Saturday, September 8, 2018

Science and Democracy: Confusion

I read a pre-publication copy of a book about attacks on science and on democracy, to be published soon by a company that has published two of my books. Because I do not want to give bad publicity to this publisher, I will give no further identification of the book.

The book has no overall theme, because it is a collection of essays from different authors, each one writing whatever he or she wants. The essays contradict one another. That is fine, and is part of the appeal of a multi-author edited volume. One possible theme is that both science and democracy are being attacked by the same people and for the same reason: the so-called conservatives want to control the world, and they want to brush aside or destroy any criticism they may receive from scientists. Another possible theme is that science is essential to a functional democracy: citizens without access to reliable knowledge cannot make the right decisions for running their society. Along these lines, essays range from the extremely pedantic (e.g., John Dewey would not have approved of the modern attacks on science) to leftist pot-shots, with which I agree but I would prefer to make my own rather than to read someone else’s. I may throw potshots into this blog but I try to leave them out of my books.

I see two major problems with all of the essays in this volume. First, there is the assumption that science is essential to democracy. This is true. It was certainly what the Founding Fathers envisioned, especially the very scientifically literate Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The first presidents, all Enlightenment figures, governed with the spirit of scientific reason, even though they were sometimes wrong. But, starting with Andrew Jackson, everything got messed up and has remained messed up ever since. Andrew Jackson despised scientific knowledge, or any knowledge at all. Even when he was shown that the Cherokee tribe had adopted the advancements of civilization, he continued to call them savages and insist that their land be taken by white people. He simply would not look at the facts in front of him. That is exactly what Donald Trump does today. Trump has a painting of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. To discuss the importance of science to democracy is so Enlightenment and has been an irrelevant topic in American politics for almost two hundred years.

A more important problem is that all of the warring approaches to the relationship between science and democracy, whether positivism or Popperianism or Deweyanism or post-modernism or whatever, totally ignore the evolution of the human brain. As I point out in my new book Scientifically Thinking, the human brain did not evolve to reason. It evolved to rationalize in such a way as to promote the evolutionary success of the person with that brain. The human brain creates illusions that may or may not bear any resemblance to the real scientific world. That is, without science, the human brain is open to infection by any and every kind of delusion, whether from the right or from the left. Ideas live in human brains as organisms live in habitats, and the successful ideas are not necessarily the ones that are right but the ones that, for any reason or no reason, people like.

As I plowed through all the approaches to science and democracy in this book, I wondered, which approach is right? Probably none of them.

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