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« The Liberal Republic of Science, part 2: What is it?! | Main | Science communication & judicial-neutrality communication look the same to me »

The Liberal Republic of Science, part 1: the concept of “political regime”  

I sometimes refer to the Liberal Republic of Science, and a thoughtful person has asked me to explain just what it is I’m talking about.  So I will.

But I want to preface my account—which actually will unfold over the course of several posts—with a brief discussion of the sort of explanation I will give.

One of the useful analytical devices one can find in classical political philosophy  is the concept of “political regimes.” "Political regimes” as used there doesn't refer to identifiable ruling groups within particular nations (“the Ceausescu regime,” etc.)—the contemporary connotation of this phrase—but rather to distinctive forms of government.

Moreover, unlike classification schemes used in contemporary political science, the classical notion of  “political regimes” doesn’t simply map such forms of government onto signature institutions (“democracy = majority rule”; “communism = state ownership of property,” etc.). Instead, it explicates such forms with respect to foundational ideas and commitments, which are understood to animate social and political life—determining, certainly, how sovereign power is allocated across institutions, but also deeply pervading all manner of political and even social and private life.

If one uses this classification strategy, then, one doesn’t try to define forms of government with reference to some set of necessary and sufficient characteristics. Rather one interprets them by elaborating how their most conspicuous features manifest their animating principle, and also how their animating principle makes sense of seemingly peripheral and disparate, or maybe in fact very salient and connected but otherwise puzzling, elements of them.

In addition, while one can classify political regimes in seemingly general, ahistorical terms—as, say, Aristotle did in discussing the moderate vs. the immoderate species of “democracy,” “aristocracy” vs. “oligarchy,” and “monarchy” vs. “tyranny”—the concept can be used too to explicate the way of political life distinctive of a particular historical or contemporary society. Tocqueville, I’d say, furnished these sorts of accounts of the American political regime in Democracy in America and the French one prior to the French Revolution in L’ancien Régime, although he admittedly saw both as instances of general types (“democracy,” in the former case, “aristocracy” in the latter).

For another, complementary account of the “American political regime,” I’d highly recommend Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959). Jaffa was joining issue with other historians, who at the time were converging on a view of Lincoln as a zealot for opposing the pragmatic Stephen Douglas, who these historians believed could have steered the U.S. clear of the Civil War.  Jaffa depicts Lincoln as motivated to preserve the Union as a political regime defined by an imperfectly realized principle of equality. Because Lincoln saw any extension of slavery into the Northwest Territories as incompatible with the American political regime's animating principle, he viewed Douglas’s compromise of  “popular sovereignty” as itself destructive of the Union.

So what is the Liberal Republic of Science?  It’s a political regime, the animating principle of which is the mutually supportive relationship of  political liberalism and scientific inquiry, or of the Open Society and the Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Elaboration of that idea will be the focus of part 2 of this series.

The distinctive challenge that the Liberal Republic of Science faces—one that stems from a paradox intrinsic to its animating principle—will be the subject of part 3.

And the necessary role that the science of science communication plays in negotiating that challenge will be the theme of part 4.

So long!


Aristotle (1958). The politics of Aristotle (E. Barker, Trans.). New York,: Oxford University Press. 

Jaffa, H. V. (1959). Crisis of the house divided; an interpretation of the issues in the Lincoln-Douglas debates (1st ed.). Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday.

Tocqueville, A. de (1969). Democracy in America (G. Lawrence, Trans.; J.P. Mayer, ed.). Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday.

Tocqueville, A. de (2011). Tocqueville : The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution (J. Elster & A. Goldhammer, Trans.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Nos. Two, Three & Four in this series.

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Reader Comments (15)

Your "complimentary" = "complementary," yes? I know this point is picayune, but ... sometimes I can't help myself.

N.B. I sense Dan Kahan is enamored of paradox, of (real or imagined) internal contradictions of thought, as it were. (I am not prescient: I confess I have read Installment No. 3. There Popper eats himself, he self-destructs, he falls on his own sword, the internal contradictions of his thought lay him & his ideal society low.) If so, I wonder how long Dan K can play his game before he drives himself into a corner and feels forced to fall into a Wittgenstein-like silence.

