Science and democracy: institutions in search of a sociopolitical identity


Jesús Rey Rocha | Emilio Muñoz Ruiz

Jan, 2021

It is frequently either implicitly or explicitly implied that science and democracy go hand in hand, that both are based on and uphold critical thinking, yet in science there are no dogmas or absolute truths. In fact, science and technology do not always go hand in hand with, or remain rooted in, free and critical thinking in the democratic sense. One can theorize about the origin of the universe, discover and manufacture a vaccine, or implement the technology necessary to deploy a 5G network, with no more of a critical attitude than the bare minimum needed to rationally solve the corresponding scientific and technical problems. It is not imperative that science function politically, institutionally and socially according to democratic models. History provides us with examples of less than democratic countries and regimes that have executed great scientific and technical achievements, as well as have committed great strategic errors, as was the case with Lysenko and agrarian policy in the Soviet Union.

The link between science and democracy tends to fade in those countries not particularly characterized by political systems of a democratic nature, yet experiencing scientific and technological progress. We are confronting the beginning of the 21st Century, primarily distinguished by the COVID-19 pandemic. This century could, however, be cast in future history books as one of China emerging as the dominant world power, to the detriment of the United States, where President Trump’s mandate seems to have weakened its democracy. It might also be marked by the tiredness of Europe, which still has yet to achieve internal cohesion or a common economic and social model. China, and the countries of the Indo-Pacific region within its area of influence, can challenge the United States and Europe as a political and social model, as well as their economic and scientific-technological leadership.

The sociology of science distinguishes two dimensions of science as a phenomenon or social institution: [1][1] See: Merton, R. K. (1977). La sociología de la ciencia [The sociology of science]. Madrid: Alianza Editorial; Manassero Mas, M. A., & Vázquez Alonso, A. (1999). Actitudes hacia la influencia de la sociedad en la ciencia y la tecnología [Attitudes towards the influence of society in science]. Arbor, CLXII(637), 45-72. one internal, and the other external. The first pertains to the norms, uses, values and customs governing the behavior of the scientific community as a group. The external dimension relates to the relationships established between the scientific community and the rest of the societal fabric.

Photo_ Carlos Cerulla_ CC BY 4.0

This two-dimensional schema can also be applied to democracy. The democratic model is comprised of three different powers—the legislative, executive and judicial—ideally separate and independent. The internal dimension, at least as relates to the first two powers, which are those most closely linked to political action, is excessively present. It occupies too much space in many of the current democratic regimes, including in the media and in public life. This takes place at the expense of the external dimension, which affects democratic relations between the different communities that constitute the different powers—those of politics—with citizens, their problems and their needs.

Within the framework of this external dimension of democratic political community relations between the institutions and citizens that make up the rest of society, it is possible to incorporate two dimensions: first, a gnoseological dimension, i.e., one of knowledge found in political messages and action; and secondly, an epistemological one, specifically concerning the science of knowledge. A democracy detached from emotions is called for: one in which messages, decisions and political actions aimed at objectives like improved societal well-being, equality, or migration management, are informed by and based on objective data, evidence, or verified expert and scientific knowledge.

In a reality where humanity is subject to extreme emergencies as well as social, economic and political challenges, where the central issue in 2021 is the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens need and demand certainties and proven truths, but when faced with the pressures of immediacy, they find it difficult to accept how science and democracy work.

Dogmatism, religions, totalitarianisms and populisms affect the emotions: they provide dogmas of faith, certainties, absolute truths and simple answers to complex problems, via messages that citizens can easily assimilate. Indiscriminate acceptance is easiest, as it requires little effort and offers what seem to be satisfactory solutions to everyday problems and uncertainties. Many of these are applicable in the short term, and therefore do not necessitate any real reflection and strategy.

Science and democracy do not provide absolute and immutable truths, rather, «evolutionary truths» subject to constant scrutiny and critical analysis, and reexamined through experimentation. Furthermore, they require the effort of reflection and criticism.

On the other hand, science and democracy do not provide absolute and immutable truths, rather, «evolutionary truths» [2][2] Muñoz Ruiz, E. (2013). Investigación responsable. Condicionantes de la accesibilidad a los resultados, publicaciones y conocimientos [Responsible research. Factors in the accessibility of results, publications and knoweldge]. Medes, medicina en español, Boletín 7, 31-35. subject to constant scrutiny and critical analysis, and reexamined through experimentation. Furthermore, they require the effort of reflection and criticism.

