The Science Of Democracy

“If Scientific Literacy is the Answer, What’s the Question?” is the provocative title of an online article by my friend Eric Meslin. Eric is a native of Canada– a bioethicist who left IUPUI a couple of years ago to become President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies. He wrote the article as part of a celebration of Canada’s “Science Literacy Week.”

Canada has a “Science Literacy Week.” Sort of makes an American cry….

I remember when people in the United States respected science. And education. That, of course, was before Trump, Pence and Betsy DeVos scorned bookish “elitists,” elevated religion over science, and job training over education. But I digress.

Eric reported on a 2014 Expert Panel assessment Science Culture: Where Canada Stands that found Canadians having mostly positive attitudes towards science and low levels of apprehension about science compared with citizens of other countries. Nevertheless,

The assessment also found only 53% of Canadians understood that antibiotics were not effective against viruses; only 46% were able to describe what it meant to study something scientifically (that is, using the scientific method); and that around 42% of the population had attained a basic enough level of science literacy that they could grasp general coverage of scientific and technological stories in the media. And yet, these results rated Canada as the most scientifically literate country in the world.

Why should science literacy matter? Eric points to the “tsunami” of information available, and the need to cull what is useful and well-founded from the mountains of speculation, disinformation and conflicting reports (to which I would add outright peddling of snake-oil.)

Maneuvering in a busy world of science information gives one answer to the question, why does science literacy matter? Knowing something about science can help distinguish between claims that are truthful from those that are not, to understand which new information should be heeded and what can be set aside for the moment. Indeed, part of being science literate is knowing where to find the resources to make sense of the scientific evidence.

Perhaps the most important argument for improving science literacy is the connection between a basic understanding of the scientific method and democratic self-governance. As Eric explains that connection:

As important as science literacy is for people to understand science, a science-literate public may also be the best hope for a well-functioning democracy.

This view sees science literacy as an antidote to the many varieties of fundamentalism that undermine pluralistic, cosmopolitan, multicultural democracies. A science literate society not only better understands the science behind a policy (e.g., it is a good idea to know a little bit about stem cell science before deciding whether to fund it), a science literate public also understands how to think carefully about how policy gets made, who decides, and using what criteria. When decisions are made to build bridges, dams or pipelines; to regulate chemicals and food; or to require vaccination, or fluoridate water, a science-literate public is applying its critical thinking skills to policy making in society.

Scientifically-literate citizens won’t always come to the same conclusions, but their debates are far more likely to be illuminating and productive than the arguments between, for example, the scientific community and the troglodytes who use biblical passages to dismiss the threat of climate change.

Eric also quoted a favorite book of mine: Timothy Ferris’ The Science of Liberty. As I wrote a few years ago,

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.

The U.S. isn’t doing so well in either science or democracy these days. One more reason to envy Canada…


  1. I can remember early in my life mocking Canada. Those days are over…

    Our economists love to use GDP and growth in GDP as evidence of our economy is one of the top countries in the world. The Social Progress and Happiness Index measures other factors besides raw economic growth.

    Canada is a top tier country in both the Social Progress and Happiness Index. The United States is not.

    A country that values raw economic production doesn’t produce happiness for the members of its society. It also doesn’t elevate social growth or enhance the quality of living for its members.

    Again, what is the purpose of the United States of America?

    If we look at our media and the Billionaires it supports, we value money. There is little or no evidence that we even value education. In fact, the Billionaires running the country have little or no value for educated citizens. They want working drones who won’t question minimum wages or their shitty lifestyle.

    In fact, I see little or no evidence that we value critical thinking or democracy. Quite the opposite.

    The Billionaire Oligarchs running USA, Inc. use fear to manipulate the masses with divide and conquer strategies. Leadership strategies are out the window as Oppression is more en vogue than serving others.

    What’s up is down because we’ve lost our purpose as a country. Our emphasis on economic power over our quality of life is causing all sorts of problems. Many we’ve addressed on this blog.

    It’s Alice in Wonderland and Orwell’s 1984 all wrapped up in one embarrassing skit.

  2. “Perhaps the most important argument for improving science literacy is the connection between a basic understanding of the scientific method and democratic self-governance. As Eric explains that connection:

    As important as science literacy is for people to understand science, a science-literate public may also be the best hope for a well-functioning democracy.”

