Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Science is Not Democracy

Timothy Ferris, a noted science writer I have never liked very much, has come out with a book called The Science of Liberty arguing that science is the font of democracy. I haven't read the book, just some reviews, but I have seen this argument often enough before that I already know what I think of it. It's wrong.

Now it is true in a general sense that scientific thinking was part of the progressive mindset during the period from 1550 to 1850 or so, when the old, aristocratic politics of Europe was overthrown. It is easy to list democratic political leaders and thinkers who were interested in science, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Ferris has dug up a delightful story I did not know,
in which George Washington and Thomas Paine floated together one night down a New Jersey creek, lighting cartridge paper at the water’s surface to determine whose theory was correct about the source of swamp gas.
I also think that the spread of world-transforming technology in the 19th century made the benefits of free thought clear to many Europeans and Americans, and I am even willing to concede that the experimenter's attitude of contempt toward authority is in some sense democratic.

But this is stuff that everybody concedes and that nobody has to write books to argue for. Ferris' stronger argument, that science was the driver of democratic thought in the early modern period, and that the experimental attitude is what sustains democracy now, is foolish. For every 17th- or 18th-century scientist who supported liberty, I can produce another equally famous scientist who comfortably served some absolutist prince -- Lavoisier, perhaps the 18th century's greatest scientist, was executed by the French revolutionaries. This argument also overlooks the crucial part that religious reform played in undermining royal absolutism; the people who fought and died to overthrow 17th-century kings were mostly religious fanatics, not humanists. I also question the direction of the causality here, that is, I think some people were interested in science because they wanted to oppose the intellectual supports of the old order, not the other way around. Ferris cites John Locke as an example of a political reformer/scientist. But Locke's ideas about the human mind, the famous "blank slate," were not based on any experimental data. They were shaped in opposition to the hereditary bias of medieval thought and the belief in original sin. As a scientist, Locke failed miserably, but his ideas did lend intellectual support to the assault on aristocratic privilege.

There is also one crucial sense in which science is not democratic: scientists believe in the truth. Once the truth is known, opposition to it becomes, not just wrong, but non-scientific. If you try to oppose the atomic theory, for example, scientists will simply laugh at you. You can see this playing out now in the global warming debate. Many scientists have decided that their models predicting catastrophe are true, so anyone opposing them is outright evil. They have no interest in putting their theories to a vote, or even in trying very hard to convince ordinary people that they are right. Something much more serious happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when many scientists were captured by the scientific pretensions of communism. The communist ideology, that the scientific truth about economics and sociology had been discovered and that it now depended on an elite cadre to put this discovery into action, was perfectly designed to appeal to scientists.

But the most important problem with imagining science as the basis for democracy is that science assigns no value to anything. What scientific postulate, what experiment, tells us that we should value the lives of other humans more than the lives of flat worms? Western democracy has been to a large extent built on a foundation of belief in "human rights;" what scientific evidence is there that we have such rights? As Gary Rosen put it,
Ferris’s refrain of “experiment” is a well-chosen trope. Few other words in the vocabulary of Western progress can match its prestige and practical appeal. To rely on experiment is to doubt authority, to cultivate self-awareness, to seek the reality behind natural appearances and received opinion. The experimental frame of mind encompasses the scientist in her lab, the inventor in his workshop and even (with some literary license) the reflective bohemian, the calculating entrepreneur and the shrewd democratic leader. But does it yield the “laws of nature” from which Locke and Jefferson drew the idea of universal human rights? Does it explain our reluctance today to compromise those rights in the name of expediency or results? Jeremy Bentham dismissed the idea of natural rights as “nonsense upon stilts,” because it stood in the way of a proper utilitarian calculus of human welfare. Arguably, one can find his heirs today atop the Chinese state, conducting technocratic experiments of their own and deploying the tools of modern science to preserve a “harmonious society.” For the politics of liberty, mere empiricism is not enough.
A scientific spirit is necessary to make society flourish, but to build a just and free world we need much more. We need, especially, compassion, for without compassion the pursuit of scientific excellence can easily become a workshop of horrors.


David said...

Amen. I'd add that it seems to me the scientific revolution represents the triumph of genius over common sense, and thus is in its way profoundly anti-democratic. One has to be damned clever and unusual to figure out that when the sun rises in east, well . . . that's not really what's happening. Ditto for such gems as the fact that solid bodies are mostly empty space and that light is a wave or a particle (forget the fact that light is a wave and a particle at the same time . . . even more basic is the assertion that light is NOT what anyone who's ever used a flashlight KNOWS it to be: a ray!).

Of course, you know I'd have to add as well that ideas such as natural law and natural rights, due process at law, and the right of resistance to authority when it violates those things are all in fact PRODUCTS of "the old, aristocratic politics of Europe."

John said...

Yes, whenever somebody says he will get his gun instead of obeying a tyrannical government, he is acting the part of an outraged aristocrat, or a privileged townsman whose charter has been violated.