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Science as Democratizer

Robert Kuhn

Critical Thinking and Democracy

How might science engender democracy? I'd like to suggest two mechanisms: first, by changing the way people think; second, by altering the interaction among those who make up the community. The more scientifically literate people become, the more they will expect, even demand to participate in the political process, and the more effective they will be at it. Such social evolution may be slow, nonlinear and chaotic, and periodically may even reverse course, but it is probably also inexorable, as the recent history of the former Soviet Union and other Communist countries in Europe shows.

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.

A key to altering the interaction among the members of the community is to see science as a potential unifier. I am moderator of a Public Broadcasting Service series called Closer to Truth: Science, Meaning and the Future, on which scientists debate fundamental issues. Those of us involved with the series have been surprised by the diversity of our viewership. E-mail audience feedback cuts across educational levels, gender, age, race, class and creed—the only common denominator being a keen interest in topics such as consciousness, cosmology and scientific creativity. This evidence suggests a vision of a diverse society in which many value a scientific way of thinking. Such a society has the capacity to respect pluralistic political positions—the essence of democracy—since members can understand that no position, not even their own, can be "proved" to be the correct one with anywhere near absolute certainty. In fact, given the gaps, even chasms, in contemporary political views (within countries as well as between them) the common language of science seems the only force able to provide common ground.

Figure 1. Former Chinese presidentClick to Enlarge Image

Consider China, conflicted by the tension between promoting science and restraining Western-style democracy. Even given the nation's remarkable development since the advent of reform 25 years ago, education is still limited, and therefore, Chinese leaders believe, so must be competitive elections. China's governing elite, which at the top consists almost entirely of science-trained engineers, do not want uneducated, scientifically naive peasants determining national policies, including the allocation of resources. (One senior advisor asked, rhetorically, Would illiterate farmers vote for the information superhighway?) Measures that would be unquestionably beneficial to China in the long run might not be especially popular in the short run. It is commonly held in China that democracy, a stated goal, can develop only to the extent that education, primarily scientific education, increases. "Revitalizing China through science and education" is a favorite slogan of former President Jiang Zemin, who was equally adamant in promoting science and opposing Western-style democracy, and his policy is being pursued by his successors. It will be fascinating to see whether and how democracy grows with scientific literacy.

In Muslim countries, which for centuries led the world in science, there is an incipient movement to encourage science as consistent with Islam. One devout scientist, a leader in the "Islam and science" movement, believes that teaching science in the religious schools (madrassas) is essential for instituting change.

Admittedly, so far I have only anecdotal observation in support of my thesis that scientific literacy is a natural precursor to political democracy. But it is testable. I envision a simple scatter diagram in which a country's level of scientific literacy (on the x-axis) is plotted against its degree of political democracy.

My guess is that the clustering of the data for the 192-odd countries of the world would be bimodal, with one grouping coherent and the other dispersed. Bunched in the upper right would be the known group of countries combining high science literacy and robust democracy. I expect that the other, dispersed grouping would be spread widely over the entire left and middle regions of the graph, since a larger number of countries have varying degrees of low- to mid-level science and low- to mid-level democracy, with weak correlations between them.

A better test of the thesis, though still unlikely to resolve the correlation-causation conundrum, would probably be longitudinal, tracking the changes of each data point over time as countries migrate in their science and in their governance.

If we followed countries over decades, as they made the (often protracted) journey from lower left to upper right on the graph, from low science—low democracy to high science—high democracy, we would ask: What are the paths of progress? I'd predict that there would be many routes. Some would appear linear, with proportional growth in science and democracy; others geometrical or sigmoidal, as affected by the forces of history: social turmoil, cultural subtleties and external forces.

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