«Institutions are what matter, but you can overload them in slow motion until one day you wake up and discover that in your country there is no separation of powers, no independent media.» José Ignacio Torreblanca, director of the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) in Madrid, [3][3] Torreblanca, J. I. (2020). Los autócratas se disfrazan de demócratas [Autocrats disguised as democrats]. Especial Ethic: 2020, el año que cambió la historia. makes this revealing statement: we must recognize the signs of the slow and discreet attack (in the eyes of non-experts) suffered by democracy and its institutions at the hands of infiltrating autocrats, disguised in the tulles of democracy. They are armed with populism and dogmatism, and camouflaged by networks of deception, falsehood and lies.

COVID-19 coincides with institutional weakening in many countries. In multiple cases, institutional trust is undermined from within, deliberately, via strategic planning that had already been taking place, even before the pandemic. While some institutions, including that of public health, experience strengthened citizen trust, the institution of democracy is victim to multiple attacks; the media is challenged by unfair competition from the infodemic and infotoxication that circulates without filter, encouraged and reinforced by the power of social networks. This decrease in trust affects one of the fundamental livelihoods of human societies from their origin, throughout our evolution as a species and until today. [4][4] Delgado, L. (2020). «Yuval Noah Harari: Si la confianza en las instituciones desaparece, nuestra civilización se vendrá abajo.» Telos.

The institution of science faces a dual scenario. On the one hand, due to the pandemic, there is an increase of public trust in scientists, as well as in scientific and academic institutions. At the same time, as we will point out in the following, practices that distort scientific knowledge proliferate, along with attempts to overpower and delegitimize it.

In countries with weak scientific development and institutions, pandemic communication and scientific positions are very frequently offered individually, personally, by scientists and disseminators who, naturally, have experience and work with objectivity. At the same time, these individuals coexist with some others who, propelled by the glare of the media spotlight, end up stepping outside of their area of scientific expertise. Scientific and academic institutions (research organizations, universities, scientific societies, etc.), while striving to respond to the pandemic through research and the application of science, do not always succeed in providing information and recommendations backed by this institutional strength.

Meanwhile, in more scientifically developed countries, a greater institutional presence is observed, which allows for more evidenced information, backed by these institutions. However, this situation tempts political powers to attempt to control these institutions, by disdaining and belittling certain scientific evidence, and thereby undermining the public’s trust. This is the case with the Trump administration, which has been criticized by U.S. scientific institutions for meddling with their reports and ignoring their advice and recommendations. [5][5] These criticisms have been echoed by some of the main scientific journals. See: Mervis, J. (2020). Trump has shown little respect for U.S. science. So why are some parts thriving? Science; Viglione, G. (2020). Four ways Trump has meddled in pandemic science — and why it matters. Nature

In turn, citizens are putting a face to scientists, as they discover scientific institutions, societies and journals. Throughout this pandemic, just as we can peer into the homes of journalists, talk shows and experts, we are peeking inside scientific laboratories, which for many citizens were unknown places; this makes it easier to discern truthful, evidenced and reliable information.

Trust in scientific institutions is pitted against attempts to blur and delegitimize scientific knowledge, by certain political parties, conspiracy theorists, denial movements, and social networks, which act to stir the cultural pot; they serve as Petri dishes where the infodemic’s hoaxes, lies, and half-truths of proliferate.

It is true that currently, this knowledge and trust is mainly directed towards the field of health. However, as Yuval Noah Harari points out, it is foreseeable that once this pandemic is over, this growing respect for institutions, professionals, scientists and health personnel, will be extended to those in other areas of specialty that very directly affect us, including those experts in climate, ecology, urban sustainability, water management or behavioral sciences.

