Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More on Democracy and Science

Dennis Overbye, in a very well-written essay, argues that a healthy scientific enterprise is the mark of a healthy democracy. He uses as his counterexamples Communist China and the Soviet Union, but he opens by invoking the past 8 years and the elation we all feel at the restoration of science to its proper place of honor in this country.

Overbye sees science itself as an essentially democratic and democratizing exercise, and I agree that in the long run it has proved to be so. Nevertheless I have long argued here that science as actually practiced is much less democratic than it ought to be, and that many people -- probably most Americans, in fact -- see it as exclusionary and even oppressive. Rank and file creationists don't cling to their beliefs because they are an inferior breed, but they feel scorned by an establishment they perceive as arrogant and hostile to their values. In other words many on the scientific side of the divide do look down on them, or at least on the leaders and champions they respect.

For the cause of science to triumph, we must continually struggle to bring more people inside, and we don't invest enough in doing that. The academy is insular and obssessed with hierarchies of rank and title, degrees, institutions, journals, and awards. People won't be convinced by scientists who insist on speaking a private language of exclusion, strutting about in their glorious professorships, and not letting your kids into their university. Writing for popular consumption and speaking to a mass audience actually earns you demerits at Harvard and has even done some famous professors out of a job. Paul Starr and Cornell West come to mind.

I pledge to work to build a research institute without walls. It doesn't make any sense to study physician-patient communication entirely from the physician's side. We're going to bring in patients as full partners in this enterprise, not as research subjects but as participants who contribute equally to the scientific product. It may seem less than obvious how to go about that in biology, or physics, or cosmology, but I believe it can be done. Of course hard won expertise and exceptional talent are essential to good science, but arcane knowledge and membership in exclusive societies do not contribute to making the right choices about what questions to ask and what sense to make of the answers. Those are the rightful domain of everyone.


C. Corax said...

At the institution of higher ed where I work, there's a HUGE push for "outreach" to teach the public why the things that are studied on campus are relevant to those of campus. It's not altruism, but the hope that if we show the public that we are of value to them, then they will be more supportive when the state is wrangling over budget.

Huh. Lot of good it's doing us in this economy! But there are lots of neat programs going on to bring science to school children, etc. Hopefully it will only get better and better.

Your area of research is so fascinating, I always look forward to your posts on the topic.

Anonymous said...

Yeah! Science and technology seem to be furthering the cause of democracy. It has reduced the ability of regimes to control information
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