(The following editorial first appeared in the August 1989 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Thirty-five others, on a wide range of topics, are collected in the 2002 Tor book Which Way to the Future? A different one (usually one not available in the book) will be posted here a few times a year. And, of course, brand-new ones appear in each issue of Analog.)
Suppose that for three days youve been running a 103° fever, your throat is dry, youve lost your appetite, and you have a peculiar rash around your neck. Even if youre the type who avoids doctors except as a last resort, chances are that by this time youd be ready to seek some help. Would you go to (a) a doctor with well-known educational credentials and a good reputation among patients and colleagues, or (b) a randomly selected person on the street?
Im reasonably confident that if you have the slightest interest in self-preservation, you chose (a)and didnt even have to think very hard about it. To most people, I suspect, it seems too obvious for discussion that a person hired to give medical treatment should know something about medicine. For similar reasons, you probably expect your mechanic to know something about cars and your plumber to know something about plumbing. If youre hiring a band to play for your daughters wedding, youd probably prefer that its members know how to play appropriate instruments and music.
In short, it probably seems self-evident as a general principle that people hired to do any job should know something about that job. Obvious, right? So what?
Now lets turn to something that at first glance may seem unrelated, but isnt. One of the great traditions of this country, we are often told, is government of the people, by the people, for the people. Assuming for the sake of argument that what we have approximates that ideal reasonably well, how well do the people who are governing themselves know their job?
Weve all heard plenty of discussions about the importance of voting and being an informed citizen. Theres reason to doubt, though, that most Americans understand the workings of their own government very well, civics and American history courses notwithstanding. But theres even more to it than that. Government is not something that exists in isolation from everything else. The processes of legislation, adminstration, and adjudication are about thingsthings like energy, pollution, food production, transportation, population, and communication.
How much do the votersand the people they electknow about those things?
Precious little, by many indications. Consider, for example, a pair of studies conducted by the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, sampling peoples knowledge of basicand I mean basicscience. One study in 1985 indicated, according to Laboratory director Jon Miller as quoted in a recent Associated Press story, that only some 5% of adult Americans could be considered scientifically literate. That means having a basic knowledge of scientific vocabulary, methods, and significance. I dont have a corresponding figure for the 1988 poll, conducted for the National Science Foundation, but I do have some figures on specific questions from it. 55% of adult Americans did not know that the Earth revolves around the Sun once a year. Some of those had no idea, while others had wrong ideas such as the Sun orbiting the Earth or the orbital period being a day. Only 36% knew that a laser doesnt focus sound waves; 29% thought it did, 35% had no idea.
And so on. Science isnt the only problem area, either. You probably heard about the similar studies that were done on geographic knowledge. Would a Texan want decisions about Texas made by people who think its in New Jersey, or that New Mexico is a foreign country?
Many of us were not qualitatively surprised by the results of these studies, but even if we knew ignorance was rampant, we were likely to be startled to learn just how rampant. Does it matter? You bet it does. A few paragraphs back, you probably agreed willingly that you would only want to hire qualified people to do important jobs. You probably also agreed that government is an important job, and that its good for it to be in the hands of the people.
But if the people dont understand how government works, or the issues it must deal with, then you must also agree that government in the hands of such people is an important job being done by unqualified people. If you believe the first two statements, you cannot believe this is an acceptable state of affairs.
But whats to be done about it? As 1988 Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman summed it up, How can you preserve democracy when the world is increasingly more complex scientifically and technologically and people are increasingly more ignorant of the issues?
Maybe you cant, in its present formand maybe thats not as terrible as it sounds to those whose reflexes have been conditioned the way ours have. Maybe its time to develop something better.
No doubt such talk is already provoking howls of outrage. Even among Analog readers I expect to find a few who think present ways are so sacrosanct that no fundamental change can be considered, who are already taking pen in hand to protest. I trust that most, though, will remember that a long-standing hallmark of Analog is that anything can be considered and questioned. Sometimes the answer found will be the one we expected from the beginning; sometimes it wont. All I ask is that you hear me out and think about what I say.
