1392 Science, Democracy, and the Enlightenment: Who Left Out the Voters?

Friday, February 19, 2010: 1:30 PM
Room 7B (San Diego Convention Center)
Lewis M. Branscomb , University of California, San Diego, CA
Jean Johnson , Public Agenda, New York, NY
The Obama administration is committed to solving society’s grand challenges, with energy, health and climate high on the list. Scientists and other well informed professionals are to have a key role, not only in solving these challenges, but in creating a new, more pragmatic approach to effective, democratic governance. Our Founding Fathers intended that voters would confirm the legitimacy of those who govern them by judging the transparency, accountability, and rationality of those political leaders.  Thus for democracy to be sustainable, the public must be able to judge the performance of the politicians whom they elect.  How can they do that when the biggest challenges facing the nation are deeply dependent on technical knowledge and understanding that few members of the lay public possess? For too long scientists, with little experience at talking to the public and even less at talking with them, have believed the answer lies in science telling the politicians what we think they must know to make policy, and leaving it to them to persuade the public to accept it.  That linear approach -- from science to government, to the public, and back to government with voter approval -- leaves the public with no basis for holding government accountable. Indeed, it also tempts politicians to govern by frightening the public with bogus facts or ideological dogma, not only generating bad policy but threatening the foundations of our democracy. Nor does it give the voters the information they need to translate their values into policies they can support. Programs to increase “science literacy” may be a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.  The linear process must be replaced by a triangular discourse, in which science and the public must engage one another in discussions of their – and our – values. Then we can share the technical facts that are relevant to translating those values into political action.  This triangle, comprised of political institutions, the community of experts, and a responsible public, all of whom are well informed, can then reach agreement on wise goals for the nation, policies to achieve them, and increase public willingness to accept the necessary sacrifices.  Only then can we together build policies the public will support and which the politicians will be compelled to follow.
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