In Science and Democracy We Trust: A Family History and a Nation’s Future

January 3, 2014 | 2:33 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

Like many Americans, I spend the winter holidays with my family. I can trace my family history back many generations of Americans and this year I revisited some of that family history. Paging through scrapbooks with newspaper clippings and documents more than a hundred years old, I wondered what my ancestors might have hoped for when they came to this country. There is no doubt that what brought them here was the same as what brought so many others: The hope of a government of the people, by the people, for the people; and the hope of a place where innovation thrived and scientific progress was made. But how would our ancestors judge the government we have today?

Many Americans are unthankful for the stark partisanship we see in politics today and our lack of progress on many science-based policy issues. From gun control to food safety to climate change, many feel frustration with the disconnect between what the evidence tells us and our public policies. These impasses have many sources, but some issues have become bigger only in the last few years.

My great-great-great grandfather and I: A history of science and democracy

My great-great-great grandfather Elnathan Simmons (1811-1893), an elected official and doctor who served in the Civil War.

My great-great-great grandfather Elnathan Simmons (1811-1893), was elected to the New York State Legislature in 1851 and served as a medical doctor for the Union during the Civil War.

One of my ancestors in our family scrapbook is my great-great-great grandfather, Elnathan Simmons. Like me, Elnathan valued science. He became a medical doctor in 1834. When the Civil War started, he enlisted as a surgeon of the New York State 148th Volunteers. Leaving his wife and children at their home in upstate New York, he traveled to Washington, DC to help fallen soldiers. While there, he wrote a letter to his wife back in Canandaigua. The letter details the “filthy” conditions in which he and the others serving the country slept and ate. And yet despite the accommodations, Elnathan stayed through the end of his service.

My great-great-great grandfather also had faith in our government. In addition to practicing medicine, he was active in civic life. Elnathan was elected to the New York State Legislature as a Free-Soil Democrat in 1851. And later, he was elected to the office of County Clerk for Ontario County, New York on the Republican ticket.

Though we studied different things and I of course now have access to more information at my fingertips than he had in his lifetime, I imagine Elnathan and I valued the same things about science and about the democratic process.

Science puts trust in results. If the methods are robust, we trust the results and accept them even if they weren’t what we expected. This, in fact, is how scientific discoveries are made. In my own research in environmental engineering, I experienced this.

When I was a student studying one problem in air pollution and its health effects (measurement error amount), I got results that I couldn’t explain within our scientific study. When I investigated further, I discovered a different problem in air pollution (measurement error type) that was just as important but one I hadn’t seen before. Trusting our initial results and searching for new explanations for them expanded my scientific work and ultimately gave me a better understanding of the relationship between air pollution and health effects.

Similarly, as a nation we have faith in our democratic system. If we believe it to be fair, we accept the outcome of elections, court rulings, and regulatory decisions. This is what maintains order and allows for progress—that we trust in the system to produce democratic and fact-based outcomes.

Elnathan's wife Maria and their son Charlie, my great-great uncle.

Elnathan’s wife Maria and their son Charlie, my great-great uncle. The family lived in Canandaigua, New York where my great-great-great grandfather had his medical practice.

In corporations we trust?

But we now have a system that is broken; a system that often prevents facts from informing policy; and a system driven not by the people but by corporations, billionaires, and other forces not in the public interest.

Money is flowing into our elections at an unprecedented rate. The 2012 election cycle cost more than $6 billion. More and more companies, trade associations, and politically active think tanks are entrenched in the politics of Washington. And more than at any other time our history, politicians spend the majority of their time fundraising rather than solving our nation’s problems, working with colleagues, and developing bipartisan solutions.

Is this is a political system that my great-great-great grandfather and my ancestors before him put their faith in? And importantly, does it represent our nation’s rich history of fact-based progress?

A government of the people

When I think about the problems plaguing our nation today and how challenging it is to fix them, I think of how broken our country must have felt for Elnathan in a midst of a Civil War. And yet, he lived to see the country he served reunited once again. We aren’t as broken as we were then. Our problems are great but American ingenuity is greater.

As I’ll detail in future posts, there are solutions, including many ideas that have already been proposed by academics, politicians, regulators, and citizens. And as a nation, we can realize them. Ultimately, we must push for changes that help bring us back to a government we can trust to be of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Until then, like my great-great-great grandfather, I will keep my faith in both science and democracy.