Science, Skepticism and Democracy

By Vroman, Brian | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Science, Skepticism and Democracy

Vroman, Brian, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

RECENTLY, I ATTENDED A presentation by the noted philosopher Martha Nussbaum about the relation between a liberal arts education and democracy. It was clear from her presentation that she had the more literary of the liberal arts in mind, such as philosophy, history, and especially literature (though she emphasized economic literacy as well)--in short, the humanities. She added that the sciences are the allies of the liberal arts; indeed, the sciences are part and parcel of the liberal arts. While her focus was on the disciplines listed above, she expressed the hope that someone would undertake a similar project with respect to the sciences.


Before we attempt this, it will be useful to review some of the points Nussbaum made. Her overarching theme was the competition between two paradigms--one that she calls the "economic development paradigm" and the other the "human development paradigm." The former focuses on the maximization of wealth in society but without any regard to how such wealth is distributed. Nussbaum made the point in her talk, as well as in a recent book, (1) that in the economic model, only a small elite needs anything approximating a true liberal arts education. A business class must have a cursory knowledge of history and other cultures, although the history they are taught can be skewed toward a highly nationalistic view of the world. As for everyone else, they don't need a true education: instead, they need to learn the basic skills necessary to function as something like worker ants. This division of society into an elite class and everyone else is antithetical to democracy.

By contrast, an education in the liberal arts promotes critical thinking and engaged citizenship. Indeed, the term "liberal" comes from the Latin libertas, or liberty; the liberal arts, in the ancient world, were those subjects deemed worthy of study by a free man, although certain of the Stoics suggested that the study of the liberal arts actually made one flee from the darkness of ignorance and mindless superstition. Most importantly, for Nussbaum, is the ability of the humanities to cultivate what she calls a "sympathetic imagination." This is important in that it enables the individual in a democratic society to come closer to a true understanding of, though not necessarily agreement with, fellow citizens having different views and experiences.

Thomas Jefferson, well versed in both the liberal arts and the sciences as they were understood in his time, insightfully observed: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." This is certainly true; it is unimaginable that a citizenry incapable of sifting critically through complex information--and recognizing misinformation--will be able to make the sort of informed decision necessary to promote the common good on a regular basis.

As a philosopher with a keen interest in science and skepticism, it is my belief that, like the literary disciplines, science is also a friend to democracy. If critical thinking is essential to an enlightened citizenry, what better way to learn the nuances of critical thought than through a sustained study of the scientific method? Science is more about process than about product. What matters most is not the facts science uncovers--though of course these matter as well--but the method by which they are uncovered. Without scientific empiricism, it would be impossible to separate solid fact from flights of fancy. Of course, science does not yield absolute truths. What appears to be true today can be overturned in light of better evidence for a different conclusion tomorrow. But this is also the case with the dynamic pragmatism so essential to democracy.

In fact, what matters most in the relation between science and democracy was well articulated with impressive clarity by the great philosopher of science, Karl Popper. …

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