Democracy's plight

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Science  01 Feb 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6426, pp. 433
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw8157

Scientists work with a deep sense that their quest for reliable knowledge leads somewhere—that following the evidence and excluding bias help to make sense of the world. It may be a slow process, and interactions in the scientific community are not without friction and false steps, yet scientists are devoted to the quest because they observe that it works. One can make sense of the world. Einstein famously said, “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility,” and scientists understand that evidence-based scientific thinking leads to this comprehension. Scientists could do a better job of sharing this powerful insight.


“…can the public be moved to demand and embrace evidence for themselves?”

As I fret over recent challenges to democracy, it seems that a cure for what ails democracy may lie, in part, in science. Citizens are increasingly asserting their values, hopes, and opinions without apparent interest in finding a shared understanding of the actual state of things. Without such a shared understanding, those values and hopes cannot rationally be expressed and realized. Observers speak of “truth decay,” dismissal of expertise, and neglect of evidence. Collectively, these are problems of enormous importance because they threaten democracy itself. Democracy is at risk when it becomes simply a contest of fervently held opinions or values not grounded in evidence. When one opinion is as good as another—each asserted as strongly, and even as deceptively, as possible—democracy cannot survive. Society is drowning in a sea of unmoored opinons and values. Democracy requires a citizenry that is informed, as well as engaged. We must find an opening to reinforce among citizens a renewed appreciation for evidence. Approaching an understanding of the actual state of things is what science does well.

In the United States, the public's approval and trust in science are relatively strong compared with other institutions, a finding that has been observed in public surveys for decades. Here, then, may be an opening. Can scientists share the admired successes of science in a manner that leads citizens to embrace for themselves the essence of science? This essence of science is to demand evidence at every turn and to discard ideas when they are shown not to comport with the evidence. This thinking is not reserved solely for scientists, and one need not be an expert to demand evidence. Given the public's respect for science and science's reverence for evidence, can the public be moved to demand and embrace evidence for themselves? This connection seems logical—we need to make it feasible. Can scientists achieve what normal civic education has not achieved? There is no time to waste in finding this out.

Much is known from social sciences, communications studies, and marketing about how people come to understand and accept scientific concepts. The importance of effective communication is now embedded in many scientists' training, as well. The scientific community should undertake a major initiative—enlisting business, industry, and cultural and political leaders—to communicate that evidence-based thinking is available not just to scientists. Because the public largely regards science as successful and beneficial, they may be interested in why and how it works. They may see that this enormously powerful way of thinking is available to all in their daily lives and their civic roles.

A long shot? Perhaps. But it is the only opening I see to address democracy's plight.

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