    Here, in the United States, if we apply this reasoning to the lack of understanding, acceptance, willingness to learn basic scientific reasoning only regarding Climate Change and the connection to Global Warming…we will understand the importance of becoming a “science-literate public”. But; how do we get beyond the refusal of the current “leadership” in this country to admit there is a connection or a willingness to learn what that connection is? I remember a brief period of time in our country when we seemed to understand the basic concept of “we are destroying our environment” and questioned solutions; as I said, it was a brief period of time. Moving on to the life-and-death aspect of being “science-literate” we (the general use of “we”) appear to be deliberately ignoring the dumping of hazardous waste in public and private areas which seeps into our waterways to be carried further abroad, rises to the surface to be absorbed into the air and carried further to drop the hazardous waste in other areas in different forms. There appears to be no understanding of the connection of these life-and-death situations and Global Warming which are interconnected. Our current “science-ILLITERATE” president is removing protective measures (known as regulations) as fast his stubby fingers can sign them away.

    Is there a “science-literate” understanding…EXPLANATION…for the rampant moral turpitude which is the basis for the inertia of our current Congress and denial of full investigation of the increasing numbers of elected and appointed official’s active participation in moral turpitude and/or the acceptance of it in their co-workers (cronies)? Start with Trump who is fully supporting his fellow “pussy grabbers” and they retain or gain their high level appointments or quickly disappear from public view with full Congressional approval. Those in the current administration, elected or appointed, who appear to understand we are fast losing democracy, Rule of Law and our once moral and decent standing at home and in the world abroad as our once faithful allies turn their heads at OUR shame, are resigning or being fired. Will we watch as Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein disappears from his protective position in the DOJ and Kavanaugh rises to the height of a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States of America? That is just this week’s question.


  3. Todd, succinctly said:

    “A country that values raw economic production doesn’t produce happiness for the members of its society. It also doesn’t elevate social growth or enhance the quality of living for its members.”

    You suggest effectively in a few words the reason there sometimes is a social disconnect between individual Americans and some citizens of the world.

  4. “In fact, I see little or no evidence that we value critical thinking or democracy. Quite the opposite.”

    Personally, I think Todd is quite right in his assessment of where we are at as a country and as a society today. On one hand, we are grossly overwhelmed with information that has no import whatsoever; information on the Kardashians and what they are currently doing as an example and all sorts of other things that people really do not care about yet are pushed continuously by the media, particularly online.

    People do not understand science, they don’t understand basic civics, they don’t understand their own country’s history, nor in many instances, do they understand their own history. Whether or not this is all part in a conspiratorial move by those that control all the wealth in this country is a matter of conjecture but I can definitely see why Todd has drawn the conclusion he has drawn any very likely is rights. Personally again though, I think it’s a combination of that and just rampaging stupidity up and down the food chain. As that great philosopher king “Weird Al” Yankovic has said which applies to very much today – “Dare to be stupid”. “Dare to be very stupid”.

    Whichever is the case, we as a society have got to find some way of climbing up top of this. If we are truly to be the masters of our own fate and our government, as well as its accountability to us, we have to do a hugely better job of making the effort to inform ourselves and rise above the mundane day to day junk that we all end up dealing with and have an interest in things beyond it.

    I was fortunate in that I was introduced and critical thinking and a fairly early age and have been a fiend of sorts in acquiring information on all sorts of things. I have friends and periodically asked me how do I know these things that I rattle off in conversations and my standard answer is – I read!! It’s as simple as that and to have an interest in things which also comes from reading.

    Our educational system has failed us, the media has failed us and a large chunk of this country couldn’t care less which is extremely alarming. A classic example of this is how the American people lost interest in the space program after we went to the Moon as if it was no big deal anymore and it was time to move on. In space cadet circles, we mourn the fact that we have been stuck in low earth orbit ever since. In a way the whole country has been stuck in low earth orbit ever since why we’re at where we’re at right now. We’ve done it to ourselves by not caring about anything or having any real interests other than trivialities that is fed to us by our mass media every day. We’re like the proverbial sheep. It’s a very sad thing to see and as the gist of Sheila’s post it could very well end up being stable to our form of democracy and American culture what there is left of it.

  5. I don’t mean this as disagreement with what Todd says, but I’m not certain that we value raw economic production. In fact, I’m not certain that we value anything at this point in time. Our current economic policies are likely to be disastrous in the long run. Our national goal seems to be to create enough wealth for the top one percent that they can buy the happiness they crave, which we all know is priceless.


