May. 11, 2012

Has Science Outgrown Democracy?

by Shawn Lawrence Otto

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"Whenever the people are well-informed," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "they can be trusted with their own government." 
If you are in Washington D.C., you can step inside Jefferson's library -- it has been recreated at the Library of Congress.  It's a roughly round room that contains books outlining virtually the entirety of what was know in Jefferson's day.  It was his version of the Internet.

But today it's no longer possible for one person -- even a scientist and someone as well-read as Jefferson -- to know all that there is to know.  And for the rest of us who lead busy lives outside the spheres of science and policy, it's virtually impossible to keep up with the pace of science, much less to actually read scientific papers and understand what scientists are basing their conclusions on.  Science is increasingly becoming a matter of belief.

So what happens to Jefferson's insight today, in a world dominated by complex science? Science influences every aspect of life, yet very few people have a good understanding of most science.  Is the ever-increasing burden of education that science places on the people making it hard for democracy to continue to function as a viable form of government?  And if it is, what's the alternative?

Using science, we've vastly multiplied our power over nature.  Science has given us control over the reproductive cycle, it has doubled our average lifespan and it has multiplied the productivity of our farms by some 35 times -- all in the last 140 years. 
It has also enabled a population explosion.  We have created a system that cannot support our population without posing serious challenges to our environment.  That's the way it is with power: it carries with it responsibility. 
Using science, we are just now coming to understand complex systems and how to manage our power in more sustainable, responsible ways. But with a democratic form of government that relies on the votes of the people, we've been increasingly unable or unwilling to enact regulations that help us act responsibly in our use of power.  We have created a global economy with no global regulatory system and placed our corporations in a feudal chase after the cheapest labor, the least-restrictive environmental regulations, and the easiest methods of exploiting natural resources.

And those are just the problems left over from the last century of science. In the next 40 years, we are poised to create as much new knowledge as we have acquired in the last 400.  Imagine the policy challenges that new knowledge will create as we master genomics, neuroscience, and nanotechnology --  just to name a few emerging fields that have huge public policy implications.

So what's the answer?  Has science outgrown democracy?  Should candidates for public office be required to have degrees in science?  Should we require everyone to have more science education?  Even when they do have an adequate foundation of science knowledge, why do so few people seem to understand how important science is?  Should we have science-civics classes?  Or do scientists simply need to be more communicative?

Of course these are questions I delve into in my new book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.  But they are also questions that I and others are seeking to address by creating a new form of political debate -- a presidential science debate -- to tackle the big unresolved questions that increasingly revolve around science. We want to address these questions in a way that adults are used to taking in complex information -- within the context of our national public policy dialogue. 
A presidential science debate isn't some wonky quiz about the third digit of Pi; it's an exploration of our greatest aspirations as a country, and a chance to reorient our discussion on not just the next election, but also the next generation.
About Shawn Lawrence Otto

Shawn Lawrence Otto is CEO and Co-Founder, and author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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