Democracy has a problem with science

As populist leaders stoke rage and rejection of elitism, they also throw out objectivity and the value of expertise

Published April 28, 2019 10:00AM (EDT)


This essay is adapted from "Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy: Defending Reason in a Free Society," by Michael J. Thompson and Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker, published by Prometheus Books.

In August 2018, the recently elected populist government in Italy passed an amendment that startled scientifically-minded citizens in the country. The amendment suspended the law that requires parents to show proof of vaccinations for their children entering school, claiming that, in the words of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, they “are useless and in many cases dangerous, if not harmful.” More recently, the anti-vaccine movement has penetrated even deeper into the United States, with an outbreak of measles spreading in several highly populated centers in the country. Add to this the stubborn persistence of climate-change denial, and even new beliefs about the earth being flat, and it does not take us long to see that modern democracies are having a problem with science. What it is important to see in these trends is that this rise in anti-science attitudes is also corrosive to modern democracy as well.

What is so troubling about these events, beyond their obvious public health implications, is what it indicates about the growth of anti-science world-views in modern democracies. A crescendo of anti-science attitudes has been gaining steam in recent decades leading to a cultural and political environment where adherence to basic standards of truth, evidence, reasoned argument and agreement have all but collapsed. From the stubborn denial of climate change, to the rejection of findings by natural and social scientists, we seem to be entering not only a “post-truth” environment, but more dangerously, an “anti-science” climate where modern, liberal democracy itself is under threat. It gives aid to the enemies of modern democracy and to the impulses of a reactionary populism bent on nationalist and ethnic superiority.

The relationship of modern democracy and science is an intimate one. Centuries ago during the Renaissance, the re-emergence of scientific ideas were aimed at cracking open the encrusted forms of traditional authority that held sway. Science was able to test and, in so doing, to question the authority of the Church, theological doctrines, as well as political authority. Science fed a new vision of democracy as one based on reasoned citizens, using argument and debate to shape their common lives together. The Enlightenment cemented the foundations of this modern conception of democracy where human beings were first becoming viewed as universal bearers of rights and reason could be employed for the public good. Science and modern democracy, it was understood, share certain basic ways of thinking: the idea that reasons are universal, in the sense that they apply to everyone; the idea that we should be skeptical of received ideas about the world that makes claims to truth; the idea that our ideas about the world should evolve as new evidence emerges; and the idea that we find these truths through participating in a community of others who searching for what is correct and true. All of these are features that science and modern democracy share with one another. Together they constitute a culture of political reason that should be seen as a standard for our political institutions and the culture of our citizenship.

The entwinement of science and democracy informed and strengthened the idea of human rights, of universal political and moral principles, and ideas about pluralism and equality. It rooted our political institutions in a rationalist, objective framework where reasoned argument and debate would be the core nucleus of political change. It also informed citizens’ movements, from the labor movement to the civil rights and feminist movements, to question the ingrained prejudices and authority of their time. Social divisions based on race, class and gender that once rested on false ideas about biology and tradition soon revealed their intellectual bankruptcy.

But in recent years, the emergence of anti-science attitudes has led to a devolution of democratic mindsets and to a populist — and perhaps more sinister — openness to submitting to authority. The modern democratic mind was cultivated by the ethos of modern science. Its openness to new ideas based on evidence, its skepticism of traditional authority, and its penchant for universal, rational principles in law and morality remade the modern world. But anti-science attitudes are remaking this mindset. Now, a resentful backlash against “elites” masks the entrance of a cynicism about reason. In place of reflective thought and reasoned debate, we have the expression of emotion and rage. The individual, now weakened by decades of economic inequality, social anxiety, a loss of personal direction amid technological complexity, now reaches out for an external authority that can grant clarity and strength. In place of questioning authority, we now seek out its comforts. This can take the form of anti-establishment political leaders, internet “influencers,” or the soothing hum of tradition, ethnic identity or religious orthodoxy.

One source of this condition has been the war on science from conservative political corners. Historically, science was a means, especially in the decades that followed World War II, to unmask abuses of corporate power. From Rachel Carson’s “Silent Springto questioning the science on nicotine in the tobacco industry to the impact of fossil fuel and other industries in the destruction of the environment, it became imperative for economic and corporate elites to cultivate a hyper-skepticism about science – a hyper-skepticism that would be pushed to outright cynicism. If corporate power was to be maintained, then the critical use of science had to be side-lined, if not totally eliminated. Hence, legislation passed to ban the funding or facilitating of the social scientific study of gun violence.

Another source of our current anti-science culture has been the resurgence of tradition and traditional belief systems that proliferate in times of economic and social distress. As the world becomes increasingly complex, there has been a movement inward, back to forms of traditional belief systems that grant the believer psychological comfort. Science, for these people, is the purview of elites, “know-it-alls” who in, their view, really know nothing even as they insist that others must change the way they live their lives. Anti-science now takes on a political valence that meshes with populism: with the emotional embrace of simplicity, “common sense,” instead of complex analysis and thought.

Here is where things become particularly dangerous: for now we have precarious cocktail of populist politics and anti-science attitudes that threatens to reshape modern democratic societies. As populist leaders stoke rage and rejection of elitism, they also throw out the value of expertise and the requirements of logic, objectivity and reason. We can see this happening now in the United States, with the current administration’s attack on institutions that rest on these values, from science, to regulatory agencies, the law courts and the press. As social insecurities rise due to widening gaps of inequality, technological unemployment, so too has anxiety, stress and rage. This new reactionary mix of anti-science and populism will not merely reshape modern democracy, it rather looks like it is regressing it to a more primitive state where emotion leads to the celebration of authority and the yearning for strong, decisive (read irrational) leadership.

