Martin Robbins: Effective democracy depends on it

Martin Robbins is a scientist with a background in complexity and ecology, and is currently working in industry. He blogs at The Lay Scientist, and runs the Blogging on Pseudoscience Database.

A democracy works on the principle that people are able to make informed choices, and to be able to make these choices we need evidence. A key role of science in a 21st century democracy is to provide that evidence, and never before in history have so many political issues been linked to so much scientific enquiry.

Prior to the U.S. election the journal Nature came out in support of the Barack Obama. Their motivation, and a motivation for a large number of scientists and science-minded people to support Obama, came from an apparent lack of understanding of science displayed by the Republican candidates — a lack of understanding that many believed to be downright dangerous.

A week before the election Sarah Palin commented that she felt it was appalling that taxpayers’ money was being wasted on “things like fruit fly research”. That a person who was two steps removed from the White House was unaware of the fact that research into fruit flies is pivotal to things like crop protection and the broader genetics research vital to medicine was shocking enough, but her ambiguous comments about creationism in the classroom and “skeptical” position on climate science were intolerable to the scientific community.

Of course a layperson could be forgiven for not knowing the benefits of fruit-fly research, but for a potential President to threaten science funding without understanding what that money is for shows a reckless disregard for research.

An understanding of science is vital to an understanding of politics, and not just in the obviously scientific issues such as global warming, obesity or stem-cell research, but in areas such as the economy, city planning, disaster management, and of course energy. Science gave us the industrial revolution and the information age, and if we are to thrive in a post-oil world with new sources of energy then it will be science that shows us how.

Academics published papers years ahead of the 2003 invasion of Iraq predicting the likely aftermath (and how to avoid it), but their contributions were largely overlooked. In May this year a disastrous tsunami now largely forgotten by the Western media struck Burma, killing tens of thousands. The disaster could have been at least partially prevented by the proper management of mangrove forests along the Irawaddy Delta — scientists had described how in earlier research conducted after the Asian Tsunami of December 2004.

So science has a role to play in guiding virtually every aspect of government policy. Because of this, it is vital that our leaders are scientifically literate, and equally important that voters can recognize those who are suitably qualified, and those who are not. Effective democracy depends on it.


  1. Lizzie
    Posted December 1, 2008 at 5:36 PM | Permalink | Reply

    So glad to see someone bring up the 'fruit fly' comment. I really felt it was the height of ignorance (and in her case, that's saying something) and hoped to see more made of it in the press. It was a completely counterproductive, trivializing statement that reflects a frightening trend in which science is seen as a waste of money instead of a key to progress in industry, health and environmental sectors.

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