Restoring Science – and Democracy

In a New York Times essay “Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy,” Dennis Overbye ponders the significance of President Obama’s inaugural promise to “restore science to its rightful place.”

Overbye believes that “Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.” How do people find that truth?

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view.

He notes that these values are also integral to a properly functioning democracy, and observes:

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.

President Obama’s promise to “restore science” reflects a belief, shared by many prominent scientists, that the Bush administration frequently devalued or distorted scientific findings, especially when those findings conflicted with its political interests.

In other instances, Bush revealed an antipathy towards scientific values by supporting decidedly non-scientific theories like “intelligent design.” While supporters of “intelligent design” describe it as a valid alternative theory to evolution, they can’t seem to grasp the fact that ID is really a form of what Richard Feynman called “Cargo Cult Science.”

When Feynman introduced the concept in a 1974 speech, he was arguing against bad scientific practices he’d observed in various studies in fields like education and psychology. In explaining what made them “bad,” he compared them to cargo cults:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he’s the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

So what’s that essential ingredient of good science?

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated…

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

It’s hard to imagine any politician of any stripe embracing THAT kind of integrity in their daily political doings. In many ways politics is a lot like sales: there are objectives to be achieved – not the least of which is gaining and maintaining power – and politicians are inherently geared towards “closing the sale.”

But if the Obama administration can at least revive a respect for science and its values, that would do more than help us confront problems in areas like medicine, energy and the environment. It could also be a start towards restoring democracy in America. As Overbye noted in his NY Times essay:

If we are not practicing good science, we probably aren’t practicing good democracy.

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Stephen Colbert has his own unique take on this matter.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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