Science and Democracy in the Arab Spring and American Fall

[The following is an expanded version of an essay that was read on Valley Public Radio about a week ago as part of their series “The Moral Is“. Archives of the audio broadcast will, hopefully, be available on KVPR’s website in the near future. Meanwhile, freed from the constraints of time and word limits, I have expanded some of my thoughts on the subject and included a couple of images to share below. The essay was inspired by a conversation with Dr. Alaa Ibrahim after I heard him talk about the Cairo Science Festival and the role of science in society last February.]

We are living through a remarkable year for democracy in the world, with autocratic regimes tottering and toppling like dominoes across north Africa and the Middle East, pushed by the growing will of ordinary people who’ve had enough. It was twitter and Facebook that fomented the January 25th revolution in Egypt, we are told. While these modern tools of communication did help coordinate the movement, their importance was rather overblown by the American mass media, whose pundits largely failed to detect or understand the undercurrents that lead to the revolution. More likely, some say, it was rising prices of food and water that drove people to desperation and revolt. Yet, they all overlook another, perhaps deeper and more fundamentally revolutionary undercurrent in Egyptian society: Science! More precisely, the growing public dissemination of science through events like the Cairo Science Festival held in Tahrir Square—epicenter of the January 25th revolution—a mere six months before that square caught all of our imaginations as a beacon of peaceful democratic revolutions. But what does science have to do with democracy?

Dr. Alaa Ibrahim an Egyptian Astronomer, was a postdoctoral scholar at MIT when he experienced the Cambridge Science Festival, an annual celebration of science, technology, engineering, and math. Inspired by the enthusiasm of the participants in the festival, and the potential to fire up the imagination of ordinary people with the wonders of science, Dr. Ibrahim returned to Egypt determined to start a similar science festival. His efforts bore fruit in 2010 when the first Cairo Science Festival was held “to increase awareness of, and opportunities in, science and its role in development, particularly for Egyptian youth, who represent the majority of Cairo’s population of 20 million.” Young people in Egypt, once the heart of a great civilization, were able to connect in real time with counterparts in the US, and even converse with Nobel laureates. How inspiring that must have been!

Six months later, many of the same youth gathered again at the very same location—but this time to demand freedom and democracy. Dr. Ibrahim was there too, along with his young children. In sharing this story at the International Public Science Events Conference during the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC last February, Dr. Ibrahim suggested a direct connection between fostering a culture of science and promoting democracy. Its hard not to be convinced by his juxtaposition of images of the festival and the revolution in the same physical space, with children who enjoyed science shows earlier now sitting on tanks, chanting for democracy in the same Tahrir Square!

Science is about asking questions about how the world really works. A culture of knowledge with science at its core enables its citizens to ask questions, not only about the natural world, but also about the political world they inhabit. A citizenry with a habit of asking questions is a difficult one for autocrats to control. Ergo, democracy! Last May, science once again occupied center stage at Tahrir Square for the second Cairo Science Festival, highlighting the role of science and technology during social and political revolutions. Indeed, Egyptian scientists continue to play an active role in their country’s ongoing social/political revolution towards democracy.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the once shining beacon of democracy and science both, a rather different political movement has gained momentum recently—but this one is inimical to science. Not only do the leaders of this Tea Party demand serious cuts in funding for science, they also actively undermine the teaching of science in the nation’s classrooms. At a time of economic recession, science and technology are strangely viewed as luxuries we can ill afford, rather than as the very engines of any potential economic recovery. Congressmen, Senators, and all but one Presidential hopeful from the Republican Party try to outcompete each other not by demonstrating their knowledge, but by displaying their ignorance: denying the evidence for evolution or for a human role in forcing global climate change, to name but two hot-button issues. Science is a threat to a certain narrow (but widespread) view of religion, and must therefore be suppressed.

Therein lies another, perhaps paradoxical, facet of the relationship between science and democracy. As Dr. Ibrahim argues—and I agree—a scientific temper provides a good strong foundation for democracy. History provides plenty of evidence for the two going hand-in-hand all the way back to the Greeks who may be justly credited with inventing the modern forms of both these wonderful human endeavors. Yet science itself is most emphatically not a democratic process, being beholden to testable evidence from the real world! Truths and ideas in science, unlike human laws and regulations, stand or fall on the basis of evidence alone, and are not up for debate or popular vote. Trying to legislate away the reality of evolution or anthropogenic climate change is therefore a fool’s errand, for, after all, species continue to evolve in response to ongoing natural selection, and the global climate continues to be destabilized as we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere like there is no tomorrow. Opinions, yours or mine, no matter how popular, don’t really matter to the functioning of the real world, which is the domain of science. Democracy, on the other hand, is the domain of humanity, our social sphere, how we choose to govern ourselves, and it can only benefit from taking science’s hand and grounding itself in reality. Politicians who choose to ignore science, or want to legislate its truths away, chasing popular opinion and votes, do so to their own, and all of our, long-term peril.

Thus have we come to the current state of affairs, where one ancient civilization seeks to rise anew, with the help of science as a handmaiden to democracy, even as the world’s dominant superpower risks losing its leadership in science and technology, because a few vocal but ill-informed leaders have its citizenry convinced that science is useless, even inimical to the prospect of living a moral life.

We live in strange and interesting times indeed.

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