The Democratization of Science

Brian Harvey

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 17-20.

"It is degrading to an American to take everything on trust, and even the young farmer and tradesman should scorn to surrender their right of judging either to lawyers or priests." According to Nathan Hatch, professor of American religious history at the University of Notre Dame, this kind of populist sentiment—expressed in 1803 by the New England politician and polemicist Benjamin Austin, Jr.—represents the salient contribution of American religion to the formation of our cultural ethos. "The democratic revolution of the early republic sent external religious authority into headlong retreat," writes Hatch in The Democratization of American Christianity,

and elicited from below powerful visions of faith that seemed more authentic and self–evident. These new expressions of faith, fed by passions of ordinary men and women, did not merely diverge from received authority; increasingly they failed even to take into account the standard theological categories that served as guides for religious experience and formed the common denominator of theological discussion between disputants.

Hatch’s thesis came to mind as I listened to media pundits who lamented the decision of the Kansas Board of Education to remove questions about evolution, natural selection, and Big Bang cosmology from mandatory state tests. Syndicated editorial writer Anthony Lewis, for example, takes to task the members of the board for being enslaved to archaic ideas and institutions, and thus "locked in rigid certainties and shibboleths." Lewis predictably lays the blame for this decision solely at the feet of a religious fundamentalism that would substitute "creation science" for the standards of modern biology and physics. Lewis is not alone in making religious fundamentalism the scapegoat. The recent "Humanist Manifesto: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism" (Free Inquiry, Fall 1999) also takes aim at "the emergence of shrill fundamentalist voices and the persistence of bigotry and intolerance" which all too often inculcate "unrealistic, escapist, otherworldly approaches to social problems, . . . a disrespect for science, and . . . archaic social institutions."

What seems particularly troublesome to these critics is the fact that the reaction against modern scientific method is not limited to a few misguided lunatics at the fringes of society. Lewis cites a Gallup poll taken in June 1999 which indicated that a rather large majority of Americans favored the teaching of both evolution and so–called creation science, and that a substantial minority (40 percent) supported eliminating evolutionary theory altogether and teaching creationism alone. He reluctantly concludes that "most of us" were wrong to think that antipathy towards the teaching of evolution had been defeated several decades ago at the Scopes trial. How can it be, Lewis asks, that such a large body of opinion in the United States holds to a view so at odds with standard science, particularly when no other Western country has anything like it?

I would submit that Lewis unwittingly supplies the answer to his own question. The pervasive "rejection" of the scientific method that has him so concerned represents the next logical step in the evolution of American culture—the democratization of science. Just as American citizens have been free to choose those religious beliefs that best suit their personal tastes, they are now declaring that they are free to select whatever form of scientific belief they prefer. If the Gallup poll is a reliable indication, the fact that these preferences run counter to the scientific establishment really does not concern most people a great deal. (Indeed, the fact that the results of a poll are introduced as evidence in a debate is a sure sign that some sort of populist movement is at work here.) What could be more American, more democratic, more egalitarian, than every individual making up her or his own mind regard less of what the so–called experts say? If religious convictions are now little more than expressions of consumer preference, why not treat scientific beliefs the same way?

The notion of popular sovereignty, which exalted the powers of judgment of ordinary people over those of elites, was a powerful catalyst for the break–up of traditional society in America. The influence of religious populism greatly increased the circle of people who thought themselves capa ble of thinking for themselves about issues of freedom, equality, sovereignty, and representation. The primacy of the individual conscience was the one common trait in the midst of an otherwise fragmented religious scene that, as Hatch puts it, "combined odd mixtures of high and popular culture, of renewed supernaturalism and Enlightenment rationalism, of mystical experiences and biblical literalism, of evangelical and Jeffersonian rhetoric." In the process, the procedures, social institutions, and virtues that comprise a republican civil order gave way to vulgar democracy, unconstrained (and frequently uninformed) self–expression, and materialistic individualism.

Of course, as long as populist sentiment was confined to the areas of religion, commerce, and politics, few in the scientific world were concerned. But why should such a powerful force remain restricted to these areas of life? If it is degrading to young farmers and tradesmen to surrender their right of judging either to lawyers or priests, why should they willingly surrender it to scientists? And even if some wanted to offer what they regarded as good reasons for restricting populist sentiment, to whom would they address their arguments, and by whose standards would they be evaluated? In short, why should the sciences be immune to the contagion of populism?

If in fact what we are now witnessing is the migration of religious populism to matters of science, then indeed we are faced with a most ironic situation. For over two centuries the more "enlightened" in our midst regarded the breakdown of traditional institutions of authority within Christianity as a good thing. They took the lack of consensus among the fragments of medieval Christendom, combined that lack with the manifest differences between the various religions, and concluded that religious practices and convictions were at best expressions of private sentiment completely lacking in rational warrants and therefore properly kept out of the public realm. Many went further, branding all religious expression as simply nonsense, a remnant of a primitive and irrational worldview that somehow has survived into modern times on false pretenses.

