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Science as Democratizer

Robert Kuhn

The Spirit of Science

A fully democratic political system gives all its citizens the right to choose their leaders and representatives; the reciprocal responsibility, implicit in the social contract, is that citizens exercise their franchise with dedication and discernment. Democracy works successfully only when participants are informed and able to make independent judgments. The degree to which they can be swayed by demagogues, influenced by parochial interests, incited by jingoism, or inflamed by ethnic or religious chauvinism is the degree to which democracy does not work.

Challenging current beliefs in various fields of science with a noncynical skepticism creates a healthy mindset for a democratic and tolerant society. On Closer to Truth, we attempt to empower the public to participate in debates about current research on the frontiers of science and its philosophical and social implications. When opposing positions are presented on, say, the nature of consciousness, we encourage all sides—and there are more than two sides to this and other fractious issues—to present supporting data or to admit where they are blurring the boundaries between personal opinion and accepted proof.

The scientific spirit is common to all peoples; it crosses cultures and bonds diverse elements of society, communicating an appreciation of the beauty as well as the benefits of new discoveries, the breathtaking complexity of our vast universe. Science opens the mind. Such are the intangible benefits of the Webb and Hubble telescopes and their like.

About those costly telescopes: I believe basic and applied science and science education are all needed to nourish critical thinking. Science, to be science, cannot stagnate. If scientific education enforces the scientific way of thinking, scientific discovery energizes it, so that both education and discovery nourish and sustain our democracy. And science needs democracy as much as democracy needs science. Vigorous scientific research reflects democratic principles in action, and free and open scientific inquiry cannot take place without the protective support of a robust democracy.

This is not a time to be timorous. With the state of the world as it is, critical decisions must often be based on incomplete data, and it seems to me that the science-democracy link is strong enough to merit action. Taken seriously, support of scientific literacy and research in the developing world could become America's most efficient use of foreign aid. By increasing the scientific spirit in the world, we would be catalyzing a converging way of thinking.

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