Science and Democracy


By HAROLD D. LASSWELL, Washington School of Psychiatry

Delivered at the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, New York, September 11, 1940.

This is one of a Serieson the Same Subject Published by the Conference

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 85-87

CONTRADICTORY assertions are made in our society about the interrelations of science and democracy. There is a formidable portrait of science the destroyer, allegedly destroying respect for personality by magnifying the importance of impersonal factors, destroying humanity itself by preparing the weapons of war and despotism. There is another portrait—of science the healer, the provider, the servant of man's quest for perfection. That such contradictory estimates of science should occur at all is evidence of the alienation of man from himself; the man of our time is not at home with the fruit of his own imagination and energy. He is not clear about how the new and ingenious details of modern culture are interwoven with one another, or how they can contribute to human dignity.

Society is democratic in the degree that it practices mutual respect among men. Democracy is a commonwealth of mutual deference. Nothing less than the perfection of man is the aim of democratic society. All of the distinctive institutions of democracy are both means and ends; they are means to the realization of a commonwealth of mutual respect, and they are partial realizations of that end. To be treated with deference is, in part, to be consulted; the devices of general consultation of popular rule are partial fulfilments as well as means to the ends of democracy.

We think of the science of any given period as a body of general propositions at least partly confirmed by data of observation, and held subject to such confirmation. Science has its vision of perfection, its hope of omniscience, its quest of the equation that describes the distribution of matter and energy in the universe.

The ideal of democracy and the vision of scientific achievement are interdependent. Democracy needs science, a science capable of removing the physical and technical barriers to perfection. Science has already discovered the means of curing, and preventing, many of the bodily processes that blight thought and pervert emotion. These are the contributions of neurology, of endocrinology, of psychopathology, and of related sciences to the equipment of man. No one who has witnessed the beneficent results of the application ofknowledge to pathetic examples of arrested developmentto children of dull perception and dim imagination, to children who were the grief of their parents, the despair of their teachers, the butt of their playmates—no one who has seen the barriers removed to a belated flowering of human capacity can but respect the aid of science in man's quest for perfection. From science have come technical means of ministering to man. There need be no starvation when proper instruments of communication convey distress signals from all parts of the globe, and when speedy vehicles of transportation are on hand.

The very presence of science in our society fortifies man in the search for perfection; the scientific enterprise is a stirring demonstration of the talent of man, matured into subtle and expressive skill. There can be no soaring scientific achievement whose author does not reaffirm the dignity of the human race.

These are some of the ways in which the realization of democracy depends upon science; and there are ways in which the realization of science depends upon democracy.

The scientific imagination cannot accomplish its creative task when it is pinned down by despotic prescriptions. The scientific enterprise cannot reach its full tempo of fulfilment when irrelevant restrictions are imposed upon those who may take part in it, when there are exclusions based on race, creed, and other extraneous standards. Democracy and science are at one in respect for the capacity of every individual to contribute to the common life according to his native talent, revealed by adequate opportunity.

Though science and democracy are dependent upon one another for the fullest realization of themselves, we are all poignantly aware of the difficulties that arise in bringing these two great enterprises into harmonious relationship with one another. There is a time factor involved in their proper integration. We know that science is often applied in ways that imperil democracy, and that democracy may view science with suspicion, or with open hostility. If democracy and science are to proceed steadily toward full realization, we need something more than we have had in the past. We have not had a properly developed science of democracy, a science devoted to the discovery of how the scientific enterprise can aid democracy, and of how democracy can aid science.

One concern of a science of democracy would be with the ways and means of introducing the applications of science into the life of society. As it is, many of those who would benefit from the discoveries and applications of a science cut themselves off from these benefits. Vaccines, and other aids to life, may encounter a wall of resistance on the part of those who need them. These resistances depend upon misunderstandings that spring from the past experience of the people concerned. We can respect their honesty of conviction, and we can ourselves take the responsibility of improving our means of uncovering the root of error in the minds of our fellow men, and of assisting them to accept truth. There are resistances connected with urban and rural experience, or with special cults, or with age and type of culture. Already we have worked out some helpful methods of understanding, of observing, human beings; we can extend the use of these methods to clear the path of truth. A science of democracy would rest upon ever more adequate methods of observation, of recording the facts of experience, of analyzing facts. We can examine the causes of success and of failure in the spreading of truth, and gradually our good intentions can be more effectively implemented by science.

