NPR logo Science and Democracy Part I


Science and Democracy Part I

We take a lot of things for granted.  The ideas and ideals which stand as bedrock for our political and cultural life are often buried so deep that we think they are natural facts, as obvious as a blue sky or the fall of a stone.

But it was the real history of people which led us here.  What we have been given, for all its faults, is both a delicate and wondererous thing. A culture that gives any weight to the rule of law, human or natural, is a pretty new invention if you look across the last 10,000 or so years of our stumbling round.

Take the seperation of Church and State.  Historically speaking it is a very radical idea. To this day there are many cultures where God's law is the obvious choice for setting policy (which ever God is held true by the ruling class of course).  To this day, in our own country, there are many people who believe the same.  To have pulled religion apart from governence and base it instead on reason and independent evidence was a dramatic shift not mandated by history or the cosmos.  It was an idea that brave men and women fought hard for, often paying a heavy price.

In this way Science and Democracy are partners.  While its true that some nations have been adept at science while also practing horrors antithetical to democracy (think of the Soviet Union) they came later and have been the exception.  The foundational ideas of the scientific revolution where so closesly aligned with the growth of modern democracy that to ignore this enlightenment would be to miss our own special heritage.

Democracy and Science as social practices were both hard won and they were won together. It would be good not to lose sight of this on the road ahead.

No one said it better than that hero of heroes, Thomas Jefferson.

Even in Europe a change has sensibly taken place in the mind of man. Science has liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and the American example has kindled feelings of right in the people. An insurrection has consequently begun of science talents and courage against rank and birth, which have fallen into contempt.

Happy 4th of July.