Im confident that some people, having heard this much, will reply:Now leave us not be hasty. Do we really need to think such drastic thoughts? Is it really necessary that the people understand things like SDI and acid rain and the greenhouse effect? After all, ours is a representativedemocracy. The citizens themselves seldom make policy decisions about these things. They hire professionals to do that for them. Thats what elections are about.
Okayhow do they know the professionals theyre hiring are really professionals and know enough about the job to be trusted with it? Come on, says my critic from the preceding paragraph. You dont have to know all about plumbing to hire a plumber.
No, you dontbut you need to know something about plumbing to know whether youve hired a good one, or whether youre being overcharged for shoddy or unnecessary work. I consider it part of my responsibility as a homeowner to know something about the workings of my house and car, and cast a critical eye over any work I hire others to do on them. I realize that many others dont, and quite willingly throw themselves on the mercy of whoever is listed in the Yellow Pages as a plumber, mechanic, or doctor. Thats your privilege, and no concern of mine, if youre just getting your own roof fixed. I start getting a legitimate interest in it if youre fixing the brakes on a car youre going to drive in my neighborhood. It becomes very much my business if youre hiring somebody to fix everybodys roof, including mine.
And thats the situation most closely analogous to democracy in a highly technological world. When you vote, youre not just hiring people to take care of acid rain and energy shortages for you; youre hiring them to do it for me, too. And I do want only competent people working for me, especially on big, important jobs like those. If my help is going to be hired by lots of other people, I want those people to know how to hire good helpand that means knowing something about the work to be done. There are those who shrug the whole thing off by saying no one voters job is very important because its so much less influential than, say, a senators. Thats true, individuallybut votes get added up in very large numbers. One ignorant or misguided voter is of no consequence. Millions of them are scary.
So, I repeat, whats to be done about it? If the danger lies in scientific and technological decisions being made by scientifically and technologically unqualified peoplepoliticians and/or votersone feature of the remedy seems almost tautologically obvious. Such people must not be allowed to make such decisions. Given that such decisions must be made by somebody, this in turn boils down to two options: (1) dont let the excessively ignorant vote, or (2) cure their ignorance.
Making a knowledge of basic science, politics, or anything else a prerequisite for voting sounds, of course, a lot like making literacy a prerequisite for voting. That has met with fierce opposition whenever its been done or proposed in the past, largely on the grounds that it was used as an excuse for de facto racial discrimination. But suppose it doesnt have to be that way. Suppose ignorance is a remediable condition (which is, of course, the fundamental presupposition underlying all efforts at education). Then maybe society doesnt have to make an either-or choice between those two options. It can offer such a choice to every individual citizen, and let him or her make of it what he or she will.
What I am proposing is that society utilize both options and tie them together. Instead of being a birthright, let voting be a privilege that has to be earnedand then make sure that everybody who wants to has the opportunity to earn it. Dont let people who know nothing about scientific matters make decisions that depend on themand as some people are finally beginning to realize, that includes most decisions. Im not suggesting that everybody should be expected to know every field at the Ph.D. level. I am suggesting that everybody who wants to vote should first demonstrate a very basic conceptual understanding of how the world he lives in works. I dont think thats an unreasonable expectation, given an effective educational system.
Its painfully obvious that we dont have a very effective educational system now, but if we could manage to build one it would then be reasonable (1) to offer everyone the opportunity to use it, and (2) to make doing so a prerequisite for participating in government. It would be a monumental job; but if successful, it might once more make voting a matter of pride with the populace at largeand in the process produce government that works better than any weve had before.
It would also, of course, be a monumental job to sell the idea to the public. The right to vote has come to be taken so much for granted that most people would be highly indignant at the suggestion that they should have to earn it. The very idea goes against the grain of much that we have all been taught from childhood.
But then, so does the idea of letting important work be done by people who know nothing about it. So are you sure the present system is really better? Maximizing popular participation in government is an admirable goal but if the ruling populace knows nothing about the business at hand, it may be suicidal.