Crucial distinctions

Gary Rosen, the chief external affairs officer of the Templeton Foundation, reviews Timothy Ferris’s The Science of Liberty in The New York Times.

Nor is it clear, as Ferris would have it, that science furnishes the ideal template for liberal democracy. Science, he notes, is antiauthoritarian, self-correcting, meritocratic and collaborative…But crucial distinctions are lost in these comparisons. The scientific community may be open to everyone, in principle, but it has steep and familiar barriers to entry…[M]odern science is, in the most admirable sense, an aristocracy — a selection and sorting of the best minds as they interact within institutions designed to achieve certain rarefied ends. Experiment, equality and freedom of expression are essential to this work, but it is the work of an elite community from which most people are necessarily excluded.

But crucial distinctions are lost in Rosen’s claim, too. Very crucial. ‘Most people’ are not excluded in the most pernicious sense of the word – formally, permanently, without appeal, because of who they are rather than what they know or what they can do. Nobody is excluded in that sense, and that distinction is as crucial as it gets. People are ‘excluded’ by for instance not wanting to do the hard work it takes to be a scientist, but that’s a very provisional kind of exclusion. Steep barriers to entry are very different from absolute barriers to entry. There are more or less steep barriers to entry to all forms of work, but it remains possible to try, or to dream about trying. That’s a different thing from knowing that you will never be allowed to do a particular kind of work no matter how much education you get and no matter how good you are. This matters enormously, and there’s something faintly sinister about exaggerating the amount and kind of ‘exclusion’ that science entails.

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