Why science holds the key to the future of our democracy (ken grotewiel)

    The two go together like peas in a pod.


    It seems that we have very little in common these days. Politics is at the forefront of accusations made about things on which we disagree. It can be politics in general, or more specifically on issues like guns, abortion, masks, and income inequality. Maybe science is something we could all agree on?

    Remember that pretty much everything around us depends on science and scientists. As humans, we try to shape the world to our liking, using science as the basis for building basically things for efficiency (try airplanes) and comfort (air conditioning for hot summers). And don’t forget the trucks and cars that allow us to do what we love or must do. And for these things I am eternally grateful. That’s why I admire science and scientists a great deal.

    Science is not a fixed body of knowledge

    Some people have been down on science lately as we faced the challenges of the pandemic. I understand that many thought the scientists were up to something because their suggestions on how to combat the pandemic were always changing. These new announcements began to annoy me a little too when I realized I had a closet full of hand sanitizer after the scientists learned that Covid was transmitted mostly through the air, not by passing it on with our hands.

    That’s how science works. Small steps forward with the benefits accruing slowly. The science regarding the pandemic is a very visible, and contentious, example of science at work. It’s never simple and it’s never without controversy. Science is not a fixed body of knowledge and so there will always be fits and starts in whatever endeavor taken on by scientists for our benefit and paid for by universities and government. Spoiler alert, there will never be a ‘ Final Answer’.

    Media reports on science usually over-promise and under-deliver

    One thing that frustrates me when it comes to science is the reporting by all media about scientific ‘breakthroughs. Most of them are far from conclusive, and hopefully will become part of the puzzle that helps researchers take a few baby steps forward in the future. These reports do a real disservice to science by over promising and raising false hopes.

    I take any science pronouncements in the mainstream media with a grain of salt. Over time, though, as there does seem to be some agreement on something, I might act on it especially when it comes to my own health. It’s comforting to me that there’s always some progress being made.

    Every President calls for an end to cancer starting with President Nixon in the early 1970s. Fifty years later there is no ‘cure’, but there have been innumerable steps leading to cancer treatment improvements. It seems treatments are better targeted to specific cancers with fewer nasty side effects. There are also treatments that build up a person’s immunity to cancer, helping them to fight off a recurrence of cancer as time goes on. This is just one example of how science advances, ever so slowly, even though finding a total and complete solution soon in probably unlikely. Despite that, are we still better off? I say yes.

    Transparency of Science is one of its strong points

    One thing that impresses me about scientists is that they publish all their work publicly, often in journals, where other scientists review it and weigh in on their views of the research itself. Better yet, scientists regularly duplicate an experiment to validate its results — or not. And scientists seem to thrive on mixing it up with other scientists on the results in the scientific arena. It’s often an all-out academic food fight. And it’s all done openly, for all individuals and interest groups to way in publicly. Disagreements are hashed out in the open in a very transparent way. I know of no other profession which has this level of peer-to-peer scrutiny.

    This is certainly not true about what happens behind the closed doors of a corporation, or behind the doors of a hedge fund company. This transparency is an extremely good reason why we should begin to trust science. This is not a reason, though, to lap up every scientific fact that comes to us from our favorite cable TV station or smartphone.

    We need to take take the responsibility to think about the results of studies and then form own opinion. Even better, and I do this infrequently, is to look at the study itself. If nothing else, it a good trick to simply look at how many people were part of an experiment or survey and how long participants were followed.

    We don’t have to be a victim of the news. We simply need to look ever so slightly behind the headlines and see what we can discover for ourselves.

    The Connection between science and democracy

    Democracy does need a great deal of diversity for it to flourish. At the same time, we need something in common for democracy to flourish. Not religion. Not language. So, how about science?

    If we could just agree on the value of discussing the facts as presented by scientists, it would be a big step forward to having more in common. Remember. It’s not about the facts. It’s about being comfortable enough to discuss them with anyone.

    It obviously does not mean that we will suddenly agree with each other on everything. It does mean that we could take baby steps, just like the scientists, in creating a better understanding of ourselves. It would be simply a giant step for democracy. It’s worth trying.

    Ken Grotewiel writes for the publication Our Sacred Democracy on Medium and is a Founding Member of the None of the Above Society.

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