09 July 2010

Article: DIY Science, Democracy, and Dogma

Patrick Lin's article "DIY Science, Democracy, and Dogma" was published on 6 July on the website of the "technoprogressive" US-based Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET).

The full text of the article can be read free of charge here:


Excerpts: "Ordinary citizens today have access to much greater destructive power than ever before, and this may force the evolution of democracy, which has turned somewhat into dogma. [...] [D]emocracy and its attendant values of education, information freedom, and progress are what enable DIY [Do-It-Yourself] science. In this way, democracy has become a threat to itself. To explain, let me rewind to about one month ago. I was a speaker at the Humanity+ Summit at Harvard [...]. The conference theme was 'Rise of the Citizen-Scientist.' I've always had mixed feelings about this issue: [...] is DIY science wise in this day and age? [...] Today, the individual wields much power, enough to change government itself as well as to open an unprecedented world of hurt on fellow citizens, whether with malicious computer hacking or fertilizer-based bombs or anthrax-laced letters or any number of other ways. At the same time, we accept that democracy is a risky venture [...]. The average citizen, with a shrinking attention span, continues to cast the most important votes with incomplete or just plain misinformed knowledge. This risk – of irresponsible power among the masses – is the double edged blade of democracy.

"But today, it is still a traitorous offense in many circles to question the limits of freedom and individual rights [...]. Democracy has become dogma, a mantra of sorts – and God help you if you criticize those values. (You fascist! Terrorist!) [...] But, granting that democracy is better than all other forms of government today (Plato and Marx would still disagree), is it the best form of government possible? Can we do better? Are we allowed to ask these questions? Let me put it this way: If individuals had the power to destroy cities and societies – and we may have that soon, if we don't already – would a democracy even work? [...] Information wants to be free, and it may take new regulation – or a non-democratic regime – to rein them in [...]. A bioattack spawned from a DIY lab, as one scenario, could cause such murder and panic that it destabilizes society, imploding democratic controls from within. We should know by now that no organization is too big to fail. [...] I worry that the furious pace of technology and information is on a collision course with democracy and freedom. It is an act of faith to believe that democracy will always work, no matter the scale of the society or the state of science – no one really knows."

Patrick Lin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

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