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LETTERS TO THE EDITORS

Political Science

To the Editors:

Democracy dates back to the ancient Greeks—preceding the 15th-century origins of science by a wide margin. Galileo lived in a church-dominated European monarchy, as did other early European scientists, including Newton. These examples show that the development of science and the adoption of democracy don't go hand-in-hand as Robert Kuhn suggests in his essay, "Science as Democratizer" (Macroscope, September–October). Nevertheless, if one wants to think of causation, then the democratic way of life has probably caused (some of) the acceleration of science, not the other way around.

Larry W. Colter
Dept. of Philosophy and Religion
University of Evansville
Evansville, Indiana

To the Editors:

After reading about the actions of scientists in the Third Reich, I have to disagree with Robert Kuhn's assertion that science promotes democracy. Certainly the flourishing science of pre-Hitler Germany was not a precursor to democracy. Under Hitler's fascism, about 20 percent of scientists favored not only his dictatorship but also the extermination of the Jews, while 70 percent supported his regime and failed to oppose the Holocaust. Less than 10 percent voiced objections to the destruction of Jews, although some of this minority did attempt to protect their Jewish colleagues. Yet the vast majority of non-Jewish scientists chose to remain during the rise of Nazism, with many profiting by assuming the positions of their fleeing or murdered Jewish colleagues. The example of the 20th century indicates that most scientists follow the government—whether democratic or autocratic, benign or murderous.

Nelson Marans
Silver Spring, Maryland

To the Editors:

There's no doubt that science, when it was "natural philosophy" 200 years ago, provided reason and evidence helpful to democracy. But Dr. Kuhn is too sanguine in hoping that science education will continue to do the trick. Many of the perpetrators of the 9/11 outrages had scientific educations. Bin Laden himself was an engineer. The al-Qaeda fanatics, like all adherents of dogma, rationalize every finding that contradicts their position. The human desire for certainty conspires against science, whose purpose is to question—and tell us how things really are.

Graeme Matheson
Vancouver, BC

To the Editors:

"Science as Democratizer" outlined the varied effects that science can have on cultural and political systems. However, little mention was made of the influence on science of that same social and political context. If such a reciprocal analysis had been made, a few examples would quickly suggest a "chicken and egg" dilemma. For example, Freud's theories of mind and the insights of modem physics both flowered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Was this just a coincidence? Or were they both products of a European intellectual tradition that had been ripening for two centuries? History has shown that science and society can influence each other, for good or bad.

Alan Hall
Framingham, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

Robert Kuhn speculates that a scatter diagram that plotted degree of political democracy vs. level of scientific literacy for all 192 countries of the world would show a strong correlation between these variables. Almost ten years ago, I created such a diagram for 60 countries showing just such a correlation ("Telecommunications in 1984—What Orwell Overlooked," IEEE Communications Magazine, February 1984). As a telecommunications engineer, I was pushing the democratizing role of a specific technology, not wider scientific literacy, as Dr. Kuhn argues. If one accepts that a society strong in telecom technology will be strong in scientific literacy, then my correlation study is roughly equivalent to what Dr. Kuhn proposes.

Paul Green
Mount Kisko, New York

Robert Kuhn responds:

I do not suggest that there is a hardwired, lock-step causation between science and democracy, certainly not in the past and not necessarily in the future. While I agree with Dr. Colter that science arose in spite of, not because of, its social settings, I doubt that the past can predict the future impact of "science as democratizer." In previous centuries, scientific knowledge was confined to an extremely small sliver of even "advanced" societies, a group that existed outside political power structures. I argue that science can now create a completely new world that has never before existed, catalyzed by telecommunication advances that make scientific thinking more pervasive.

Can scientists be bad people, as Nelson Marans states? Obviously. Can the scientific method overpower rabid nationalism and destructive religious fervor? Sadly not. All science can do is shift the behavioral distribution curve toward tolerance. On average, a person who values scientific thinking is just a little more likely to respect the ideas of others, even though there are flagrant exceptions to the rule, as Graeme Matheson points out. That respect is the essence of democracy.

The synchronous birth of new ideas, referred to by Alan Hall, reflects the underlying power of a common "way of thinking." I suggest that the way of thinking that prompts science also fuels democracy. Whereas in the past, fresh cognitive frameworks were the province of the elite, in today’s world there is increasing awareness of the scientific method. As such, looking forward is wholly unlike looking backward and science can be the carrier on which this vitalizing way of thinking rides along to virtually everyone on earth. It is a process I hope to illustrate, after the fashion of Paul Green, with objective measures for an up-to-date science-democracy scatter diagram.


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