A science of democracy would be particularly concerned with the applications of science to the processes of production. It can scarcely be maintained that today we have satisfactory means of harmonizing technical change with human need. Every new process involves obsolescence, obsolescence of machines, of investments, of methods of work. There is the problem of transferring old resources, material and human, with a minimum of waste and of offense to human dignity. All who respect human personality are sensitive to the fact that displacement from any position in society may involve severe blows to self-respect. A place in the productive processes of society, a job—whether it calls for the exercise of a trade skill, a clerical skill, a managerial skill, anengineering skill—is more than a claim on the world for income; it is part of the claim of the person for deference. When persons are suddenly ejected from a positive position in the productive processes of society, there is a double blow inflicted upon them, a blow to economic security, and a simultaneous blow to self-respect. Those who are severed from a place in production as a result of technical change are told, in effect: you are now useless, functionless members of society; it may be that we will have no further use for your skill or your devotion; from now on you may be a burden on society, a drag on the taxpayers; we are done with you.

A science of democracy would be concerned with determining how the displacement and replacement of men in the total operations of society can be conducted with a minimum of violence to democratic regard for human dignity. In addition to the problems connected with obsolescence, such a science would consider the recurring periods of breakdown in the processes of production. Science innocently gave us the machine, with all of the opportunities and dangers connected with learning how to control it in the interest of stability, abundance, and self-respect. A science of democracy would continue to probe into the sources of instability; it would also consider how best to conserve democratic values in the meantime, when the causes of instability are imperfectly understood and inadequately controlled. One possible outcome would be to call the attention of democracies to the means of abolishing the social and economic status that is now referred to by the expression, "the unemployed." We have already remarked that the loss of a functionally meaningful place in society is more than a threat to the standard of living, for it is a blow to self-respect. This is true, in varying degree, of those who are displaced during the downswing of production. Democracies, like non-democracies, have rarely permitted those who are thrown out of employment, to starve; but democracies have not provided them with a positive incentive to live. The very word, "the unemployed," comes to signify a standing insult to human dignity, for it implies that the human beings referred to are socially useless. A science of democracy may give new emphasis to the proposition that even job security is not enough to conserve self-respect; there needs to be security on a respected job. (The despotisms, it appears, have stolen a march on the democracies to some extent; they have provided a place for nearly everyone in a national service program called the building of socialism or of the third Reich.) This is the psychological abolition of unemployment.

The problems touched upon here are part of the larger task of harmonizing social change with democratic values, of perfecting the means by which men may change their habits of work without losing themselves in the process. Applied science has been the most active factor in accelerating both the rate, and the irregularity, of social change; and a science of democracy would devote itself with special diligence to the problems involved.

In periods of world crisis, like the present, when the need of defense occupies our minds, the need of a science of democracy is more evident than in quiet times. The applications of science to modern warfare foster extreme centralization and concentration of command. Strong central authority is not to be confused with despotism, with the abdication of democracy; strong government can be responsible government. But there are inescapable dangers to democracy in the prosecution of modern war. Central authority that is strong and democratic at the outset of hostilities may eventually usurp control and end in despotism. Can we integrate the need of strength in directing modern technical warfare with the need of preserving democratic vitality, with a view to the realization of a fuller democratic life at the expirationof hostilities? Wise policy is guided by experience, and a science of democracy can provide for the proper application of the fruits of experience, since the full relevance of experience can be distilled when it is patiently observed, recorded, examined.

Although the results of science that are most obviously charged with significance for democracy are technical applications, a science of democracy would not overlook more subtle results of the presence of science in society. One effect of science is the misinterpretation of science. These misinterpretations are not intended, and are often unforeseen, by the devotees of science itself.

One typical misinterpretation that is incompatible with democracy is that science discredits the democratic conviction of human worth. When science described the fact of difference among human beings, and established the transmissibility of certain differences from one generation to the next, it was widely affirmed that science had exposed the false pretenses of democracy. To most of us it is commonplace that the democratic ideal, properly understood, does not affirm the equality of all men in specific aptitude. Democracy does affirm the equal claim of all men to be respected as human beings, and to receive the needed opportunity to develop the talents with which they are endowed. But we have by no means succeeded in disabusing the minds of many of our fellow citizens of the idea that science has discredited democracy.

One of the most far-reaching misinterpretations of science is that science has discredited value judgments of any kind. According to this misconception, science "reduces" everything to motion of matter, and disposes of the human mind as a faintly luminous flicker on "reality," which is a mass of cells. Ideas and emotions, according to this view, are relegated to separate—and inferior—categories; such subjective events are presumably related to the non-subjective events to which they can be "reduced."

To some extent this misinterpretation arises from, and is fed by, the idea that to "explain" something is to deny or discredit it. This view—and this is characteristic of such misconstructions—is not consistently adhered to in practice. The man who feels pain when some part of his body is stimulated does not usually deny the fact of pain, nor does he deny the subjective event of hunger because he knows that this is often connected with certain changes in blood sugar. We do not discredit faith or belief in an intellectually disciplined mind when we discover many of the conditions of its occurrence; when, for example, we discover that prophets have been recruited, in marked degree, from persons who possess a certain body build, or that people feel a surge of patriotic devotion when they believe their nation to be threatened.

