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Science as Democratizer

Robert Kuhn

The Momentum of Science

There are counterexamples to the science-democracy conjecture. It fails to explain the accomplishments of Nazi and Soviet science, which flourished in societies that were among the least democratic. Scientific discovery can be driven by psychological factors, such as creativity under coercion, self-protective and ego, and collective sociology, such as mass hysteria and national chauvinism. I would offer that the sprouting of a democracy-championing individual such as Andrei Sakharov, the highly decorated father of Soviet thermonuclear weapons, is likely in a science-rich totalitarian society and virtually inevitable in an age when access to the Internet is essential for doing good science.

This is the dilemma faced by the leaders of China, who are motivated mightily by pride in China's development. They have before them two roads for national advancement: Open access to the Internet and accelerate indigenous science, while allowing potentially destabilizing elements to enter society; or restrict access to maximize stability (needed, they believe, for uninterrupted development), thereby handicapping Chinese science in an unforgiving, hypercompetitive, global market that is fueled by new knowledge and is exquisitely sensitive to time.

Some might argue that imposing "science" as the highest standard of human thinking undervalues other areas of thought and artificially "privileges" one form of "knowing" over others. Science can in fact be differentiated from other forms of discernment, because its primary power to influence sociopolitical development is more content-neutral, a "way of thinking" rather than a collection of fields and facts. Admitting where intuition outruns analysis—not easily done—should be the hallmark of rational assessment of political trade-offs, historical controversies, moral codes, the reality of religion, the meaning of art and the like.

The primary point is that a proper understanding of the scientific way of thinking compels one to recognize where alleged proofs break down or are downright impossible to construct. This does not a priori obviate awareness or appreciation of a different kind of knowledge or "truth," but comprehending the distinction between proof and opinion should tend to make people more tolerant of the differing opinions of others. Certainly, humanistic understanding is complementary to the scientific for effecting political change, but primarily because it too engenders respect for the pluralism engendered by critical thinking. When citizens can distinguish among proof, likelihood, opinion and hope—and get into the habit of so doing—democracy cannot long be kept from them. Of course, a democracy in full flower cherishes and protects political, intellectual and religious freedoms, artistic expression and literary inquiry.

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