Our Turn At The American Experiment

Ben Franklin

1776: Benjamin Franklin (left) drafting the Declaration of Independence. The drafting committee included Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Rischgitz/Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Rischgitz/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Democracy is always a leap of faith, an act of reason and a game of numbers.  Most importantly, democracy is always an experiment in the most fundamental, and most scientific definition of the term. Like every well constructed experiment, you can not know what will happen until it does happen.  It's an important point to hold in our minds on this election day, as we wait to see how this particular run of the experiment turns out. And while we wait, we should remember how much the fate of the nation and the fate of science have always been closely conjoined in what many would call "the American Experiment."

Science has been an integral aspect of the American Experiment in democracy since our origins. Other than stories of kites and lightning, we rarely reflect on the fact that Ben Franklin was not just one of our founding fathers but was also one of the founding experimentalists in electromagnetism.  And while Jefferson did not have Franklin's gifts as an original scientific thinker, his wide-ranging interests gave him an understanding of science's importance to a free people.  In a letter from 1799, Jefferson found it unimaginable that United States would ever turn against science:

But that the enthusiasm which characterizes youth should lift its parricide hands against freedom and science would be such a monstrous phenomenon as I cannot place among possible things in this age and this country.

Throughout our history we have learned how to use science and technology in ways both better and worse.  We first bound the continent into a single nation with rail lines of steel and telegraph lines of copper wire.  When the age of oil began, it was our airplanes, our merchant steamers and our warships that allowed us to step so powerfully onto the world stage.  Along with the heroism of our soldiers, the reach of our science (from radar to atomic weapons) brought us out from World War II with commanding strength. Leadership in fields as diverse as space exploration and biomedicine continued to give the American Experiment a sense of boundless vigor and optimism even through the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s.

But today we face a different kind of world and a different kind of application for science in our turn at the American Experiment.

Our nation and its relationship to science are no longer what Franklin, Jefferson, Roosevelt or Eisenhower would recognize. There are a long list of new concerns facing us as a scientific culture. These are not just the overwhelming issues of climate change and resource depletion.  In an era where science is just as likely to be carried forward for profit as it is for knowledge, new challenges have emerged.

Sheila Jasanoff of the Kennedy School of Government looks at this moment in our history and sees a different kind of challenge for science and democracy:

Here in the early years of the 21st century, we need a more sophisticated reading of history and a clearer understanding of what it means to link scientific and technological developments to democratic ends... Today we are more likely to suffer from a largely unregulated relationship between science and private interests that drives discovery without attention to the collective good. We remain captive to expensive defense projects, justified by appeals to fear, that stand outside the processes of democratic control. And we risk the possibility that, fueled by financial greed and media hype, ethically and environmentally problematic inventions will be launched into the world before thoughtful people have had a chance to reflect on why we need them.

If the American Experiment with democracy and science is to flourish in the 21st century as it did in the 19th and 20th, then we will have to move in two directions at once.  Leaning on our tradition, we will have to look back and remember how much our value of science's open-ended call to reason, discourse and boundless imagination enriched us as a nation both materially and spiritually.  Recalling the essence of that tradition, we will also have to find the courage to move beyond tradition into new and unexplored directions.

In this task we can be helped by engaging the power of what Jasanoff refers to as science's most modest values: the "skeptical, questioning virtues of an experimental turn of mind: the acceptance that truth is provisional, that questioning of experts should be encouraged, that steps forward may need corrective steps back, and that understanding history is the surest foundation for progress."

Will we be successful?  Will we manage to preserve our vibrant democracy even as the world moves through its bottleneck of changing climate, diminishing resources and new technologies of uncertain consequence?

There is no way to tell without doing the experiment.

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