The modern illuminati did not for a moment consider their own standpoint at risk. After all, they were enlightened; they believed in reason, in science. Who could reasonably doubt these? They did not foresee the ways in which the instrumental modes of rationality cultivated by the Enlightenment—which not only greet all claims to knowledge with skepticism, but also treat accepted means for adjudicating the value of those claims with suspicion—actually erode the capacity of reason to order our lives together. And so it is that in matters of religion and science populism expropriated the Cartesian method of radical doubt and elevated it into an art form. Hatch’s observation that "dissenters confounded the establishment with an approach to theological matters that was nothing short of guerrilla warfare" thus illuminates the inability of most scientists to respond in persuasive fashion to the debate about natural selection and the Big Bang.

To be sure, at one level standard scientific methodology treats any particular assertion as a hypothesis that must be tested experimentally. But scientists have never really been prepared to justify their disciplines in the face of radical skepticism exercised by ordinary people, particu larly in connection with questions that extend beyond matters of technical utility. The "Humanist Manifesto," for example, simply asserts without argument that the methods of science, while not infallible, are "on balance . . . the most reliable methods we have for expanding knowledge and solving human problems." But which scale shall we use to weigh this claim of reliability? What assures us of this scale’s probity? Who may speak authoritatively on this subject? Karl Popper, whose devotion to science has never been questioned, conceded that in this respect "all science rests upon shifting sand."

For a time the social standing of the sciences was protected from the corrosive effects of modern conceptions of rationality because the ideas of Reason, Enlightenment, and Progress were themselves shib boleths of the American mythos. But the bards are now directing the faithful to worship at the altars of other gods: Choice, Consumption, Market Share, Individual Well–Being. The Promethean figures of this myth no longer inhabit the laboratory or the observatory, but Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley, Disney World and Hollywood. Scientists have been expelled from the sacred heights, cast down to earth where they must muddle along with the rest of us mortals.

How should those of us who do not identify with either party in this dispute respond to it? First, we should be excused if we momentarily delight in the fact that science must now deal with the guerrilla tactics of populist sense and sensibility with which religious authorities have had to contend for over two centuries. Moreover, we should acknowledge that there is something distinctly healthy about a populist skepticism that refuses to accept as indisputable the contention that human beings are nothing but the products of "an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process," as a 1995 statement by the National Association of Biology Teachers put it. (The statement has since been revised after several scholars pointed out the philosophical and theological assumptions involved in the first two claims.) I am not suggesting that we give serious credence to "creation science," which is neither good science nor a good theology of creation (as admirably demonstrated by William E. Carroll in "Aquinas and the Big Bang," FT, November 1999). We just need to recognize that on more than one occasion people have done the right thing for the wrong reason.

On the other hand, we also need to recognize that there are serious problems with populism as a social and political movement. More specifically, the manifest ability of populist movements to resist the arbitrary imposition of authority never successfully translates into the wherewithal to cultivate institutions, practices, and habits that can sustain true human flourishing over time. By itself populism acts as a social solvent that gradually strips a community of the habits and practices it needs for the cultivation of civic–minded citizenship, leaving in their place an unconstrained and self–centered desire to consume. And as Hatch points out, populism also opens the door to the influence of rogues and demagogues whose sensitivity to the concerns of ordinary people and whose rhetorical skill in taking advantage of those concerns make for a potent combination.

If a persuasive case is to be made for the practice of science within the common life of American society, we must attend to social institutions, traditions of inquiry, and conceptions of the good that extend far beyond the confines and purview of the laboratory and lecture hall. But that is the problem. When Enlightenment rationality dissolved public confidence in the traditions and social institutions that had underwritten religious belief for centuries, and called into question the communal lineaments of moral thought and practice, most scientists saw no threat to their disciplines and therefore were not concerned. They did not realize that a social process had begun that would eventually turn its sights on the authority of scientific methods—and now there are few people left to be concerned.

In the short term I do not expect many scientists to recognize that they have common cause with religious authorities. Nor do I see any time soon a general revival of those institutions and dispositions that could cultivate the level of civic–minded citizenry that is needed. The best hope lies with those who realize that religion, morality, politics, and science share a common fate with respect to questions of authority, and that attention to one cannot be sustained at the expense of the others. In particular, those institutions of learning which do not take it as self–evident that religious and moral convictions are subjective expressions of emotional preference, or that the wisdom of the past (which both religious populism and science reject out of hand) has no bearing on current inquiries, are in the best position to take up this conversation in new and fruitful ways.

There is a risk that comes with participating in this conversation, which some scientists may intuitively recognize and thus resist. Such discussion will invariably open up the methods and aims of scientific research to critical scrutiny of a sort that most practicing scientists have avoided for the greater part of this century. They have shunned it for any number of reasons, including simply pragmatic considerations in a profession that already makes incredible demands on their time. Some scientists, however, rightly suspect that engaging in such dialogue means surrendering the epistemic privilege that the Enlightenment uncritically accorded their disciplines and discourses. The spirited disputation that would likely ensue is indeed daunting, especially for those unaccustomed to working on an intellectual frontier where there are few if any unquestioned protocols and procedures. The only alternative, I fear, is continued guerrilla warfare, with every young farmer, tradesman, and professional choosing for himself which beliefs to accord the exalted title of "science."

Barry Harvey is Senior Lecturer in Theology at Baylor University and author, most recently, of Another City: An Ecclesiological Primer for a Post–Christian World (Trinity Press International).