Tag Archives: democracy

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.

Why don’t we just poke for democracy? You know, instead of waging wars and such…

A deconstruction of the US’ attitude towards democracy:

“… er, so, if two speeches and a social media site is all we needed to spread democracy… er… why did we invade Iraq? Why didn’t we just, I don’t know, poke them?” – Jon Stewart.

Unmaking of Modern India, and of democracies everywhere?

Something to ponder, at the end of this interview with historian (eclectically, of cricket, environmentalism, Gandhi and democracy in modern India, among other things) Ramachandra Guha, on the subjects of his new book Makers of Modern India, about the increasingly forgotten intellectual antecedents who shaped our nation:

Q It seems that this robust intellectual tradition in the sphere of politics has vanished today. What happened?

A The period from 1820 to 1970 was exceptional, but now our democracy, like most democracies, has become routine and polemical. The thinking on such questions has shifted to universities and the media. A thinker-politician like Barack Obama is a rare exception; you cannot find his equivalent anywhere else. This is the general trend in democracies.

Q Do you see a politician today who could figure in the list if this book were updated 20 years on?

A (Laughs).

I’ll have to look for the book.

Holding government and politicians accountable to save nature gets you killed in India

In a democracy, citizens are supposed to have access to information about what their government is up to, so that the said government and its elected officials can be held to account. In the world’s largest democracy, India, however, the sun has rarely been allowed to shine on the goings on of politicians who “represent” the people, the bureaucracy that is supposed to run the country for the people, and the police and military apparatus that is supposed to protect the people, from threats within and without. This huge democracy took a lumbering step in the right direction in 2005 when the Right To Information or RTI Act – a sunshine law – was passed by parliament to provide a mechanism for the public to find out what was being done in their name, and to hold those in power accountable.

Of course, having laws passed on paper is one thing – actually implementing them is another, especially in India. While the RTI law has definitely provided quite a powerful tool for citizen activists to hold this democracy to account, invoking it can still leave these brave citizens exposed to deadly retribution, which itself can be covered up by the nexus between politicians, bureaucracy, and police. As the environmentalist and RTI activist Amit Jethwa found out this week. He wasn’t the first (and likely won’t be the last, alas) to put his life on the line to exercise this basic right (RTI).

As the reports below indicate, in this case, a local Member of Parliament is a prime suspect in Jethwa’s murder. An MP from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which isn’t exactly known to shy away from violence to achieve its ends. Or from using the state apparatus to both commit violence on some of its citizenry, and to cover it up. I don’t know what the likelihood is that the Gujarat police will bring the murderers to justice, especially when they are so politically well connected. Their track record during and in the aftermath of the 2002 “communal riots” doesn’t inspire much confidence. I just hope that the media continues to keep a spotlight on this murder to bring some justice to this brave young man who martyred himself for the environment. And may his sacrifice inspire more young people in India to push the country towards true democracy.


The iPad’s future shock, and the puzzling reactions of the technorati

The following article comes close to my feelings watching the tech world and many of my friends go bonkers over Apple’s announcement of the iPad this week. Will I get one myself – maybe not the first generation, but sure, I can see plenty of uses for a device like this. And I speak as someone who’s been using an iPhone for a few months and am really impressed at how intuitive and easy to use that device is – even to my 4-yr-old. Will it replace my desktop/laptop computers? Probably not. But really, for most of what I use my laptop for on a daily basis – email, reading papers, web browsing, writing, making and presenting lectures, even field data collection – I can easily see an iPad being perfectly adequate for most of this. Personally, I’d like to wait and see how it all plays out rather than pass judgment – but I suspect this article is closer to the mark than much of the ranting I’ve read elsewhere. Oh, and the name iPad doesn’t bother me any more than having to use a notePad bothers me in daily life – so I wonder why folks who might find the idea of a bachelor Pad exciting are upset about this moniker! Its just odd. But read this, especially if you share those misgivings:

I can’t help being struck by the volume and vehemence of apparently technologically sophisticated people inveighing against the iPad.

Some are trying to dismiss these ravings by comparing them to certain comments made after the launch of the iPod in 2001: “No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” I fear this January-26th thinking misses the point.

What you’re seeing in the industry’s reaction to the iPad is nothing less than future shock.

For years we’ve all held to the belief that computing had to be made simpler for the “average person.” I find it difficult to come to any conclusion other than that we have totally failed in this effort.

Secretly, I suspect, we technologists quite liked the idea that Normals would be dependent on us for our technological shamanism. Those incantations that only we can perform to heal their computers, those oracular proclamations that we make over the future and the blessings we bestow on purchasing choices.

Ask yourself this: in what other walk of life do grown adults depend on other people to help them buy something? Women often turn to men to help them purchase a car but that’s because of the obnoxious misogyny of car dealers, not because ladies worry that the car they buy won’t work on their local roads. (Sorry computer/car analogy. My bad.)

I’m often saddened by the infantilizing effect of high technology on adults. From being in control of their world, they’re thrust back to a childish, medieval world in which gremlins appear to torment them and disappear at will and against which magic, spells, and the local witch doctor are their only refuges.

If the iPad pushes us even a little bit further in this direction – towards making technology more accessible and easier to use for most folks (and eventually cheaper/affordable as well), then what’s not to like? As a friend commented on a Facebook thread, the real promise of technology can only be realized if it can be democratized, and made available to as many people as possible, and if it breaks up the monopoly of elites on information. Seems to me, as the above article suggests, that Apple’s approach to the OS may finally be breaking the monopoly of the OS-congnoscenti elite! And that can’t be all bad.