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26.8.03

Science As Democratizer

Does the pursuit of pure science make sense in a world of scarcity and strife? With so much poverty on the planet, why spend vast sums of money on, say, the James Webb Space Telescope, due to replace the Hubble at the end of the decade and observe the first stars and galaxies in the universe; or the Terrestrial Planet Finder, whose mission is to detect other habitable worlds—discoveries that, however astounding, can bring no tangible benefits here on this barely habitable world called Earth?

... That science, even "pure" science, can strengthen democracy and promote public participation in the political process, both in the United States and throughout the world, is hardly ever mentioned. It should be. Scientific literacy energizes democracy, I suggest, and this is an important ancillary benefit of the promotion of science.

... A key to changing the way people think is "critical thinking," the ability to draw logical conclusions, or (more often, in the messy world of social issues) the reverse—to discern gaps in logic, to detect broken conceptual links in the causative chain of, say, campaign promises. Science amplifies our power of discernment; the scientific way of thinking enables us to assess whether facts fit theories, or, in the political arena, whether actual circumstances support proffered positions. Critical thinking is the essence of the scientific method. Knowing the difference between assumption and deduction, and between presumption and proof, can alter one's outlook and transform an electorate. The cognitive skill to distinguish among hope, faith, possibility, probability and certitude are potent weapons in anyone's political survival kit and can be applied in all areas of life and society.

-- via Arts & Letters Daily


Kuhn (the author) makes a decent case, but it's not the case his opening suggests. The democracy-bolstering effects of science as he describes them are not unique to pure, as opposed to applied, science. In fact, I think the opposite case could be made -- that applied science is more beneficial to democracy than pure science. Participating in a democracy is essentially an exercise in applied science (and applied moral philosophy, an element that Kuhn seems to dismiss as mere opinion). A voter is, implicitly or explicitly, registering a decision about such matters as whether a tax cut will stimulate the economy or whether the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain is safe, applying his or her judgement about economics or geology in a great social experiment. This goes even more so for those who participate more fully (writing letters to the editor, campaigning for causes, filing lawsuits, etc.).

To the extent that pure science is beneficial to democracy, it ceases to be pure science -- "it improves democratic critical-thinking skills" is an application. Kuhn does seem to recognize this, saying he would "prefer to argue that pure science needs no extrinsic justification -- that to seek knowledge for its own sake is among the grandest of species-affirming human endeavors." My response (in the absence of a more thorough explication of this idea) is to wonder whether pursuing knowledge that can also improve the human condition is not more species-affirming -- indeed, we owe nearly everything we've accomplished as a species to knowledge that helps us operate more successfully within the world. The subtext of Kuhn's praise of pure science seems to be that the knowledge generated by applied science either is somehow less grand (taken as knowledge for its own sake without reference to its use), or is somehow sullied by its contact with the real world. Neither of those seem to be appealing judgements.

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