The Shared Fate of Science and Democracy 

April 14, 2021 | 2:50 pm
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Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

As the country continues to process the violent attack on the Capitol, and restrictions on voting rights gain strength across state legislatures, we must take account of the role and responsibility that scientists play in securing our freedoms and prosperity. 

Why scientists need democracy

Great scientific advances have been made under authoritarian regimes. Western universities grew out of the Dark Ages under the authority of the church, the Soviet Union took an early lead in space exploration, and China’s technological advances continue to shift the tectonic plates of geopolitical competition. But science under religious and political authority is science under fear of, or in service to, that authority. Galileo’s trial may be the most famous example, but consider the tribulations of Mary Anning, Alan Turing, or countless others who continue to suffer oppression even in nominally democratic regimes.

Scientists need healthy democratic institutions in order to protect both their personal freedoms and their professional integrity, for those institutions offer the best alternative to exploitation, coercion and violence in a world fraught with uncertainty, contingency, and conflict. Both science and democracy share a normative commitment to experimentalism as the best path forward. In The Priority of Democracy, Jack Knight and James Johnson make the case that

“…experimentation represents the most reliable way of generating solutions to problematic situations. And we assess the results of properly conducted experiments in terms of their actual or anticipated consequences. We take this commitment to be general in the sense that it applies, for example, not just to theoretical concepts, but to public policies and to social, economic and political institutions as well.”

In the absence of equal opportunity of political influence, both effective democratic decision-making and the scientific enterprise are corrupted. When corporate interests have disproportionate political influence, they misrepresent and misuse science to distort public deliberation. This allows powerful interests to insulate themselves from public accountability through legal and regulatory structures. Weak democratic institutions offer less protection from political interference and attacks on science. And as Chanda Prescot-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle and Joseph Osmundson have explained, under the influence of authoritarian power, science can be used as “a weapon—to impact ideological, political, and socioeconomic goals.”

Why democracy needs scientists

The health of democracy quite literally depends on scientists as participants and policy makers, as we have seen with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program, and the deadly consequences of ignoring or distorting scientific recommendations. The legitimacy of democratic decisions depends on their capacity to survive a process of reasoned argument. Scientists contribute to that process by 1) effectively communicating their expertise to their communities, decision makers, the media, 2) providing the public with access to reliable scientific information, and 3) cultivating networks of activists to take action and speak out about the benefits of science and evidence-based policies.

However, our process of making reasoned decisions is not currently healthy. Like all systems, a democratic political system requires the capacity to effectively aggregate public demands and convert them into public policies that address those demands. Our political system suffers from several weaknesses along that chain of responsiveness, including districting practices that amplify racial and partisan bias in representation, a parasitic campaign finance regime that allows the most affluent to insulate themselves from public accountability, and other flaws that erode the quality of democratic representation.

Only months ago, an insurrection at the Capitol disrupted the peaceful transfer of power, the most basic function of a democratic system. In the aftermath, partisan actors motivated by unfounded claims of voter fraud and lies about electoral integrity spread by former president Trump and his supporters are attempting to further restrict voting rights across state legislatures. These most recent attacks are part of a continuing erosion of democracy in those same legislatures.

The path forward: science for the public good

Scientists have a crucial role to play in restoring integrity to our democratic institutions. Political and other data scientists have already refuted the cabal of pseudo-scientists and grifters peddling voter fraud disinformation.

Supporting evidence-based federal legislation to protect against further erosion of the democratic process, including the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Representation Act, are important steps that scientists can take now. Dismantling racist procedural barriers like the filibuster, which empowers only those minorities that prefer the status quo to change, must be a priority, at least for legislation concerning the protection of civil rights.

Scientists can also strengthen the roots of civic participation. Plugging into and building out local networks that are the wellspring of participatory energy, working to directly reduce the economic and social inequalities that weaken effective participation, and taking on a greater responsibility to raise up voices of the underrepresented within the scientific community strengthens democracy and our collective capacity to exchange ideas, learn, and innovate.

Building up trust and reliance on evidence is not going to be easy in the wake of a resurgence of anti-democratic forces across the globe. But it is our only hope, our best hope, that society is able to freely arrive at solutions in a world that desperately needs them.

About the author

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Michael Latner is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His research focuses on political representation and electoral systems, including redistricting and gerrymandering in the US, and the impact of electoral administrative law on political participation.