17 August 2007

Science is a democratic process

I was listening to an interview was former New Scientist editor Nigel Calder yesterday, and he insisted a couple of times that, “Science is not a democratic process.”

The point he was making was that views that were once a minority position often become conventional wisdom. Which is fair enough. That’s a valid point. As Calder himself says, “I have in my time been criticised for saying that black holes might exist, the continents move, that an asteroidal comet wiped out the dinosaurs.”

Calder fails, however, to say what he thinks the scientific process actually is, if not democratic. It’s like saying I am not American, don’t dance the tango, don’t like pickles, and don’t own a dog. You know everything about me now, right?

If you want to use political analogies, what are the alternatives? Science is certainly not a monarchy or any other sort of authoritarian system. Everyone is allowed to engage in the scientific process. Science doesn’t care about who originates an idea or who promulgates it – it cares about evidence.

So who decides if evidence is credible? It’s a consensus developed by a community. And the views of that community can change over time, as more evidence becomes available, or as people have more time to think over an idea. After all, any real democracy worthy of its name reviews and has regular opportunities to change governments. (Even in Alberta.)

What other elements does science share with a democratic system? How about accountability? Scientists are typically for crediting sources, for allowing others to examine their findings, allowing others to replicate them.

Of course, it’s more complex than that. Earlier this week, reading Ryan Dancey’s blog, he mentioned the reputation economy, which is something I have to think about more. A similar idea crops up in today's entry in Seth Godin's blog. I think this has the potential to describe why some scientific ideas thrive and some do not in the sort term.

But as Arthur C. Clarke once noted, science tends to get to the bottom of things in about 50 years, if there is any bottom to be gotten to. The evidence will out. People will either admit they have been wrong, or relegate themselves to the fringe.

There’s also another sort of fallacy that Calder engages in: that because minority views have become majority views before, it will happen again, and specifically in this case – and he’s talking about human-induced climate change. Unfortunately, lots of fringe ideas have stayed fringe ideas.

Also, I think Calder might agree that regardless of climate change, there are other reasons to get away from the status quo of running our economies by burning fossil fuels.


SomeBeans said...

I'm not sure we need to thrust science into a box regarding it's similarity to a political system. I think scientists understand quite well what they're up to.

It's always nice to see the old: "they said X was wrong, but he was right.You say I am wrong, therefore I must be right"

Zen Faulkes said...

Agree that we don't need to characterize science as resembling a political system. But it's valuable to have a reply ready to someone says, "Science isn't a democracy." That argument comes up pretty routinely in one form or another.