The economy is a markedly different field, which has acquired a predominant position, privileged with respect to the other sciences, as a result of its capacity for influencing emotions. It offers what appear to be certainties, yet they do not always rest on empirical or objective evidence; it seemingly presents indisputable truths, no matter how much time constantly modifies them, which is either accepted or excused by lack of collective memory or scientific courage. Its role becomes particularly prominent in societies which, like Spanish-speaking societies, do not have a language that has differentiated terms to clearly and precisely distinguish academic economics from that which refers to the organization and management of assets. The English language, by contrast, distinguishes between economy (the economy; the system of finance, commerce and industry through which wealth is generated and used) and economics (economic science; social science that deals with analyzing and describing production, distribution and consumption of wealth).

Science is advancing the understanding of the current environmental and health emergencies’ effects, and the prospective analysis of possible future effects. In fact, for some time, scientists have been warning about the occurrence of pandemics, as well as about global warming effects and the overexploitation of planetary resources. Scientific institutions have the capacity to generate knowledge: consultative, predictive, even didactic capacity. It can also raise populational and institutional awareness. However, their direct capacity is very limited, if not null, beyond the influence they may have on third institutions and on society. They do not have legislative or normative capacity, much less judicial, even though they may try to provide empirical knowledge to the three powers in support of decision-making.

The potential of an impending, substantial transformation once we have defeated the COVID-19 pandemic, commands a new institutional paradigm, and structural change in public and private institutions, as well as in public policies. Moreover, it requires change in the exercise and values of citizenship, along with all the rights and obligations this entails.

The potential of an impending, substantial transformation once we have defeated the COVID-19 pandemic, commands a new institutional paradigm, and structural change in public and private institutions, as well as in public policies. Moreover, it requires change in the exercise and values of citizenship, along with all the rights and obligations this entails.

To carry out this change, we prefer that, as with science, institutions stand «on the shoulders of giants,» analyzing and critically reviewing what has been done in the past, as well looking to future possibilities. This entails recognizing and correcting the mistakes that have been made, and rejecting erroneous knowledge, or whatever does serve useful in facing the future. This means advancing on the foundations of valid, proven knowledge. We must recognize, as Manuel Cruz [6][6] Cruz, M. (2020) La dividida herencia de la Transición [The divided inheritance of the Transition]. El País indicates, that one’s own merits (both individual and collective) are thanks «to the influence and previous work carried out by a previous person, group or a generation,» and must also take care to «adopt precisely that same approach when speaking of demerits.» We are calling for something fundamental and rare: self-criticism.

Facing this systemic crisis requires departing from the pride and arrogance that characterizes our self-described «developed societies,» in order to analyze what is happening to us from a place of humility and modesty. We must recognize that we are facing a situation which, as Alessandro Baricco points out, [7][7] Baricco, A. (2020). Ahora por fin ocurrirá algo [Now finally something is happening]. El País has found favorable breeding ground among a series of circumstances combined with the inertia of «prolonged and exasperating agony.» Far from being a new, divine punishment—as religious fundamentalists interpret it—the COVID-19 pandemic represents the new and bloody manifestation of an Anthropocene period characterized by the human footprint on both planet earth and the rest of its inhabitants. The current health, economic and social emergency reflects and manifests a systemic crisis that affects and derives from the elements composing this breeding ground: «the democratic system, the consumer society, the capitalist system, the Anthropocene, the romantic culture, the elites of the 20th Century,» [8][8] IBid globalized capitalism, overexploitation of natural resources, growing inequality, etc.

Expressing a «new political imaginary,» this second volume of metapolis invites its authors to reflect on the state of permanent systemic crisis that stagnant public institutions are incapable of mitigating, and appeals to solidarity and cooperation, to realize the full potential of the commons. It invokes values as a core component in responding to this systemic crisis.

Values of solidarity and international cooperation guided the birth of the European Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECE) in 1948, which administered US and Canadian aid within the framework of the Marshall Plan in order to reconstruct Europe after World War II. The OECE would later give rise, in 1960, to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The COVID-19 pandemic is said to be the largest global health, economic and social crisis facing the world since that time. Pedro Sánchez, President of the Government of Spain, and Angel Gurría, Secretary General of the OECD, argue in a co-authored article that the world needs to be once again inspired by these values. [9][9] Sánchez, P., & Gurría, A. (2020). Una agenda multilateral para la recuperación. El País, 13 Dic. At its 2020 Ministerial Conference, the OECD envisioned a «resilient, inclusive and ecological» post-COVID-19 recovery, with an agenda calling for multilateralism. A «strong» recovery, is a somewhat vague qualifier. What should be sought is a firm and solid recovery: stable, well-founded and long-lasting. We appeal to an evolutionarily sustainable socio-political management of the crisis, with a political and institutional framework based on a global political-social ecology, which incorporates the concepts of political ecology and social ecology, politicizing environmental problems and phenomena, and paying greater attention to the social, psychological, institutional and cultural contexts of relationships between humans and the environment.

