No one can doubt that the production and consumption of scientific knowledge are major enterprises in the operation of the modern state and in civil society. Societies too impoverished to create their own science and technology use and feel the impact of those activities in their economic and political interactions with others, even if it is only to employ those technologies as weapons against their own creators. The penetration of science into political and civil society, however, poses a special problem for the operation of the democratic state. On the one hand the behavior of the state is supposed to reflect the popular will, as determined either by a direct appeal to the opinion of the people or through the intermediary of their elected representatives. On the other hand, the esoteric knowledge and understanding required to make rational decisions in which science and technology are critical factors lie in the possession of a small expert elite. Even within the ranks of “scientists” only a tiny subset have the necessary expertise to make an informed decision about a particular issue. Whatever their view of my ideological biases, no one can deny my understanding of the scientific questions involved in the genetic engineering of crops, but I am incompetent to decide whether Edward Teller or his opponents among physicists were right about the possibilities of building an X-ray laser that was to be the center of the Star Wars missile defense.
The eighteenth-century theoreticians of representative democracy understood that an educated electorate was an underlying assumption of the well-functioning democratic state, but they could have had no conception of what such an education would entail two centuries later. How is the democratic state to function if the mass of the citizens is dependent on the expert knowledge available only to a tiny elite, an elite that in its formation and direct economic interest comes to represent only a narrow sector of society? Why would the Salvadoran immigrant woman who cleans my office believe that she and the Alexander Agassiz Research Professor at Harvard have sufficient commonality of interest and world view that she ought to trust my opinion on whether her meager hourly wage should be taxed to support the Human Genome Project?
There are two interrelated issues in the confrontation between expert knowledge and social and political action. First, how are we to go about acquiring socially relevant knowledge? While there remain a few vestiges of the belief that knowledge of some aspects of material nature can come from divine revelation, these do not generally impinge on the interactions between the believers and the physical world. Apparently even the most devoted adherent of fundamentalist faith agrees that one must go to flight school to learn how to operate an airplane. Since the activities of research and development that produce scientific knowledge and its technological applications require the expenditure of a good deal of time and money, hard decisions have to be made. Should $4 billion be spent from federal funds on …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.