Brian Cox on the role of science in democracy

Physicist Brian Cox has a few choice words to say about the importance of a scientifically literate population for the proper functioning of democracy. (via Brain Pickings)

From the clip:

We live in a society — as the great the great physicist and communicator Carl Sagan always emphasized — a society that is entirely based on science, it is based on technology and engineering. All the great, important decisions that our democracy will be forced to take in the next decades, and all the way into the 21st century, are based on science — they’re based on scientific method, they’re based on an understanding what reason and reaching conclusions based on evidence is. And if the presentation of science is a Frankenstein presentation of science — a misrepresentation of what we do, a complete misselling of the wonder of exploration — then we have a problem in our democracies. And it’s the same problem that we have if we don’t have an educated population.

While I think that saying society is entirely based on science is a broad overstatement, I think that his basic message is sound. But the pursuit of scientific literacy is more than just an issue of acquiring all the facts and understanding the physical laws that form the framework of nature. It’s about developing a way of thinking in which everything is open to be questioned and facts are not facts unless they are backed up by observations. As Carl Sagan says in A Demon-Haunted World:

That kind of skeptical, questioning, “don’t accept what authority tells you” attitude of science — is also nearly identical to the attitude of mind necessary for a functioning democracy. Science and democracy have very consonant values and approaches, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.

and also:

Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen — or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.


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