Just in case we needed a reminder, the debate over the desirability and duration of stay-at home orders during the current coronavirus pandemic has exposed the uncomfortable relationship that exists between science and democracy. Science points in the direction of the rule of the expert while democracy is rooted in the principle of popular sovereignty.
While the American people and scientists have competing claims to rule (popular consent vs. scientific knowledge), each actually needs the other to survive peaceably and comfortably, so neither can afford to completely discredit or abandon the other.
Modern, rights-oriented democracies like the United States desire much of what science has to offer, including a real shot at comfortable preservation for the many and not just for the few. There are good reasons, then, for democracies to be perplexed when it comes to the relationship they should seek with persons who have mastered the physical and natural sciences.
The tension between competing claims to rule based on popular consent on the one side, and scientific knowledge on the other side, only came to a head once the democratic model of government was shown to be defensible, principally by the Founding generation in the United States.
Living with the tension between democracy and science in a responsible way requires that we distinguish the respective spheres within which “political” reasoning and “scientific” reasoning should prevail. This is easier asserted than accomplished, but doing this intelligently is critical to having a decent and competent democratic nation.
One major distinction between the realm of politics and the scientific realm is that the political arena is dominated by matters that are fundamentally variable, something that is not true in the realm of science. Additionally, political decision-makers by definition are persons of practical action who are expected to deliberate and issue commands whereas scientists are not obligated to take action or issue commands.
Political officials who are reputed to be “prudent” are persons who excel at adjusting policies to changing circumstances, including changing public opinions, and who recognize that “contingency” is a characteristic of political life. The prudent decision-maker understands that promoting the common good requires the continuous adjustment of a complex array of matters (e.g., political, economic, cultural, etc.) that are highly variable in nature.
The most esteemed political decision-makers are persons who are adept at adjusting policies in such a way as to promote what is good for human beings, which requires a recognition that some ways of behaving and conducting human affairs are better than other ways. Knowledge of this kind benefits more from good intuition and extensive experience than from the mastery of some body of scientific knowledge.
Admittedly, national and state officials who seek to act prudently need the knowledge that scientists possess in order to give people a good shot at enjoying the full benefits of living in a modern, right-oriented democracy. Political decision-making, however, ultimately should prevail in a democracy over the knowledge of scientists when it comes to matters bearing on the quality of life of the people, for example, deciding whether churches provide “essential” services.
A political community that abdicates decision-making to experts on fundamental issues related to the way of life of the people is no longer a democratic community. Additionally, the kind of knowledge required to make intelligent decisions about what constitutes a healthy life for human beings (e.g., risk taking as community service and as a source of personal distinction) transcends the realm of purely scientific knowledge in the direction of morality.
While good scientific knowledge may help when it comes to knowing how to survive, the consummate political knowledge of a George Washington or Winston Churchill makes survival with dignity possible. Consider how Founding-era Americans distinguished themselves for all time by following the prudent counsel of Washington and James Madison.
All of this accentuates the enormous responsibilities that fall to the people in a democracy. Nurturing a citizenry that is up to the task of selecting persons for public office who are capable of deliberating and acting prudently when it comes to the common good is enormously difficult. It was among the greatest challenges facing the Founders.
Carrying out this task well requires that citizens appreciate the extremely complex decision-making that is required to protect, restrain and/or balance diverse religious, racial, ethnic, economic and political interests, while also recognizing that political decision-making at its best should satisfy human longings that transcend creature comforts and mere survival.
Despite the protestations of many journalists and political pundits, nothing about all of this is easy. Preserving the integrity and vitality of the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic will require that the American people possess the knowledge and the courage to insist on a prudential relationship between science and politics that preserves the democratic bona fides of our constitutional republic and also points us in the direction of rational, dignified existence — an existence that requires the discipline to control our fears and face adversity with the dignity appropriate to a free people — at this point, we have left the realm of scientific knowledge.
• David Marion is Elliott Emeritus Professor of Government and a faculty fellow at the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College.