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« Problems of Nanotechnology | Main | History of the Nanofactory »

August 04, 2006


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He's missing the big picture. The real issue is far more dramatic: how will the democracies of the West fare in competition against the centralized control of China? Which model will advance science and technology more effectively and efficiently? That's what's going to control the shape of the 21st century, not Big Tobacco and tired old slackjaw-Republican bashing.

jim moore

"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"?"

Science is not about meditation, its about systematic doubt, freely sharing data, information, procedures and theories, replicating each others work, and many other things. But the most important point is Science is the product of a social system!!!!! And Democratic societies have the best record on science.

As far as enemies of The Enlightenment goes the biggest threat that I see is from the Literary Idolators, weather its the Torah, the Bible or the Koran these people worship a book not God.

In America the enemies of the Enlightenment are the Bibliolators. The people who want us to believe that the English translation, of the Hebrew adaptation, of the Babylonian creation myth should be taken as unquestioned fact. They are the ones who want us to ignore all the contrary evidence, not to think with our own minds, never have the humility to think that our understanding of the world (or God) is incomplete and inaccurate. No they want us to have faith that if you worship the book enough, after you die you will get to go to the magic fairy land in the the sky and life happily ever after with the guy who wrote the holy book. An if you don't worship their holy book enough after you die you will have a eternity of pain.


The belief that a small cluster of cells is a human being is infinitely more dangerous, than biblical literalism regarding the book of Genesis.

Nato Welch

I don't get it.

Was de Tocqueville talking about democracy itself, or the more broad and vague "democratic society" (whatever that means).

All the examples Starobin cites as examples of how "democratic society" lets science down are valid occurrences whose existence and effect I don't dispute. What I would dispute is that these are examples **of** "demoratic society" that de Tocqueville was talking about.

If anything, resistance of science by Big Tobacco and global warming deniers is a prime example of //undemocratic// society - one run by a minority of wealthy aristrocrats bent on preserving their power. "Old school", if you will.

In order to even draw such a tenuous thread between democracy or democratic society and modern science resistance, one has to assume that we actually live in a democratic society. While it behooves current power elites to promote the illusion that they rule by means of a legitimate democratic mandate, there is considerable evidence to contrary.

Tom Craver

Just a point - "Warming denial" is not a single position.

There are some who still don't believe the climate is warming.

Many accept warming (glaciers melting and all), but say it isn't adequately proven that CO2 and any other human contributions are the only or biggest cause - and before we damage our economies by cutting back on energy use, we should invest more in studying the question first.

And there are those who accept that fossil fuel CO2 is very likely the cause of the warming - but say "So what - the Earth has been much warmer in earlier ages."

Then there are some who believe that the current small warming will be countered by solar dimming soon (we *are* due for another ice age after all), or other variations on that.

I suppose there are other minor variants, such as "It's a sign of the end times - so why worry" or maybe someone with a theory of why the data or models might be wrong or interpreted wrong.

I think, based on evidence that oil is peaking anyhow, the practical question comes down to what new energy source to build - we won't have the option of relyig so heavily on oil and natural gas much longer.

Coal, coal gassification, solar, nuclear, and wind seem the only fairly realistic choices. Regardless of whether global warming is real or damaging, investors will have to factor in the possibility of government intervention to make any coal-based power plants sequester CO2, which lowers the relative risk of the others.

michael vassar

Hi Mike and Chris. It won't surprise you to hear me repeat once again that actually reading de Tocqueville should be a VERY high priority. Some background is necessary if you are to interpret the quote from this article. Democracy in America is actually a book with three subjects, the United States in general, it's system of Democracy in particular, and the contrasting European system of Democracy.
By Democracy, de Tocqueville meant both near-equality of rights and near-equality of economic conditions. He saw Europe as tending in this direction over the preceeding four centuries or so, and saw America, or more specifically the Northern States, as having progressed further in that direction, but also as having progressed upon a different and far more benign path. His vision of European democracy seems to have been in essence accurate. That it lead, ultimately, to soul-crushing nations under the "dictoatorship of the school-mistress", and to something like Nietzche's "last man" seems to have been an accurate prediction, as was the prediction of concurrent flattening of genius, visible in the startling decline in the fraction of the population producing intellectual achievements of the highest caliber as documented fairly well in the sciences in a number of publications, but most compellingly in the arts in Charles Murray's book "Human Accomplishment: 800 BC to 1950 AD" (the sciences are also addressed there).
Democracy in (north-eastern) America was a very different beast. Characterized by almost complete economic equality and massive personal participation in extremely powerful but accountable local government, universal literacy, and no mandatory (or common) schooling, this "Yankee" form of Democracy generally fell into decline after the Civil war and is no longer a significant force in world affairs. During the "Progressive" era the US generally adopted, primarily in imitation of Prussia, a variation on the European style of Democracy, albeit characterized by exceptional enthusiasm for a few elements of the Bill of Rights. Then, as Southeastern neo-Feudalist cultural elements gradually mixed into the nation's national administration the entire nation moved radically away from the openness, accountability, and near equality of rights and economic conditions that had characterized the word Democracy in the minds of essentially all political thinkers from Plato to Aristotle to Jefferson to de Tocqueville. In short, while European style Democracy does indeed appear to be toxic to high-level intellectual accomplishment, the effects of American style Democracy on intellectual achievement are difficult to interpret given that American style Democracy has not existed on any large scale for nearly a century. The intellectual productivity of the current American system does appear to be substantially greater than that of contemporary Europe, but still orders of magnitude less per-literate-capita or per scientist hour, than that of Enlightenment Europe (See de Sotto Price's book "Big Science, Little Science", and Robert Root-Bernstein's "Discovering", and google Robin Hanson's papers on exponential growth modes, which reveal an approximately constant economic growth rate, one much larger than that characterizing the pre-scientific era, over a period during which the scientific population increased over a thousand-fold).

As for "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."
YES. That is COMPLETELY naive. If we were PHENOMENALLY lucky, Finalnd, Denmark or New Zealand might be able to do that,or the dictatorial Singapore, but there is NO WAY that the US can, at least in the next 40 years and in the absence of transhumans. The selection pressures acting on our elected officials simply rule out the possibility. Look at the mis-handling of the most TRIVIAL scientific issues, such as the proper preparation for hurricanes, or at the millions spent by the CIA on "remote viewing" experiments.

Nick Robilliard

Well as I read the article and the first comments I was thinking up my rely only to find Michael has beaten me to it, the political changes render the original quote a nonsense and current realities have certainly given rise to the political machine and elections on the theme of “trust me I have a plan” sung to the tune of “I will protect you”. Until being an elected official means having less power and includes a personal responsibility for inappropriate actions you will always have a majority of self-centred power seekers as your representatives.

That being said thus far any form (pick your version) of democratically elected government seems to ensure most people are able to live their lives as they would wish. Certainly separation of church, state and judiciary creates some effective “tensions” happily occupying the power seekers and leaving the majority to get one with their lives.

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