  6. Much of the lack of science literacy in this country is due to how science is taught in schools. In states like Texas, where churches rule the narrative, science is back-benched in just about every way. The textbooks are not much better than the old comic books. The “administrators” go with the dumbing down of the curriculum so more kids will pass the ludicrous high stakes tests spawned by Bush’s abortive “No Child Left Behind”. This all adds up to a loss of respect for the efforts or our great scientists and what they bring forth every year.

    Science teaching should have a historical component as well as a research component where students can realize the relevance of science in their own lives by their own research and conclusions. But, that means we have to have better, more science-oriented teachers in classrooms. And that means paying them what they’re worth.

    As Todd suggests, the oligarchs could care less about scientific literacy. They only want to pay for mediocrity with mediocre wages for less-than-mediocre jobs. No science required.

  7. Thoughtful and well written blog and comments today. Thanks all!

    Hell of a lot better than political burlesque of Morning Joe.

    Identify Problem.
    Form A Hypothesis.
    Plan Experiment.
    Perform Experiment.
    Analyze Data.
    Form A Conclusion.
    Communicate Results.
    The Scientific Method would be rejected by the bible thumper”s and their fellow travelers, belief in the supernatural over rides Science.

    It is not just here in the USA, where theocracy has a grip as an example:
    Police armed with pickaxes and power tools have destroyed a modern artwork by a celebrated British sculptor in the Maldives, after the outgoing president in the tourist haven declared the installation offensive to Islam.

    A series of statues by Jason deCaires Taylor were placed inside a semi-submerged metal cube in July at a resort in the Maldives, an archipelago of 340,000 Sunni Muslims popular with tourists.

    Islam, the official religion in the Maldives, bans the depiction of idols, and the work provoked some criticism from clerics even though the statues have no religious symbols or meaning. The import of statues is prohibited in the Maldives. Even depictions of the Buddha are banned despite a long legacy of Buddhism in the islands before Islam came to dominate the archipelago.

    As a Boomer, I can recall the explosion of Science in the late 1950’s, an exploration of not only the earth, the oceans and space. What an exciting time.

    There was blow back: Science that determined smoking was hazardous to your health, birthed the “tobacco scientists” paid off shills who had a purpose of sowing the seeds of doubt. The example of the “tobacco scientists” has been used over and over ever since, when corporate profits are in jeopardy or the super natural theocracy’s are threatened with facts that undermine blind obedience to beliefs.

    This willful ignorance did not start with President Agent Orange and Pastor Pence but they have added and accelerated it, to the point where stubborn ignorance has been transformed into a virtue.

  9. Vernon said: “Science teaching should have a historical component as well as a research component where students can realize the relevance of science in their own lives by their own research and conclusions. But, that means we have to have better, more science-oriented teachers in classrooms. And that means paying them what they’re worth.”

    The history of Science would have to include all the attempts by the theocrat’s to attack it, which is still happening, i.e., the young earth crap. Science is the enemy of the fundamentalists as it replaces them as the final authority in the natural world.

  10. I have been immersed in science for most all of my 76 years. It’s arguable as to whether I did that out of talent for it, or lack of talent for all of the other choices. Whatever. When I started those studies the science body of knowlege that was needed to be proficient at applying it to solving practical problems in the real world was X. X of course was (and is) virtually impossible to measure as is the growth of it over the last, say, 60 years since I started this adventure but as the most most crude kind of order of magnitude guess let me take a stab at 10X just based on how much I get exposed to nowadays that is out of my reach (especially in life science). Of course education for those who have followed in my footsteps is vastly improved allowing todays’s students to keep up with that explosion but also narrower specialties have become reality.

    Long intro, short conclusion. Everyone who didn’t invest in all of that science learning, which is most people, is even further behind in understanding science now like I am in all of the fields that I didn’t focus on (like civics). What does that inevitably mean in the bigger picture?

    Trusting experts and their expertise is even more essential now than back when I started.

    Where on the other hand has populist entertainment media led our culture? Diametrically away from there to don’t trust anyone’s expertise.

    See the cultural problem that has been caused by programming future culture through entertainment media in service of make more money regardless of the impact on others?

  11. Pete

    When I was a kid my big interests were reading and baseball. My aptitude for science was high (according to the tests) but my interest was low. Now I regret my neglect, but truth be told, as you allude, that there is simply so much science one can to little more than specialize or scan. I am thankful for the specialists. They provide summaries (and details if you are interested) that can be digested and sometimes used.

