Democracy and its Tensions

I’ve been re-reading the chapter on democracy in Norman Levitt’s Prometheus Bedeviled. I’ve been pondering the tensions between democracy and science, public opinion and truth, elections and epistemology, for – well for years, really, but with renewed attention recently. The discussion of scientific literacy a few weeks ago, reviews of Fareed Zakaria’s new book on democracy, the naive surprise of so many of the good and great at the possibility (or likelihood) that democracy in Iraq might very well result in a fundamentalist theocracy, Julian’s latest Bad Moves on the democratic fallacy and majoritarianism, and more, have combined to show me or remind me that the subject is full of unnoticed pieties, assumptions, sentimentalities, untrue bromides, leaps of faith, and contradictions. Levitt’s chapter is a good place to find some open-eyed statements on the matter.

One point is that public opinion and the truth are two different things. Entirely. There is no law of nature, no provision by a kind and caring deity, that insures that their paths will ever cross. No mechanism ensures that sooner or later, eventually, in the end (whenever that is – there is no end, there is only now) public opinion will get it right. That’s how it is even in non-factual, non-scientific, fuzzy, opinion-based areas like morality and politics, and it’s certainly the case when it comes to facts and evidence and logic. No amount of public opinion can make it true that the sun travels around the earth. That’s blindingly obvious, of course, but people who want a ‘demotic science’ have to overlook or obfuscate it.

It is precisely because successful democracy needs a successful means of filtering evidence and theories that the political culture of democracy must acknowledge that science has created such a methodology, and that it is without counterpart in other areas of experience. To heap this kind of flattery on science is simply to recognize the role of logic and sound evidentiary principles in human affairs. This is what gives science its special social status as our chief instrument for dealing with a vast array of practical problems.

There are no short cuts. By all means, make science more democratic if that means more people being scientifically literate. But if it means demanding that scientists pay attention to public opinion no matter how ill-informed…that’s another matter.

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