- “Hi Bee,
One of the often repeated phrases here in Italy by so called “science enthusiasts” is that “science is not democratic”, which to me sounds like an excuse for someone to justify some authoritarian or semi-fascist fantasy.
We see this on countless “Science pages”, one very popular example being Fare Serata Con Galileo. It's not a bad page per se, quite the contrary, but the level of comments including variations of “Democracy is overrated”, “Darwin works to eliminate weak and stupid people” and the usual “Science is not democratic” is unbearable. It underscores a troubling “sympathy for authoritarian politics” that to me seems to be more and more common among “science enthusiasts". The classic example it’s made is “the speed of light is not voted”, which to me, as true as it may be, has some sinister resonance.
Could you comment on this on your blog?
Wow, I had no idea there’s so much hatred in the backyards of science communication.
|Hand count at convention of the German|
party CDU. Image Source: AFP
In an adaptive system, small modifications create a feedback that leads to optimization. The best-known example is probably Darwinian evolution, in which a species’ genetic information receives feedback through natural selection, thereby optimizing the odds of successful reproduction. A market economy is also an adaptive system. Here, the feedback happens through pricing. A free market optimizes “utility” that is, roughly speaking, a measure of the agents’ (customers/producers) satisfaction.
Democracy too is an adaptive system. Its task is to match decisions that affect the whole collective with the electorate’s values. We use democracy to keep our “is” close to the “ought.”
Democracies are more stable than monarchies or autocracies because an independent leader is unlikely to continuously make decisions which the governed people approve of. And the more governed people disapprove, the more likely they are to chop off the king’s head. Democracy, hence, works better than monarchy for the same reason a free market works better than a planned economy: It uses feedback for optimization, and thereby increases the probability for serving peoples’ interests.
The scientific system too uses feedback for optimization – this is the very basis of the scientific method: A hypothesis that does not explain observations has to be discarded or amended. But that’s about where similarities end.
The most important difference between the scientific, democratic, and economic system is the weight of an individual’s influence. In a free market, influence is weighted by wealth: The more money you can invest, the more influence you can have. In a democracy, each voter’s opinion has the same weight. That’s pretty much the definition of democracy – and note that this is a value in itself.
In science, influence is correlated with expertise. While expertise doesn’t guarantee influence, an expert is more likely to hold relevant knowledge, hence expertise is in practice strongly correlated with influence.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong with scientific self-optimization – and a lot of things do go wrong – but that’s a different story and shall be told another time. Still, optimizing hypotheses by evaluating empirical adequacy is how it works in principle. Hence, science clearly isn’t democratic.
Democracy, however, plays an important role for science.
For science to work properly, scientists must be free to communicate and discuss their findings. Non-democratic societies often stifle discussion on certain topics which can create a tension with the scientific system. This doesn’t have to be the case – science can flourish just fine in non-democratic societies – but free speech strongly links the two.
Science also plays an important role for democracy.
Politics isn’t done with polling the electorate on what future they would like to see. Elected representatives then have to find out how to best work towards this future, and scientific knowledge is necessary to get from “is” to “ought.”
But things often go wrong at the step from “is” to “ought.” Trouble is, the scientific system does not export knowledge in a format that can be directly imported by the political system. The information that elected representatives would need to make decisions is a breakdown of predictions with quantified risks and uncertainties. But science doesn’t come with a mechanism to aggregate knowledge. For an outsider, it’s a mess of technical terms and scientific papers and conferences – and every possible opinion seems to be defended by someone!
As a result, public discourse often draws on the “scientific consensus” but this is a bad way to quantify risk and uncertainty.
To begin with, scientists are terribly disagreeable and the only consensuses I know of are those on thousand years-old questions. More important, counting the numbers of people who agree with a statement simply isn’t an accurate quantifier of certainty. The result of such counting inevitably depends on how much expertise the counted people have: Too little expertise, and they’re likely to be ill-informed. Too much expertise, and they’re likely to have personal stakes in the debate. Worse, still, the head-count can easily be skewed by pouring money into some research programs.
Therefore, the best way we presently have make scientific knowledge digestible for politicians is to use independent panels. Such panels – done well – can both circumvent the problem of personal bias and the skewed head count. In the long run, however, I think we need a fourth arm of government to prevent politicians from attempting to interpret scientific debate. It’s not their job and it shouldn’t be.
But those “science enthusiasts” who you complain about are as wrong-headed as the science deniers who selectively disregard facts that are inconvenient for their political agenda. Both of them confuse opinions about what “ought to be” with the question how to get there. The former is a matter of opinion, the latter isn’t.
That vaccine debate that you mentioned, for example. It’s one question what are the benefits of vaccination and who is at risk from side-effects – that’s a scientific debate. It’s another question entirely whether we should allow parents to put their and other peoples’ children at an increased risk of early death or a life of disability. There’s no scientific and no logical argument that tells us where to draw the line.
Personally, I think parents who don’t vaccinate their kids are harming minors and society shouldn’t tolerate such behavior. But this debate has very little to do with scientific authority. Rather, the issue is to what extent parents are allowed to ruin their offspring’s life. Your values may differ from mine.
There is also, I should add, no scientific and no logical argument for counting the vote of everyone (above some quite arbitrary age threshold) with the same weight. Indeed, as Daniel Gilbert argues, we are pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy. If he’s right, then the whole idea of democracy is based on a flawed premise.
So – science isn’t democratic, never has been, never will be. But rather than stating the obvious, we should find ways to better integrate this non-democratically obtained knowledge into our democracies. Claiming that science settles political debate is as stupid as ignoring knowledge that is relevant to make informed decisions.
Science can only help us to understand the risks and opportunities that our actions bring. It can’t tell us what to do.
Thanks for an interesting question.