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Ignorance and Democracy

Science ExpertiseCatching up on the news after being away for two weeks – Lawrence Krauss had short comment in the New Scientist, Stop creationists undermining school science. The very quote-worthy punchline being:

Say that you are in charge of developing a state-wide high-school curriculum in French-language studies, and that you need the advice of a group of experts on how to put together the ideal programme. Is it better for officials to appoint these people, or for the public to vote on who they regard as the most attractive candidates for the job?

To put it another way, should you need minimum qualifications to be eligible to serve? Should you be required to know some French? Should you be disqualified if you openly profess that French is not a useful language, and that the curriculum should focus on Italian instead?

The french analogy isn’t accurate of course, because it implies that the person is still interested in teaching language per se (Italian). More accurate would have been an analogy of a person responsible for the French curriculum who opposed the idea of learning second languages altogether. But that’s beside the point.

The thing that really jumped out at me was the issue of democracy vs. expert opinion, which Krauss alluded to in his opening sentence, “I believe in democracy as much as the next guy. But then, I wonder about the next guy.” That’s just it – does democracy fail when creationists get elected to school boards? What about when oil execs get nominated by lobbied politicians to natural resource management agencies?

Is this a failure of democracy, due to the capacity for the overwhelming majority of people to revel in ignorance?

Krauss suggests that, “School board members should not be beholden to those who have elected them, nor should they represent political constituencies. They should instead be appointed by elected officials following thorough vetting and peer review.” The trouble with this is that running government by expertise instead of public consent seems to lack checks and balances, and would scare most people off. Unless you concede a failure of democracy, the only legitimate solution is to raise the education level of the people above this high level of ignorance – good luck there.

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