Science, Belief, and Democracy

January 6, 2021

The United States was founded on ideas that reflected Enlightenment thinking, including the importance of science and the separation of church and state. People were allowed the freedom to believe whatever they wanted, but those beliefs were not to interfere with the operation of the democratically elected government. Maintaining the separation between church and state – between belief and science – has always been difficult, and it is coming under increasing attack in recent times.

Shared beliefs are also critically important. They buy membership in communities, build social capital, and ensure group prosperity. Problems come when those shared beliefs come into conflict with other groups’ shared beliefs or get in the way of scientific understanding about how the world works. The US Constitution does not prevent people from holding religious beliefs that are in conflict with scientific understanding, but it does require that they be kept separate from the democratic operation of the state. These same issues affect democratic governments around the world.

Problems also come when those shared beliefs are not “religious” but are nevertheless in conflict with scientific understanding. For example, the belief that some groups of people are inherently superior to others has been shown by science to be untrue. Yet belief in sexism and racism buys membership in certain communities and continues to exist. The world today is rife with shared beliefs that are in conflict with science but they continue to exist because they sometimes confer social and political benefits on those who hold them. Progress in the scientific understanding of how people think is also shedding new light on how these beliefs take hold and persist, even long after they can be shown to be wrong.

For example, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in “thinking fast and slow”[1] clearly described human’s two main ways of thinking. System 1 is our intuitive, “gut” reactions – absolutely necessary in some situations, fast, and easy. If you are being chased by a lion, you have no time to think and have to operate on System 1 instinct to survive. System 2 is our rational mind – absolutely necessary in some situations, but slow and difficult. People will usually opt for System 1 if they can, because people are lazy and System 2 is slow and hard.

Science is based on the operation of System 2 thinking – logic and evidence. It is slow and hard and must be taught, but it can obviously improve the world. Our entire education system is devoted to improving System 2 thinking. In 1862 the US Congress created the land grant Universities in every state to further the application of science to farming and forestry. Better education and better System 2 thinking is universally accepted as a good thing around the world. But shared beliefs that are in conflict with science continue to exist, and the rights of people to hold those beliefs are enshrined in the US Constitution and in many other secular democratic countries.

We also know that people often suffer from what is known as “confirmation bias”[2]. If a statement or theory conforms with their pre-existing worldview and beliefs, it is taken as true, otherwise it is simply ignored or not even heard at all. This makes changing long-held views very difficult, even after the evidence is clear. The process of scientific enquiry tries to avoid confirmation bias, by requiring a strong adherence to evidence-based, System 2 thinking.

Shared beliefs that are in conflict with science have often been used as the basis for public policy. This, in a very real sense, is contrary to the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. We need a return to the basic principle of the separation of church and state, expanded a bit to mean the separation of belief and science.

How do we do this?

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Better Science

Science is about more than high energy physics and astronomy. The life and social sciences have been making tremendous advances in understanding what contributes to human and planetary wellbeing and the effects of income inequality[3] and ecosystem damage[4] to that wellbeing. We need to embrace a more transdisciplinary, whole systems approach to science in order to use science more effectively for guiding policy. In addition, in order to better support democratic decision-making, scientists need to engage more directly in the policy process and bring their knowledge about how the world works and their understanding of uncertainty more effectively to the table.

Better Science Education

It has been estimated that more than 90% of Americans are scientifically illiterate[5]. But there is a difference between “science literacy” – knowledge of basic scientific facts and theories – and “scientific literacy” – an open and critical way of thinking about the world that stresses questions over answers and evidence over beliefs. We need to drastically improve both types of literacy, but especially the latter, which our current approach to education does not address well at all. We can learn something from the recent Finnish approach to education, which propelled it to #1 in the world by eliminating homework and focusing more on play, critical thinking, questions, and evidence rather than standardized tests.[6] As Holt argues: “Because the public largely regards science as successful and beneficial, they may be interested in why and how it works. They may see that this enormously powerful way of thinking is available to all in their daily lives and their civic roles.”[7]

This will require a massive reform of our educational systems at all levels – from a Finnish-style reform of k-12 education to focus on critical thinking, creativity, scientific literacy, and whole systems approaches to free and open access to higher education and new, more collaborative models of how university education is organized. We can remake higher education to take full advantage of the internet for lectures and tools and allow faculty and students to focus on collaborative, real-world problem-solving[8]. This will both widen public scientific literacy and create a larger constituency for science-based policy and law.

Better, More Credible, Information

What’s missing in today’s world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” is a trusted, unbiased assessment of credibility. This goes well beyond simple fact checking, to an overall assessment of the degree to which statements can be trusted. We can design and implement a system to assess and rank the scientific credibility of all information, both on traditional media and the internet – the “Walter Cronkite” of the internet. Such a system could greatly improve public discourse and discussion of complex issues by getting beyond polarizing debates to more rational discussions founded in statements whose credibility is known to all.

Better Democratic Policy

We can require that all government policies be based on open, transparent, and credible evidence. We can require that those who represent us possess the basic scientific literacy to understand and use this evidence.

We can also acknowledge that all policies are actually experiments we are performing on the system and we need to monitor and report the results as with any science experiment. Only then can we learn from the experiments and adaptively improve the system rather than continuing to pursue policies that are demonstrably ineffective based only on strongly held beliefs in their correctness.

Science itself is a quintessential democratic institution. It is a form of transparent, deliberative democracy where everyone has a voice, but that voice must be subjected to the evidence available to the group in open discussion. It recognizes ongoing uncertainty and builds consensus based on evidence not belief. We can learn a lot about how to create better, more democratic, evidence-based, policy by modelling it on how the scientific enterprise itself is constructed and operated. The proponents of democracy today must learn this lesson and the founders of American democracy would have hoped for nothing less.


  • [1] Kahneman, Daniel, and Patrick Egan. 2011. Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
  • [2] Nickerson, R.S., 1998. Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2:175.
  • [3] Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K., 2010. The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone. Penguin UK.
  • [4] Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Sutton, P., Van der Ploeg, S., Anderson, S.J., Kubiszewski, I., Farber, S. and Turner, R.K., 2014. Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global environmental change, 26:152-158.
  • [5] Maienschein, J. 1998. Scientific literacy. Science. 281:917
  • [6] Sahlberg, P., 2007. Education policies for raising student learning: The Finnish approach. Journal of Education Policy. 22:147-171.
  • [7] Holt, R. 2019. Democracy’s plight. Science. 363:463
  • [8] Kubiszewski, I. R. Costanza, and T. Kompas. 2013. The university unbound: transforming higher education. Solutions. 4(2):36-43


Teaser photo credit: vlad-tchompalov-nKNrOZ5MXZY-unsplash

Robert Costanza

Robert Costanza is Chair of Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. He has authored or coauthored over 350 scientific papers, and reports on his work have appeared in Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, The Economist, The New York Times, Science, Nature, National Geographic, and National Public Radio

Tags: alternative education, building resilient societies, democracy, religion, science, scientific method