When speaking about science to scientists, there is one thing that can be said that will almost always raise their indignation, and that is that science is inherently political and that the practice of science is a political act. Science, they will respond, has nothing to do with politics. But is that true?
Let's consider the relationship between knowledge and power. "Knowledge and power go hand in hand," said Francis Bacon, "so that the way to increase in power is to increase in knowledge."
At its core, science is a reliable method for creating knowledge, and thus power. Because science pushes the boundaries of knowledge, it pushes us to constantly refine our ethics and morality, and that is always political. But beyond that, science constantly disrupts hierarchical power structures and vested interests in a long drive to give knowledge, and thus power, to the individual, and that process is also political.
The politics of science is nothing new. Galileo, for example, committed a political act in 1610 when he simply wrote about his observations through a telescope. Jupiter had moons and Venus had phases, he wrote, which proved that Copernicus had been right in 1543: Earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around, as contemporary opinion—and the Roman Catholic Church—held. These were simple observations, there for anyone who wanted to look through Galileo's telescope to see.
But the simple statement of an observable fact is a political act that either supports or challenges the current power structure. Every time a scientist makes a factual assertion—Earth goes around the sun, there is such a thing as evolution, humans are causing climate change—it either supports or challenges somebody's vested interests.
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Why did the church go to such absurd lengths to deal with Galileo? For the same reasons we fight political battles over issues like climate change today: Because facts and observations are inherently powerful, and that power means they are political.
Failing to acknowledge this leaves both science and America vulnerable to attack by antiscience thinking—thinking that has come to dominate American politics and much of its news media coverage and educational curricula in the early twenty-first century. Thinking that has steered American politics off course and away from the vision held by the country's founders.
Wishing to sidestep the painful moral and ethical parsing that their discoveries sometimes compel, many scientists today see their role to be the creation of knowledge and believe they should leave the moral, ethical, and political implications to others to sort out. But the practice of science itself cannot possibly be apolitical, because it takes nothing on faith. The very essence of the scientific process is to question long-held assumptions about the nature of the universe, to dream up experiments that test those questions, and, based on the observations, to incrementally build knowledge that is independent of our beliefs and assumptions. A scientifically testable claim is utterly transparent and can be shown to be either most probably true or false, whether the claim is made by a king or a president, a pope, a congressperson, or a common citizen. Because of this, science is inherently antiauthoritarian, and a great equalizer of political power.
Because this is the case, it's reasonable to ask how science fits into political thought. Science writer Timothy Ferris reminds us that in politics there are not just two forces, the progressive left (encouraging change) and the conservative right (seeking constancy). In fact, there are four. Imagined on a vertical axis, there are also the authoritarian (totalitarian, closed, and controlling, at the bottom of the axis) and the antiauthoritarian (liberal, open, and freedom loving, at the top), which one can argue have actually played much more fundamental roles in human history. Politics, then, can be more accurately thought of as a box with four quadrants rather than as a linear continuum from left to right.
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The present-day Republican Party provides an example of how politics actually breaks down into these four quadrants, rather than in a simple left-right continuum. Its constituents range from antigovernment anarchists on the top to totalitarian fundamentalists on the bottom—but both groups are right wing. There is currently a power struggle going on between the antiauthoritarian Tea Party top wing and the authoritarian big-government "family values" bottom wing.
The George W. Bush administration did a masterful job of uniting these disparate ends of the vertical spectrum by first rebranding progressives as "liberals," thus silencing liberal conservatives, and then by using profreedom, antitotalitarian, small-government rhetoric on the one hand and antiscience, profundamentalist rhetoric on the other, directing half of the argument at each wing.
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This move was made possible by the reaction to 9/11, which drove the country toward fascism, a lower-right position. Bush was a very effective leader in that he moved a large portion of the public to follow his direction, but his presidency became the most illiberal and antidemocratic in American history, as well as, not surprisingly, the most antiscience. This was aided by two generations of scientists having gone silent in the national dialogue and the voices of authoritarians like conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and his self-described "dittoheads" holding sway.
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DEMOCRACY: AN ENDANGERED SPECIES?
The challenge to authority that science presents is one of many reasons why it has flourished in free, democratic societies. It is not a coincidence that the ongoing scientific revolution has been led in significant part by the United States and other free, democratic societies. But it is also partly why, since the late twentieth century, the political climate has increasingly hampered US policy makers in dealing with so many critical science policy issues, and why the United States may soon cede both its leadership in scientific research and development and the economic and social benefits that leadership provides.
Thomas Jefferson's fundamental notion that, when well informed, people can be trusted with their own government lies at the center of democracy. Without a well-informed voter, the very exercise of democracy becomes removed from the problems it is charged with solving. The more complex the world becomes, the more challenging it is for democracy to function, because it places an increased burden of education and information upon the people—and in the twenty-first century, that includes science education and science reporting. Without the mooring provided by the well-informed opinion of the people, governments may become paralyzed or, worse, corrupted by powerful interests seeking to oppress and enslave.
For this reason and others, Jefferson was a staunch advocate of free public education and freedom of the press, the primary purposes of which were to ensure an educated and well-informed people. In 1787 he wrote to James Madison:
[quote] And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government, or information to the people. This last is the most certain, and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty. [endquote]
But what do we do when the level of complexity actually does require a "very high degree of education"? Can democracy still function effectively?
Will American-style democracy, run by the people, be able to compete in the complex, science-driven global economy with nations like China, which is run by highly educated engineers and scientists who have moved into government leadership roles? It's a critically important question, both for America and for our ideas about liberty.
Excerpt reprinted from Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America by Shawn Lawrence Otto. Copyright (c) 2011 by Shawn Lawrence Otto. By permission of Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.