michael_shermer's picture
Publisher, Skeptic magazine; Monthly Columnist, Scientific American; Presidential Fellow, Chapman University; Author, Heavens on Earth
The Democratization of Science

The biggest news story over the past quarter century—that will continue to underlie all the currents, gyres and eddies of individual sciences going forward—is the democratization of scientific knowledge. The first wave of knowledge diffusion happened centuries ago with the printing press and mass-produced books. The second wave took off after the Second World War with the spread of colleges and universities and the belief that a higher education was a necessary ingredient to being a productive citizen and cultured person. The third wave began a quarter century ago with the Third Culture: "those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are," in John Brockman’s 1991 description.

A lot has happened in twenty-five years. While some Third Culture products remain topical (AI, human genetics, and cyberspace) and others have faded from consciousness (chaos, fractals, and Gaia), the culture of science as a redefining force endures and expands into the nooks and crannies of society through ever growing avenues of communication, pulling everyone in to participate. A quarter century ago the Third Culture penetrated the public primarily through books and television; to these technologies of knowledge Third Culture apostles spread the gospel through ebooks and audio books, digital books and virtual libraries, blogs and microblogs, podcasts and videocasts, file sharing and video sharing, social networks and forums, MOOCs and remote audio and video courses, virtual classrooms and even virtual universities.

The news is not just the new technologies of knowledge, however, but the acceptance by society’s power brokers that Third Culture products are the drivers of all other cultural products—political, economic, social, and ideological—and the realization of citizens everywhere that they too can be influential agents by absorbing and even mastering scientific knowledge.           

This democratization of science changes everything because it means we have unleashed billions of minds to solve problems and create solutions. The triumphs of the physical and biological sciences in the 20th century are now being matched by those in the social and cognitive sciences because, above all else, we have come to understand that human actions more than physical or biological forces will determine the future of our species.