charles_seife's picture
Professor of Journalism, New York University; Former Journalist, Science Magazine; Author, Hawking Hawking
Professor of Journalism, New York University; formerly journalist, Science magazine; Author, Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea

I used to think that a modern, democratic society had to be a scientific society. After all, the scientific revolution and the American Revolution were forged in the same flames of the enlightenment. Naturally, I thought, a society that embraces the freedom of thought and expression of a democracy would also embrace science.

However, when I first started reporting on science, I quickly realized that science didn't spring up naturally in the fertile soil of the young American democracy. Americans were extraordinary innovators — wonderful tinkerers and engineers — but you can count the great 19th century American physicists on one hand and have two fingers left over. The United States owes its scientific tradition to aristocratic Europe's universities (and to its refugees), not to any native drive.

In fact, science clashes with the democratic ideal. Though it is meritocratic, it is practiced in the elite and effete world of academe, leaving the vast majority of citizens unable to contribute to it in any meaningful way. Science is about freedom of thought, yet at the same time it imposes a tyranny of ideas.

In a democracy, ideas are protected. It's the sacred right of a citizen to hold — and to disseminate — beliefs that the majority disagrees with, ideas that are abhorrent, ideas that are wrong. However, scientists are not free to be completely open minded; a scientist stops becoming a scientist if he clings to discredited notions. The basic scientific urge to falsify, to disprove, to discredit ideas clashes with the democratic drive to tolerate and protect them.

This is why even those politicians who accept evolution will never attack those politicians who don't; at least publicly, they cast evolutionary theory as a mere personal belief. Attempting to squelch creationism smacks of elitism and intolerance — it would be political suicide. Yet this is exactly what biologists are compelled to do; they exorcise falsehoods and drive them from the realm of public discourse.

We've been lucky that the transplant of science has flourished so beautifully on American soil. But I no longer take it for granted that this will continue; our democratic tendencies might get the best of us in the end.