Science and democracy

If someone were to ask me on what the United States was founded, “science” would not be my first answer. Or even my second. But in chapter three, “Religion, Meet Science,” Otto argues that science is a core, founding principle of the US and democracy itself.

Religion and science are inherently intertwined: science is the “vehicle to religious understanding.” The Puritans, the first American settlers, believed both faith and the exploration of nature—God’s creation—grants access to the divine.  Through “observation and reason” of and about the natural world, God’s will is knowable.

But this idea was not unique to just our founding fathers. Otto traces this thinking back to the very birth of science in the Islamic Empire. Subsequently, within each community in which science advances, there is the same story arc: a clash between the church and scientists (or philosophers). When the church loses its status as the sole arbiter of knowledge, nature and its laws– as the creation of God– becomes the highest authority.

It was this power shift, from the church to nature, that gave rise to democracy. Science, as a system of observation and reason, is accessible to us all–one just needs the right tools.

My favorite summarizing tidbit was:

“If we can discover the truth by using reason and observation—i.e. by using science—then anyone can discover the truth, and therefore no one is naturally better able or more entitled to discover the truth than anyone else.” (p73)

This is the heart of democracy and an idea to which our founding fathers closely adhered to in the writing of our founding documents. There was an understanding that a nation founded on science is intellectually wealthy, economically wealthy, and innovative. Knowledge follows the thinkers, and thinkers tend to gravitate towards open, democratic and supportive societies.

But what happens when society is so divorced from the scientific process that they fail to recognize the value of curiosity-driven science? Or when society limits the types of questions science asks? This is at the heart of the perceived, but false, dichotomy between basic and applied science, or curiosity-driven science and problem-solving science.

Given the current debate over the value of basic science among those with the power to defund it, Otto lays particular emphasis to the import of basic science. Science for the sake of understanding is the foundation applied science is built upon. One is process. The other is form.

It’s impossible to read this section and not think about the oft-used economic argument for shifting funds away from basic science and towards applied science. Science is expensive. Very expensive. Scientists must justify every expense, and rightfully so. But a problem arises when funders do not understand the scope of basic science questions and therefore fail to recognize the value of research without a obvious problem to solve. The questions basic science asks are abstract and far-reaching. While the results of applied science are perhaps more tangible, the potential rewards from understanding how something works are vast and often unexpected. Increasingly, people do not see basic science as the foundation for the other and are therefore dangerously unaware of the potential damage limiting basic research could cause.

But, economics is not the only ax people wield against science. Otto also ties societies’ feelings about science to the social context in which it is done. By outlining several major scientific controversies, from the theory of relativity to vaccines to evolution to the big bang, we begin to see how powerful arrogance, self-interest, and fear are in motivating people. Reading this section put knots in my stomach as I saw parallels in what is happening in the United States today. Tribalism has taken hold and reason has no bearing on people’s opinions. It’s painful to think of what becomes of a world without reason.

However, Otto gives us hope at the end of chapter four with a beautiful example of how science can build bridges between ideas and people: When Pope Pius XII cited Edwin Hubble’s work in astronomy as proving the existence of God, science and religion were once again entwined. While the journey to this moment was tumultuous and long, I think it shows us that societies only move forward with science.


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