    Allow me to humbly recommend Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe” (2003), “The Hidden Reality” (2004), and “The Fabric of the Cosmos” (2011) and one by Richard A Muller, “The Physics of Time” (2016), as being educational, fascinating and extremely readable.

    Friends often point me to articles and publications of interest. One recent recommendation was “A meta-analysis of the dark triad and work outcomes: A social exchange perspective” in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

    I have digressed from the point somewhat, which is, anyone with a real interest in almost any subject can/will find credible sources to satisfy their curiosity. The problem is twofold: 1) for every credible source there are often as many or more that are bogus, and, 2) far too many people have no interest. A friend of mine used to say, “It don’t cost nuthin’ to pay attention.” One must learn to recognize the difference between the credible and incredible and that is increasingly difficult in an atmosphere that recognizes “alternative facts.”

    Finally: We desperately need science, art, civics and music in our institutions of learning–and they are in pitifully short supply.

  12. Wray, what we desperately need is each other. Diversity in all of its guises. More collaboration and less competition. More respect for the accomplishments and competences of others and less ego. More Obama and less Trump.

  13. Einstein, who died in 1955, complained that going to physicist meetings wasn’t helpful any more since they were so specialized and had their own jargon and he didn’t know what they were talking about. He should be here today some 63 years later if he thought things were bad in 1955. We are drowning in scientific knowledge but seem not to be interested in digesting it, and that’s bad because there is clearly a real connection between scientific literacy and democracy, as Sheila tells us so well.
    As an amateur economist I was impressed with Todd’s view that GDP and economic output are unimportant factors of social success, as proven in the Nordic countries, whose happiness index if not their GDP ranks within the first five worldwide. He’s right, and I think the reason why is that their governments are people rather than business oriented and resemble Athenian democracy rather than the democratic masquerade with which we are saddled, a political economy which is owned and controlled by only one sector of our economy – Wall Street – a group of oblivious capitalists disinterested in the common weal.
    Sheila wrote a blog recently in re this problem, i.e., how all the stakeholders in our economy are not represented in how we govern or reward ourselves from the wealth and income produced by our economy in favor of unfairly and inequitably rewarding the financier stakeholders. She, too, was right, and such situations cited by Todd and Sheila call for reform of the system to either make it fairer, or alternatively, change the system (ism), all with a view toward challenging the Nordics’ ranking on the happiness index, all with the added positive of stimulation of aggregate demand, the sole arbiter of economic growth, a win-win result.

  14. One of two epistemologies dominates the 7 billion brains on this planet. First, historically, was religion, founded on the concept of “Here’s how this works. You believe everything I say and don’t ask any questions if you want to stay out of trouble.” This approach to knowledge and understanding has a couple of fundamental flaws, including a lack of a correction mechanism in the event it should come up with a wrong conclusion. Second, it has no way to discover new things, since the infallible being who wrote the script has already answered any questions worth posing. Third, it postulates that all worthwhile knowledge was baked into its origin, so it’s heresy to suggest improvements. Fourth, there is no arbitration mechanism for competing religions’ alternative answers to awesomely serious questions. Fifth, nearly all religions market the concept of a hereafter that, while it has a certain appeal, cannot be shown to have any foundation in fact.

    The second way of learning and apprehending things is called science. While it plugs the holes in religion and applies tests and observations to all conclusions, it has a downside. To buy into science, people are challenged to work at studying and learning and to take nothing for granted. For at least 50% of the world population, this comprises an unreasonable demand that competes with a freebie called “faith” that gives them something (the hucksters would say it gives them a lot) for no effort whatsoever. Something for nothing. How very lovely, and how deeply appealing to those with mystical minds.

    The most pernicious thing about religion is not necessarily the fault of people who believe in it. It is the tendency of cynics who see religion as tool for manipulating naive people by merely pretending to be one of them. Many atheists (my crowd), I do more good works in an average day than our president, adored by evangelicals and other religious types, has done in his lifetime. But he gets their vote by merely pretending.

    There are – oddly enough – scientifically literate Republicans. Since Republicans are far more talented at messaging than Democrats, we need to enlist their aid in convincing America that science is cool. If we fail to do so, Chinese and Korean and Indian and Japanese students will expedite our rapid descent into irrelevance by beating us at what used to be our game. My guess is that if you subtract the Jewish and Asian American contributions from our national list of intellectual accomplishments, we’d look a lot more humble than we currently feel.

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