What concerns us is that, although these interpretations of science are false, and have been repeatedly denounced as false, they persist in many quarters in our society. Demonstrations of falsity, it is true, have often been successful in ridding the mind of error; even then, however, the distorting effect of error may continue long after the individual has consciously renounced falsity. A science of democracy would seek to understand the factors that keep alive such falsities, and to improve our ways of dispelling them from society. To some extent we may rely upon demonstration, remonstrance, denunciation, admonition, exhortation; but these methods of communication are not universally successful. Supplementary means may be more effective in many circumstances, such as the supplying of a steady stream of proper information in the public channels of communication. By the use of properly equipped observers we can ascertainthe dispersion of truth and falsehood in the community; we can analyze the facts recorded by observers and localize the sources of resistance to truth; we can patiently search for means of clarifying the minds of others.

Some of the deleterious effects of science upon democracy do not spring from misinterpretation, but from lack of interpretation, of science. Scientific results are often communicated in a way that undermines the security of man and contributes to anxiety; and we recognize that cumulative insecurity may cripple the proper operation of democratic processes. The findings of science are often given to the world in this manner: everyone is told that science has suddenly changed its mind; something previously held true has suddenly been exposed as false. We may be informed, for example, that surgeons have been wrong in trying to reduce the seepage of blood through the area affected by an operation; they now suddenly learn that the survival chances of their patients are greatly improved if they allow for a certain irrigation of the area. Science is thus represented to the layman as a fallible and capricious source of uncertainty. The security of taking something for granted is constantly undermined; even the simplest and most intimate habits of eating, sleeping and exercising are open to suspicion of harmful results. With the gigantic expansion of the scientific enterprise in modern times, we are constantly exposed to shock, to incessant jolts to established expectations; in this we have a running source of insecurity in our civilization.

Those of us who are specialists, emotionally identified with the advancement of science, have learned how to safeguard ourselves from insecurity when new truth emerges. Through the years we have glorified the truth revealing function of scientific work, and we have become oblivious to the feelings of those of our fellow men who have not had our opportunity to acquire a similar cushion against the shocks of new discovery. A science of democracy would be considerate of the thoughts and feelings of others, not for the purpose of confirming error, but for the purpose of sharing truth.

Hence, in no slight degree, a science of democracy would concern itself with overcoming present obstacles to clarity in communication. We have not yet made effective use of our superb modern instruments of communication for the sake of transmitting a unified view of the goals of our society, and of the nature of the contribution that each individual can make to their fulfilment. There are certain affirmative tasks of democracy that depend upon the advancement of scientific knowledge. A fundamental means, and a partial end, of democratic society is the perfecting of democratic character. The democratic character is capable of respecting both the self and others; hence it is capable of practising justice according to the democratic ideal. A science of democracy would try to lay bare the causes of failure in character formation, disclosing the destructive processes that endanger the growth of democratic character through the eras of infancy and childhood, juvenility and adolescence, early and late maturity.

There is a standing fear that the advancement of scientific knowledge will result in applications inimical to the values of democracy. No one will dispute that the control of knowledge depends upon such factors as alertness, energy, determination; the champions of democracy must excel in these respects. We may be reassured by reflecting that democracy need cherish no abiding fear of knowledge, since democracy depends upon knowledge; it is despotism that thrives on ignorance. Despotism, in striving to preserve the ascendancy of one part of mankind at the expense of the whole, can gain by dropping the curtain of ignorance before the eyes of its subjects, and by cutting off many avenues of advance open to the scientific imagination. The ideal of the despot is disrespect for man; the unifying ideal of science and democracy is unbounded regard for the potentialities of human life.

A science of democracy would not inhibit the total growth of science. It would not presume to dictate the course of scientific development, or to erect barriers in the path of science. The connection between a science of democracy and the whole of science is like the relation between medical science and biology; medicine is included in the science of living processes, and it specializes upon the direct consideration of processes that destroy living wholes. The science of democracy, as we envisage it, is part of the total enterprise of science; it is concerned with the totality of human relations, with special reference to the processes that prejudice the attainment, and the perpetuation, of a democratic society. Like medicine it is devoted to a special frame of reference, not for the exclusion but for the stimulation of knowledge. Like medicine it is devoted to the timing of knowledge, to the timely application of the available methods and findings of science to the end of realizing democracy in life. Upon a science of democracy depends the fullest realization of both democracy and science.