“The Essential Parallel Between Science and Democracy”

Bush administration science policy was a mini-Dark Age for American science. Religious dogma superseded evidence and there was very little room for scientists in the halls of power. As that era recedes into the past, there’s cause for optimism — President Obama began his term with a pledge to “restore science to its rightful place” in government, and he has demonstrated a willingness to seriously consider the advice of scientific experts in formulating policy. Most exciting from the biogerontologist’s perspective, he has taken steps to do so by reversing George Bush’s ill-advised and religiously motivated ban on the use of federal funds in embryonic stem cell research.

An article in Seed magazine makes the excellent point that the new administration are not motivated (nor should they be) by a love of all things scientific. Rather, freedom of inquiry and a prominent role for evidence-based methods in policymaking are corollaries of the moral values that underlie a functional democracy — per the subtitle of the piece, “the sound conduct of science and the sound conduct of democracy both depend on the same shared values.”

The Essential Parallel Between Science and Democracy

Many have interpreted these moves as welcome signs of Washington’s renewed respect for science, and they are right to do so. But if understanding stops there, then we’re in trouble. For the restorative steps Obama has taken vis-à-vis science are praiseworthy not so much because they respect science as because they respect the grand institutions of democracy. This is no accident, because the very virtues that make democracy work are also those that make science work: a commitment to reason and transparency, an openness to critical scrutiny, a skepticism toward claims that too neatly support reigning values, a willingness to listen to countervailing opinions, a readiness to admit uncertainty and ignorance, and a respect for evidence gathered according to the sanctioned best practices of the moment.

The article continues with a warning against technocracy (ceding of authority to scientists without continuing to rigorous embrace of scientific modes of thought) and a reminder that scientists should always be enthusiastic about speaking truth to power — i.e., even if the establishment accepts us, we shouldn’t turn that acceptance in an opportunity to make ourselves into a priesthood that plays by special rules.

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2 comments

  1. Scientists and Morality…

    Scientists spend their working lives pursuing a rational understanding of the world around them. They are often both ignorant of, and intolerant of, the irrational. Because they pursue a rational understanding of the owrld they typically do not recogni…

  2. I’ll agree with the commenter on one point: Scientists are, and should be, “ignorant of, and intolerant of, the irrational.” There’s no benefit in studying the irrational, so I’ll gladly remain ignorant of it. And I’m intolerant of any efforts to make a place for the irrational in the policy-making decisions of an enlightened, secular society.

    The irrational doesn’t synthesize antibiotics, grow crops, or manufacture medical instruments. It neither helps create an industrial society nor, once the society is in place, helps to anticipate or control its excesses. We don’t need it. It is not justified or validated by its ancient origins.

    In the commenter’s blog post (linked above), he makes two points I associate with supporters of the Bush administration’s science policy and advocates for a greater role of religion in society.

    First, on the specific function of stem cells, is the canard that adult stem cells will be more clinically useful than embryonic stem cells.

    The simple refutation of this idea is that research on embryonic stem cells has been crippled for the past eight years, so we can’t legitimately evaluate the relative merits of the two types of cells on anything resembling an equal footing. Advances in studies of adult stem cells have certainly been considerable, but they represent the field making a virtue of necessity.

    Furthermore, these advances would have been impossible without the contribution of pre-ban embryonic stem cell research to the later work on induced pluripotency: if we hadn’t known about the behavior of ESCs we’d never have known how to direct the work on ASCs. What further contributions work on embryonic cells will make remains to be seen — thankfully, it’s now possible for us to actually do this work and find out.

    The commenter’s position on the superiority of adult stem cells appears to be based not on an evaluation of the primary research literature but rather on an op/ed by Yuval Levin, a conservative disciple of Leon Kass. The piece in question contains a chiding admonition to scientists to avoid participating in policy decisions that involve moral judgments; recently Mike Eisen provided a spirited refutation of this idea (which we discussed here).

    Second: The overarching theme of the post, however, is the idea that scientists’ adherence to the rational, measurable and tangible represents a type of hubris — that we should more humbly acknowledge the ancient wisdom of the religious “thinkers”.

    To which the only answer is: Ultimately, those arguing for a place for religion in civil society are arguing that their interpretation of ancient texts, purported to reflect the infallible word of a mystical invisible space giant, have a place in enlightened society — and that the resulting “values” can and do trump the outcome of rational inquiry. This strikes me as execrable vanity.

    Scientists are humble, but before nature, not God. We can and do reject the irrational, as well as those who would seek to subjugate our inquiries to irrational precepts — and we do so without humility or apology.

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