We all share a strong belief in democracy. But it can only function well when the people understand the choices they need to make and are in a position to make trade-offs rationally. As issues get increasingly complex, ignorance decouples the people from the knowledge they need to help guide policy choices that can shape our future. Illiteracy in all forms—and especially in scientific matters—is a threat to a functioning democracy.
Woodrow Wilson said about a century ago "what are we if we have to be taken care of by a handful of experts who know the job, for if we don't know the job we are not truly free". Therefore, as Science Advisor I would work to greatly enhance the scientific literacy of the public—but not just the public, also government employees, elected officials and the media.
Science literacy is not just about the "facts"—knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology or economics per se. More important for non-specialists is to understand the process of science, and how science interacts with public policy issues and gets communicated via the media.
The media and political institutions are typically advocacy based—if a reporter gets the views of a Democrat, she must also get the views of a Republican. That is certainly appropriate in covering political stories, but rarely are complex issues of science simply decomposable into two polarized positions. Moreover, not only are there many possibilities, but relative probabilities are attached by scientific assessment to each of these possibilities.
Thus, an "equal time" doctrine is in fact a miscommunication of what science knows or how it works. Science is about quality, not equality. However, equality of opportunity to get your data and ideas heard is essential too, but via forums in which people who are knowledgeable about the complexities are present and in peer reviewed publications. Such institutions of science are where probabilities get thrashed out.
Science does not allocate equal time or space to all ideas once the winnowing process of quality assessment has begun. To follow the political doctrine of "balance" diminishes democracy since it distorts the knowledge base upon which sound decisions should be made. In science all views are not given equal time or credence because the scientific process of assessing likelihood takes precedence over mere inclusion. This leads to many conflicts over controversial policy issues, like climate change, strategic defense or health policy.
Climate change—in particular Global Warming—is a good case in point. No honest scientist can assert with total confidence it will turn out to be mild or catastrophic. But a dozen scientific assessments have shown that the "good for you" and "end of the world" scenarios are the two lowest probability outcomes. Some benefits are likely, but so too are a range of risks—especially for natural systems and in poorer countries.
The current political debates in which mild/catastrophic views are polarized and get the bulk of the attention in the media and in front of congress is an unfortunate distortion of what the scientific community has reported in its assessments. Such false dichotomy debates impede, rather than enhance democracy since they are not accurately representing what is known and at what likelihood.
The role of science the is clear: assess what can happen and what are the odds of it happening. The role of policy—driven by the beliefs of the public—is to make value judgments on how to react to the odds of various possibilities. It will take some major realignment of institutions like the media and congressional hearings apparatus to back away from the model of polarized advocates toward a doctrine of "perspective": reporting and debating based on the assessment of the likelihood of various events, not giving advocates of extreme opposite views equal time or space.
Over time, better applications of science by a public and officials who understand what can happen and at what odds will strengthen democracy and distance it from both the special interests that spin and distort to bolster ideological or client interests and the elitism of the few people who are the only ones who currently "know the job".
Stephen H. Schneider
Professor, Dept. of Biological Sciences