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Chapter 21: Scientific Practice and Democratic Values

Democracy and science, it might be thought, go hand in hand. As we commonly think of it, science has its roots in the heritage of Greek thought, and the same is true of democracy. And while Athenian democracy developed at best a complicated relationship with its intellectual luminaries, Athens was nevertheless home to both Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. Nearly two centuries later, the scientific revolution most quickly took root in those nations that had come to have some semblance of democratic rule. While the Republic of Florence had passed under Medici control by the time Galileo was active, Newton’s home was then the most democratic nation on earth. During the Cold War, the scientific achievements of the democratic West were often put forth as signs of its superiority over its communist foes, and the existence of Soviet scientist-dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov supported the narrative that the scientific enterprise, necessarily committed to the free exchange of ideas and the pursuit of truth even when socially inconvenient, simply cannot thrive in more oppressive contexts.
The truth is admittedly more complicated: scientists aided and sometimes enthusiastically abetted the Nazi regime, and ongoing nuclear proliferation occurs only because of the many scientists—not all of them coerced—willing to contribute to such efforts. But such cases seem to be the exceptions, and they generally involve not the pursuit of science but its technological application. Genuine science plausibly needs, if not democracy, at least adequate freedom of expression in order for ideas to be communicated and critiqued. This was true enough in Galileo’s day that scholars had access not only to the great works of the past but also, with some effort, the works of contemporaries.[2] On this account, if open, democratic regimes do not actively cause the flourishing of science, they at least do not suppress it, enabling the possibility of cumulative success over time.
But the arrow of causality may also run in the other direction. Democracy may not strictly need science, but it may be the case that the scientific mindset contributes to the quality and integrity of democratic forms of government. Indeed, one of the most persistent correlates to the emergence of democracy is the level of its citizens’ education, a point first noted by Seymour Lipset in 1959 and which continues to have significant support today.[3] Importantly, education is not the same as scientific education, and it is quite possible that other features of education, including relevant components of civic education, account for the relationship. Even so, it is plausible to think that scientific thinking and therefore scientific training contribute to the quality and integrity of democratic regimes, and do so beyond the merely instrumental material benefits that science provides.

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Book Title: Virtue and the Practice of Science: Multidisciplinary Perspectives


Chapter 21


Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing


Copyright © 2021 Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing


Virtue and the Practice of Science: Multidisciplinary Perspectives by Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.