In our ever more technological society, science has bizarrely become divorced from its anchor in the principles and procedures that first animated the thinkers of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. The Internet, itself a product of the progress of science, was initially hailed for the promise that it would democratize knowledge. On the contrary, it has become a tool for, at best, the increasing isolation of individuals and, at worst, the spread of disinformation. Those who are not using their smartphones to escape the daily grind in a video game or to binge watch a TV show use them to forge communities with people across the globe who share their insular beliefs. Such forces pervert our capacity to exchange ideas and debate with others upon which vibrant democratic life is premised.

The Scientific Revolution provided the catalyst for a questioning of belief and dogma that, during the Enlightenment, developed into a project that questioned all forms of authority that were indefensible when submitted to the light of reason. Today, the progressive impulse toward skepticism has been replaced by a hollow skepticism. The great clarion call of the German Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, to have the courage to use your own reason has been perverted. Those who wish to turn people against science and reason – from the populist politician to the anonymous Internet troll – urge their audiences to question everything as a mask for encouragement to reinforce dogmatism and petty bigotries. Abandoned is that central commitment to the universality of reason. Skepticism, which in modernity was grounded in scientific method, is promulgated only to devour itself.

What the right-wing provocateur and the postmodernist university lecturer share is the rejection of establishing rational grounds for belief and policy. The right has never made any secret of its attachment to the authority of established tradition. Ironically, in the abandonment of the attachment to reason, the left forces itself into a position where it appeals to its own folk wisdom and truisms from which it risks never extricating itself. Across the globe, right wing populists have risen to power, while many on the left call for their own brand of populism. Both claim to know the authentic will of some quasi-mythical “people”. The extremes meet. Indeed, as the poet Matthew Arnold once observed, ignorant armies clash at night. In this we see the feverish gnawing away of the very foundations of our already fragile democracy.

What can be done? Enlightenment thinkers could take some comfort in the stubbornness of reason and that good ideas eventually find receptive minds. Our situation is direr as our modern pollutants destroy the planet and once defeated ancient diseases reemerge to kill people. We cannot afford the luxury of another dark age.

There is hope as more and more people demand solutions to climate change. As we write this, in the United Kingdom, people are rightly taking to the streets. Activism is invaluable. Yet, even if necessity compels us to address climate change or an outbreak of disease, the illness of the mind that bred these problems requires the ever more dogged reclamation of reason as a political resource. In the United States, the candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President are committing to overturning the Trump administration’s regressive abandonment of climate change as an issue. They have a good chance to defeat Trump. Still, democracy’s problem with science runs deeper than merely correcting policy missteps. Hostility to science has become too deeply embedded in our culture. And, hostility to science breeds hostility to democracy.

The defense of democracy against its populist perversion will, at least in part, necessitate reclaiming the ideas that made the modern democratic impulse possible. We have pointed to the important role played by the methods, principles, and practices of scientific inquiry in inspiring resistance to accepted belief and authority and its inherent egalitarianism. Without these, not only will a perverted conception of democracy continue to have a science problem, but, in addition, a perverted democracy will lead to the greater endangering our planet and our health. Radical action is not enough on its own. What is necessary is a rationally grounded radicalism. Moral outrage at the way political and corporate elites have turned a blind eye to the environmental crises of our time is a good starting point. Yet, it will ultimately be empty if it is not grounded in a renewed commitment to reason.

At the same time, we should guard against a dogmatic belief that a hyper-rationalism is the solution to all of our political ills. This is why we have emphasized the anti-authoritarian principles that undergird science over the naïve view that technology – a product of science – alone can yield progress. Fetishizing technology, as we have indicated, can itself wreak violence on the environment and subvert democracy. Silicon Valley elites, such as Elon Musk, have acquired a celebrated status as potential defenders of science. Yet, this is to confuse the production of technological innovations with a principled commitment to science. We have, for instance, witnessed the disastrous effects that the absence of accountability on the part of technocratic elites, like Mark Zuckerberg or Peter Theil, has had on our democracy. Yet, science, as a self-critical practice that questions authority on rational grounds can provide inspiration for questioning the status these elites have acquired. A truly democratic culture, founded on the challenge scientific reason poses to authority, can challenge this new oligarchy and renew our democracy.

The challenge we face is daunting. It will require activism and policy reform. We cannot eradicate irrationalism and the threat it poses to society and nature. We can, however, resist the extent to which it has become embedded in our society. Yet, Galileo faced greater odds when he challenged the authority of the Church. But we have greater resources at our disposal than Galileo, and we must make use of them.

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Michael J. Thompson is Professor of Political Theory at William Paterson University and Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Rutgers University. Both are editors of a new volume, "Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy: Defending Reason in a Free Society" (New York: Prometheus Books, 2018), from which this essay is adapted.

By Michael J. Thompson

Michael J. Thompson is professor of political theory in the department of political science at William Paterson University. He is the founding editor of "Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture"; the author of four books, including "The Domestication of Critical Theory" and "The Politics of Inequality"; and the editor of eight previous books, including "The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Theory." He and Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker are the editors of "An Inheritance for Our Times: Principles and Politics of Democratic Socialism"; a percentage of sales of that book go to support National Nurses United until the end of June 2020. 

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By Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker

Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the managing editor of Logos and the editor of "The Political Thought of African Independence"; "Strangers to Nature: Animal Lives and Human Ethics"; and "Radical Intellectuals and the Subversion of Progressive Politics" (with Michael J. Thompson). He and Michael J. Thompson are the editors of "An Inheritance for Our Times: Principles and Politics of Democratic Socialism"; a percentage of sales of that book go to support National Nurses United until the end of June 2020. 

MORE FROM Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker