Paul Starobin has posted a thought-provoking article in the National Journal entitled "Who Turned Out the Enlightenment?"
A fascinating, if somewhat frightening, societal experiment is under way. The question is whether democracy naturally advances science, or whether modern progress in science actually has less to do with heralded forms of government than with the fruit born of a special moment in historical time, the modern European Enlightenment, from which America, courtesy of the Founders, greatly benefited.
Starobin quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, "the French aristocrat who toured this America in 1831 and was its most perceptive chronicler," as saying:
Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences or of the more elevated departments of science than meditation; and nothing is less suited to meditation than the structure of democratic society.
Is this observation valid? Is democratic society ill-suited to "the culture of the higher sciences"? If so, this would require a deep rethink of all our views -- CRN's included -- on the future of government and society in a world permeated by advanced technologies such as personal nanofactories.
For a very long time, this appeared to be the rare Tocqueville insight that was off the mark. Our current age, though, seems bent on proving him right after all.
In support of this contention, Starobin points to recent American history:
When Big Tobacco was confronted with reams of scientific data confirming medical warnings of the dangers of smoking, the Brown and Williamson Co. set out to muddy the waters by creating the false appearance of scientific controversy. "Doubt is our product," an internal company memo in the 1960s famously declared.
He compares that to the current (largely manufactured) controversy over the reality and the cause of global warming:
Big Tobacco's cause was, in the main, a provincial one, advanced by lawmakers from tobacco-growing regions. By contrast, in today's supercharged partisan environment, the debate over the science on climate change is one of the most polarizing issues between the two [US] political parties.
In an April National Journal Congressional Insiders Poll of 111 members of the House and Senate, 98 percent of Democrats answered yes to the question, "Do you think it's been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is warming because of man-made pollution?" But only 23 percent of Republicans said yes, with the remaining 77 percent answering no. Are the two sides reading different textbooks?
This is startling and disturbing. We'd like to think that legislators will rise above partisan concerns when the fate of our planet hangs in the balance. But perhaps that is naive.
Within the next decade or two, molecular manufacturing -- a powerful form of fourth generation nanotechnology -- will reach maturity. Is democratic society up to the task of providing an effective and responsible answer to the serious environmental, humanitarian, economic, military, political, social, medical, and ethical implications of this transformative technology?