Thursday, September 15, 2005

Democratizing science.

It's nice to know I'm not the only one who gets all exercised about some of the issues I talk about here. To wit: T.W. McKinney's comment on this post in which PZ Myers calls for knowledge to the people. McKinney points out that democratizing science might not be such a red-hot idea, depending on just what you have in mind when you say "democratizing":

I think this blog's ideological opponents might think the same of themselves, i.e. that they're "democratizing the process of scientific research." In a very broad sense, they're correct, too-- opening scientific methods to scrutiny by the court of public opinion is one way of "democratizing" science. They also take aim at the community of scientific experts-- who, it must be said, have (and commonsensically) wielded a lot of influence over public policy in various areas, etc. I believe that second aim of "democratization" renders the anti-science conservatives appealing to a lot of average people. If experts are appealed to in legal and political matters, their views (which, in most cases, resemble our best guess at the truth) appear to 'count more' than the average Joe's. So I, somewhat hesitatingly, might suggest that the anti-science folks are also aiming for democratization-- they are, as it were, populists challenging the hallowed ground of academia, and all of those scientists who think they're the one-and-only arbiters of 'the facts.' I'm not sympathetic to the leaders of this movement-- because they're attempting to destroy one of the most successful edifices of western civilization (probably *the* most, if I weren't so cautious in my phrasing)-- but I'm also aware that appeals to expert opinion in certain matters can leave people feeling like their views haven't been counted (or don't matter). Hence, the backlash.

It's good for people to have a say in what happens. It's even better if their say is backed up by reasons and, when possible, by evidence. Thus, we can not only hear what everyone has to say, but also try to find a sensible way to evaluate what has been said and figure out where to go from there.

This is how things are supposed to go in science's public square, too. But the crowd in science's public square has been trained to pay attentions to issues like relevance and credibility when someone makes a contribution. The rules of engagement are rather better defined here (if you saw it in your lab, you have to explain how we can see it in other labs, else we ain't buying) than they are in the broader public square where debates over politics and the fall TV line-up take place. Face it, I can insist that it just isn't relevant that Candidate X would be a good guy to have a beer with, but my insistence doesn't rule it out of the debate.

But, as McKinney notes, appealing to certain scientific standards to disqualify contributions to a scientific debate often looks to non-scientists like a power-play designed to maintain control of "expert" status and tell everyone else what to do. And, he notes (as I have in the past) that crappy science instruction may be a culprit here, leaving the public at large unable to distinguish legitimate moves within scientific discourse from unwarranted silencing of legitimate voices in the debate.

So again, let's fix science education.

But there's another relevant difference between the scientific public square and the broader public square: the goal that brings the scientific community together and brings their voices to the square is the shared goal of achieving a better understanding of how various bits of the world work. People coming to the broader public square nowadays don't seem to have a common goal that would, in its being attained, make everyone in the community better off. Rather, there's a struggle for goods -- for my guy to win so I get the stuff I want (which means your guy won't take my goodies and give them to you). Sad to say, it seems a situation designed to bring out the worst in people rather than, say, reasoned debate.

So maybe it's not that science needs more democracy (although I applaud Pharyngula and sites like it for bringing science to the people). Maybe what we really need is for the general public to engage each other more like scientists do.

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At 5:23 AM, Blogger Anna said...

I think that "democratizing" can mean more opportunities for young unknown scientists, for fresh ideas. Clenbuterol


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