature of science–part of what they called “The New Learning.” They applied the scientific method to their new political enterprise.
“What isn’t widely understood is that the way that democracies work is by constant experiment. Each election, each new law is, after all, a procedure designed to test a hypothesis about how to make constant improvements to a government.”
Ferris argues convincingly that the democratic revolution was sparked by the scientific one. The new approach to governing wasn’t merely a function of the embrace of reason, because–as current events keep reminding us–people can reason themselves into all sorts of conclusions that have a tenuous connection to reality. Science was the new ingredient, and while science requires reason, it isn’t just reason. It’s empiricism, experimentation…the same sort of experimentation that is the basis for democratic governance.
It was the advent of science and the scientific method that underscored the importance of decisions based on evidence. As Ferris notes, dogma ruled the world before science came along, and dogma remains the preference of the majority of people today. (If you doubt the accuracy of that observation, look at Congress. Or Texas. Or, unfortunately, the Indiana Statehouse.) But democracy is not a dogma–it’s a method, a process not unlike the scientific method.
It is well to recognize that when strident anti-intellectual political figures attack scholarship as “elitism,” when they dismiss scientific consensus on everything from evolution to climate change, when they call for “repealing” the Enlightenment, it isn’t only science they are attacking.
It’s democracy as we understand it.