How Science Threatens Democracy

The most interesting tragic situations are not those in which Bad triumphs over Good but those in which multiple things deemed Good diverge in unexpectedly difficult ways. Science and democracy are both things our culture holds dear, but let’s poke into the ways in which they part ways. For it wouldn’t do much good to evaluate threats we all already well know exist (i.e. “HOW ISIS THREATENS DEMOCRACY”) or unexpected sources of danger to our republic that are unlikely to occur (i.e. “HOW CREAM CHEESE THREATENS DEMOCRACY” — imagine how much trouble citizens would have voting if their election precinct were filled completely with cream cheese!), but the danger of science to democracy is both palpable and, it seems, under-acknowledged. Plus, as a degree-carrying political scientist, I get to perform everyone’s favorite kind of critique — a self-serving self-critique — on the two constituent halves of my profession. So let’s walk through the argument, which, it turns out, is not very complicated:

The most basic way in which science and democracy diverge is that a scientist claims to speak for nature, whereas a democratic government claims to speak on behalf of the public. It would be nice if the public always wanted what was natural, but we obviously know this isn’t the case: people are attracted to things that go against nature (i.e. junk food), and what is natural is not always what the public would consider just (i.e. biological inequality). Therefore, friction is bound to arise between these commitments.

One might think that we’re comparing apples and oranges. After all, science is a way of producing knowledge whereas democracy is a way of making decisions. A scientist can publish an article saying that junk food is bad (full disclosure: I just downed my 4th donut in the past 48 hours), but it’s ultimately the public’s responsibility to decide whether or not it wants to act on this information and how. In this way, one might say, science is not different from any other sorts of authority. One can invoke the results of a scientific study during a political deliberation the same way one can cite the Bible, a work of art, old wives’ tales, etc….

Yet science claims its authority in a way different from those other ways of bolstering an argument. What do we mean? Science says doesn’t deal with Truth, it deals with facts, which can’t be disputed as religious or aesthetic judgments can be because they can be demonstrated. Religious arguments are a “conversation stopper” in the public square because they requires pre-commitments that others in the deliberative community might not share; science, however, is supposed to not require any such foundation. It is supposed to be universal.

At least that was the aim of the Enlightenment: to bring the entire world around us “into the light” so it could be visible to everyone, not just those who had privileged positions as the arbiters of dogma. Scientific knowledge was supposed to be democratic because it was observer-independent (that is, anyone doing an experiment, no matter their age, class, or gender, could get the same results), and these results could be shared to everyone across the world. No longer would the powerful be able to use the peoples’ ignorance as the chains of their subjugation because now everyone was to be capable of understanding the world. People would be taught to be skeptical about everything, to only put their authority in what they themselves could prove. Everyone was supposed to be a Missourian, who demands you “show me” before consenting to belief (yikes, that’s not such a great line, but you get the point).

Unfortunately, the natural world proved to be more fickle and complicated and less self-evident than one might have hoped. The amount of “looking” at nature that it takes to actually understand a process is so lengthy that it’s simply not practical for Average Joe to do each and every test himself. The massively ambitious Enlightenment project that began with the bold claim “I think therefore I am” (which means that unassisted individual reason is sufficient for understanding one’s place in the world) has instead resulted in a world when most of us take far more “on faith” than we used to, are more reliant on others to do our experimenting for us.

The scientific revolution created a new kind of inequality epitomized by the figure of the expert. The word “expert” indeed arose in the mid 16th century and comes from the Latin ex spectare, meaning “to look out for.” The expert is above mere spectators because of his or her advanced knowledge in a discipline. The rise of the expert is politically consequential because it means there are issues so complicated that regular citizens can’t actually deliberate about them effectively. The sheer volume of facts that the scientific revolution sparked by the Enlightenment proliferated is so great that specialization is required. It would be absurd to imagine a town-hall meeting in which citizens discussed the most efficient way to set up, say, a spectroscopy lab — they wouldn’t have a clue. So the citizenry is bound to cede its deliberative power over a wide range of fields. And unfortunately, not only are citizens not capable of deliberating much about scientific matters (because they don’t understand them), but scientists aren’t trained to think about the political implications of their work, which, beginning in the 20th century, has had world-shattering importance. So we’re left in a situation in which scientists (whom Hannah Arendt refers to as “the least practical and the least political members of society”) are actually some of the most powerful political actors on the stage.

The most obvious examples of the power of scientific knowledge to affects politics are when it produces new technology. The Manhattan Project is vivid confirmation of the Enlightenment’s prophecy that “knowledge is power.” The research that went into it — and into other government-funded science projects like NSA surveillance — has to be done in secret and thus is ungovernable by the ordinary citizen. This harms citizen-government trust, and the technologies themselves ultimately threaten citizens when they percolate to other regimes (i.e. if Iran gets nukes, cyber-sophistication).

Technology threatens democracy on a more mundane level as well. Think of how radically the Internet, cell phones, and social media have transformed our lives over the past 20 years. Surely the gadgets floating out of Silicon Valley have affected our lives more meaningfully than the deliberations of our local or even state governments. And yet there was no votes granting Bill Gates and Steve Jobs such widespread power over our lives, no referendum on whether the iPhone should be allowed to exist or Clippy to perish. “People voted with their dollars,” you might say, but that’s not the same thing as democratic deliberation. And it’s not really a choice whether or not you use things like the Internet. If you don’t, you are forced to miss out on tons of opportunities. If you don’t have email or a cell phone, there’s almost no way you can find a job in which you can make a livelihood. On a larger level, it simply isn’t an option for undeveloped countries not to try to develop. A nation risks not having influence in the world and thus not able to defend itself against aggressors.

An even tamer threat to democracy on the part of scientists is when they aren’t content to be nidiculous, applying their methods merely to the natural world, but actually do try to actively get involved in political deliberations i.e. the profession of political science. Tamer because it usually lacks any teeth (i.e. not sure any of 538 proposals have actually been adopted). But there is a real temptation to cut out the “middle man” of the political process; science decides its bored with trying to merely inform policy and actually tries to make it. That is, there’s a temptation to turn communal deliberation about the public good with into mere technical problem-solving.

Even if what the public wants is in harmony with what social science suggests, the process by which that want is turned into a real action isn’t trivial. At the end of the day, a political decision must be because the people want it, not because it has been proven by some expert to be the best policy.

So, as good ol’ Amur’cans, we’ll probably want to choose the side of democracy rather than science when these differing foundations rub up against each other. The Constitution charges Congress with the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts,” but scientific inquiry isn’t protected the same way speech or the right to assemble or bear arms is. In any case, scientists are generally wise to play nice and stay away from doing research on the more controversial frontiers simply because the government is one of the top funders of scientific research and can always cut off the money if it wants.

This is not meant to be taken as a catawampus sketch, and it’s certainly not to suggest scientists quit their quidnuncing about the natural world. It’s just good to be aware of sources of danger, for, as Hoderlin wrote, “where this is the danger, also grows the saving power.”