Likewise, we advocate for recovery and regeneration supported by values-based governance, with participation of both institutions and citizens. Even the application of values can manifest differently, and be interpreted variously. An example includes the governmental and institutional response to large technology companies’ growth and power, as well as innovation developments. Ana Fuentes, former correspondent for the SER chain in Beijing, explains: [10][10] Fuentes, A. (2020). Tecnosocialismo con características chinas [Tehnosocialism with Chinese characteristics]. El País. In the Western World, the United States and the European Union, to combat large technology companies’ monopolistic practices, seem to appeal to the value of responsibility as articulated by a the European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager; meanwhile, China invokes the value of loyalty, directed towards the national interests that align with those of the party and the government, allowing for innovation, research and technological development if marked by loyalty and compatibility with authoritarianism. This is what Fuentes calls «technosocialism with Chinese characteristics,» and this is what we can ultimately consider is part of the different «techno-regimes» («technodemocracies,» where applicable). In different parts of the world, these regimes relate to science in different ways, alongside innovation and technological development, with the corresponding economic and social effects.

Learning, and our species’ collective intelligence, should allow us to glean useful lessons from these phenomena and challenges, which require both global responses and local action framed by global thought: «globalization» or, as Manuel Rivas argues, a universal localism. [11][11] Rivas, M. (2020). Zona a defender [Area to defend]. Barcelona: Alfaguara.

To date, global change and consecutive environmental emergencies seem to result in lessons learned in the technological field. For example, the knowledge gained in containing floods, implementing non-pollutive renewable energies, or creating more sustainable city models.

In the health field, vaccines have managed to eradicate diseases such as smallpox, and defeat other terrible infectious diseases. Together with epidemiological prevention and monitoring measures, they constitute the battlefront against COVID-19. And in the political sphere, international coordination and multilateralism achieve progress in the ambits of international agreements and strategies such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Although SDGs do not always achieve the fulfillment of each objective and provision, they constitute advances, even as they confront antithetical forces embodied in the form of nationalist and obstructionist totalitarianisms, and denialism in many forms.

At the same time, democracies have survived multiple challenges in the final years of the 20th, and dawn of the 21st Century. While some countries’ democracies seem to have strengthened, others are threatened and subjected to attacks of diverse nature and origin; democracies resist thanks to their intrinsic strength, as well as that of the institutions and their defenders who fight to maintain and secure them.

The strength, reliability and commitment of institutions, supported by the exercise of individual and collective responsibility of citizens, constitute a decisive framework within which to ensure that objectives and agreements, attractively packaged, do not simply remain on paper: sustainable development, corporate social responsibility, green economy, energy transition, circular economy, digital transformation…

The concept of «the collective,» applied as an adjective to intelligence, which includes knowledge and action, requires the dynamization of public institutions and fighting inequality. A balance must be struck between individual and collective interests, which allows for overcoming the dual and simplistic debate surrounding the confrontation between the two. The collective relates to what belongs to or pertains to the community, with the common, with the commons: It denotes reunion, the strengthening of ties, collective action. As such, it deals with the common good or benefit (the commons), with collaboration, and with values that should be universal, such as empathy, solidarity, generosity, loyalty and social justice.

The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of interdependence, the value of mutual and reciprocal care, and of institutions that safeguard the common interest and welfare. These institutions include schools, the health system, social services and those that deal with essential services, which have an important role in socialization and equidistribution of resources, services and care.

The European Commission’s recovery fund represents a historic agreement in that it is a model pointing to a more supportive response. It is a paradigm shift in comparison to the model adopted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which was based on action focused particularly and unilaterally: individualized financial bailout plans paired with austerity policies, both of which lack solidarity by nature. However, how it is finally put into practice, and what results, remain to be seen.