Science versus democracy

The past generation of progressive academics and activists -- battling nuclear weapons proliferation, patriarchal rationality, eurocentrism, bio-technology, ecological depletion and domestic surveillance -- has understandably rebelled against our culture's deification of science. Critical theorists, interpretive thinkers and post-structuralist writers have contended that the scientific approach is not value-neutral and that the proof of the assertion lies in the ease by which science has become aligned with anti-democratic corporate and state agendas. Many analysts have therefore proposed that the challenge lies not only in politicians', bureaucrats' and CEOs' abuses of technological discovery but more profoundly within the epistemology of science itself, that is, its "intrinsically violent" logic in respect to humanity and nature.

A recent book --  Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War by Andrew Jewett, an Associate Professor of History and Social Studies at Harvard University --  contends that the progressive critique of science is ahistorical. The book disagrees with those on the academic left who have argued that science is essentially conservative or anti-democratic. The book makes its overall argument by noting that there was a substantial intellectual movement, which Professor Jewett names "scientific democracy," in American society from 1860 to 1960 which promoted scientific knowledge and method as the crucial cultural basis for producing a democratic society.

These scientific democrats' commitment was not oriented as much toward reshaping political institutions and policies per se as toward transforming public perception. The philosopher John Dewey, perhaps the U.S.' most influential educator and the book's archetypal scientific democrat, contended that a society that embraced technical knowledge could not function effectively if its members did not have the capacity to intelligently evaluate scientific and social policies. Dewey, Margaret Mead and others believed that science could improve democracy not simply by enabling technological growth, refining public administration and providing citizens with information needed to participate in technical debates but also by affecting the population's moral goals -- that is, not only by increasing society's knowledge but by also improving public culture. They thought that a science-based form of ethics, inculcated via educational institutions, would protect U.S. democracy better than a social ethos that was primarily drawn from religion, art, literature, or business. American public culture had long been grounded in Protestant Christianity, but after the 1860s scientific democrats advanced the claim that science could provide the material and cultural benefits of religion without the divisive theological disputes: the university would replace the church as the source of democratic subjects.

Professor Jewett's analysis is insightful: many progressives have not drawn the distinction between science and scientism. They have assumed that the link between a value-neutral science and a militarized, bureaucratized, corporate society was intrinsic to modernity rather than contingent. This superb book reminds us that we need to historicize our own historical analysis: science's current vices are no more evident than were its virtues to a previous generation of progressive thinkers. The politics of science have to be re-thought, that is, we should not assume that the link between scientific method, epistemology and political implementation is pre-determined: reason is not inherently oppressive or liberatory. The implication of Jewett's research is that we need a broader, non-Manichaean definition of science that can encompass both its pitfalls and its possibilities.

One can add that perhaps the mistake lies not only in the post-1960s radical critique of science but also in past progressives' radical critique of religion. Many scientific democrats' belief that the university could or should replace the church or any other spiritual institution is itself vulnerable to historical argument. Religion -- as the proponents of liberation theology, matriarchal traditions, Zen and other forms of spirituality that have not taken political power know -- is itself contextual. As with science, the link between religious methodology, epistemology and political implementation is itself not pre-determined. The much-needed reevaluation of science needs to go hand in hand with a reconsideration of its relationship to religion and spirituality.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

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