08 June 2018

Science and Democracy

Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 2016. Blue color represents more democratic countries, while red color represents countries considered as authoritarian.

During this last primary election in the USA, I volunteered to work as an election worker.
There was some downtime, so I ended up thinking a lot about Democracy and the ideas behind it and how today's democratic systems seem so distorted and inefficient.
As European, I grew up with my grandparents telling me stories about the feudal system, the same one they fought to remove. Such stories and life examples formed in me a strong opinion that the amount of money someone owns usually does not correspond to that person's talents and abilities. And also that the most effective way to make society prosper is to work towards broadening talent pools, not limiting it.
When the war started in my country of origin, I tried to figure out why people go to wars. Why would anyone accept the idea of war as a good solution? That started my trek on learning about human psychology, sociology, historical analysis, and even philosophy.
At the very beginning of the war, I bumped into complete works of Erich Fromm. It helped a lot to understand how people turn towards autocracies when corruption become so big that society cannot offer a decent life to the majority of its population.
But as a scientist, I find events connected with the science a great litmus test of future problems. See, when you have established a social structure with the ruling class and ‘peasants’ below, the ruling class likes to stay where they are. So they discourage innovation. Because innovation, new discoveries can show the incompetence of the current ruling class, proving that they do not deserve to be on the top. So ruling class stifles broad research encouraging only ‘safe topics’. The topics that will not rob them of their superior position.
Basic scientific research is first to go. That one is just too broad, too dangerous. I mean, last year there was that example of a lady scientist who tended her own pet bees and discovered a way to degrade plastic. Very useful innovation, we might get rid of loads of toxic and dangerous trash, but if you are in a position of power, you would ask yourself what else those too curious scientists can figure out?

In Democratic societies, one does not need to start with eliminating basic scientific research. It is enough to remove scientific education from the schools and then the electorate itself can be easily manipulated to go against innovation. If people do not know critical thinking skills, it is very easy to manipulate them. This approach is not new. Feudal systems used it for millennia.

So when society starts limits education and decides to control scientific research, alarms should start in your head. Because not soon after, the rise of autocratic modes of government will start.

Democracy failed a few times before. The most famous fall was in Roman times. The scientifically accepted explanation of those events emphasizes the removal of democratic institutions by the Roman military and the rise of inequality and corruption. In essence, the Roman state started falling before Augustus became the first emperor. It just took a long time to finally crash.

The recent loss of Democracy in Germany was way faster and it is more likely to repeat today than this ancient Roman example. Before the rise of Nazis, Germany was a democratic, inclusive society, a leader in science and social progress. The most innovations from that historic period come from Germany, the biggest names in science were German names, Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, etc. But when 30th rolled in, the majority of those names left Germany. And you know what happened afterward.

Anyway, through history one can follow the rise and fall of the societies by which ones had the most scientists. The innovation tends to blossom in young societies, where the ruling class did not grab the hold and control of the talent pool their population offers. But sooner or later all governments tend to set and form one ruling class. And then that class grabs the control of the innovation. When smart people start leaving society, the trouble will follow soon after. So if you’re in a country that suffers from ‘brain drain’, worry.

And ‘brain drain’ and vilification of science is what many of us are seeing today across the planet. Scientific education is getting discouraged. In the USA prices of education seriously cuts the size of the available talent pool. Recent changes in immigration also limit the importing of the talents. But the ruling class is safe and prospers.
I do not know is it possible to reverse the trend. Societies tend to have a lot of inertia. But we must try, because right now the current ruling class, all over the world, is putting our own survival as species into question. The alternative is the death of human species.
During that long day, I was thinking about what can be done. My own husband is very active in politics, and I had an opportunity to meet and talk with politicians. And most of the times I get reminded of the saying from my country “Sjaši Murta, uzjaši Kurta” (Dismount Mike, mount up Kevin -- meaning nothing changes but a name of the ruler). Especially with local career politicians.

I did meet a few different politicians. People that seemed like a breath of the fresh air, people with the integrity, honesty. Additional checks of the multiple sources confirmed that they really are who they say they are. So good people interested in politics exist.
Maybe there is a chance to fix this without that bloodletting that accompanied previous historic fixes. I almost wish that we do have that tool from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, to calculate what to do to save humans. But that’s just me daydreaming.
The catch is, we cannot control other people, only ourselves. But at least I can do what is my duty as a citizen of a democratic society and vote. I decided to follow my values when choosing to whom to give my vote. And today is easy to decide, few hours of googling of candidates are all that it takes to find out does the things a politician says actually matches to their life, lifestyle, and previous actions. Then you can really pick someone who will actually represent your values and your morality.

In the USA, voters can vote by mail. I am doing exactly that. It is easier because I have internet access to do detail research and I can do it in my own time.
I would recommend you to figure out how to do similar stuff in your own place of residence. If your country allows you to vote, do your research and vote. Maybe then we could actually end up with the government members who truly represent us, not just interests of the entrenched ruling minority. Maybe then we will end up with societies that will reflect interests of the majority and not only of the ruling minority.
I do not know will this suggestion work or not, but it is worth of try. If it works, it will spare us of loads of suffering, bloodletting, destruction, etc. Because if you refuse to vote, then an alternative for change is a war.
As someone who lived through a war, I can tell you that it is way better, way better not to go to war. So please try the peaceful option you have.


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