November 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Tillers

@Peter: Popper cannot be exploded. He is indestructible. Notwithstanding how Popper feels about Hegel, there's a dialectical happy ending to the story. Or better, there's no historical necessity that can't be avoided w/ some good science.
Thanks for spellling correction!

November 21, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Can I be presumptuous enough to suggest that the beginning of an escape from paradox - either for science or for an ideal society - is to recognize that not everything is really believed to be or should be believed to be open to refutation or serious question? For example, no serious physicist really believes that F = MA is open to refutation -- though he, she, or it believes that F = MA can be (and has been) put within a deeper, or broader, theoretical framework (e.g., special relativity, I think). Scientists do have to work with some (relatively) fixed points, they need (and have) some (many) strong theoretical anchors. (So the notion in Daubert that science is only a methodology is quite wrong.) Probably some analogous principle -- the need for some belief-anchors -- applies in the social and political realm as well.

I strongly suspect that you've already said (somewhere) what I've just said above. What I've said here is practically a cliche [some sort of accent over the "e," I think].

November 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Tillers

@Peter: okay but how would you disprove what you just said?

November 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

I would look for a serious physicist who thinks F = MA is invalid.

Yes, I know: I used the weasel word "serious." I suppose this shows I think some judgments are now beyond proof or disproof. Just as I believe F = MA is beyond question.

November 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Tillers

Actually, every serious physicist does believe F=ma is open to refutation, although it has so far not been refuted. Although in this case part of the reason for that is a subtle ambiguity about what the equation actually means - there is a sense in which it is circularly defined, since F=ma only applies in an inertial coordinate system, and inertial coordinate systems are defined (roughly) as those in which F=ma applies.

Consider what the equation means. Force equals mass times acceleration. And acceleration is the rate of change of velocity. But we all know that velocity depends on your reference frame. If you are sat in a moving train carriage, and you throw a ball from one hand to the other, do you define the velocity of the ball with respect to the train cariage, or with respect to the platform? Do we need to remember that the Earth is spinning at up to a thousand miles an hour? The coordinate system we happen to pick isn't something real; it's only an mental construct in our heads. In the equation F=ma, what is the acceleration measured with respect to?

Now if the train is moving at constant velocity, the acceleration works out the same either way (although it's still a bit weird being the rate of change of an undefined quantity). But if the train speeds up or turns a corner, then the acceleration is affected too and in the train carriage reference frame the force your hand applies is suddenly not the mass times the acceleration. There is an essential difference between the train and the platform, where we say that the train carriage is not an inertial frame of reference. But what does this mean? What is Newton's acceleration being defined with respect to? Empty space? Some sort of weird 'aether' that permeates it? The distant stars? Do we even understand what this quantity 'acceleration' actually is?

We can fix up the problem by introducing 'ficitious' forces, like centrifugal force. But if we do that, then do we understand what the concept 'force' really means? Is centrifugal force a 'force' or isn't it?

I'll give you another example, involving Newton's third law: consider the gravitational forces between the Earth and the sun, which are 8 light minutes apart. The Earth is pulled towards the sun and the sun is pulled towards the Earth, but is it pulled towards where the Earth is now, or towards where it was 8 minutes ago?

If it is pulled towards where the Earth was 8 minutes ago, the forces don't balance. They point in slightly different directions, causing an unbalanced torque or 'twisting' to be applied to the Earth-sun system. The error is about one part in 65,000 (8 minutes divided by one year), and it means that on timescales on the order of 100,000 years the Earth's orbit would be unstable.

However, the alternative is that the sun is pulled towards where the Earth is now, rather than where it was 8 minutes ago. That is what Newton deduced and used. But how does it know, if signals cannot travel faster than light? Suppose you altered the Earth's orbit radically in less than a minute, would the sun still be pulled towards where it thought the Earth ought to be? How could all the forces possibly balance if it does?

The very best physicists can and do reconsider even the fundamentals, and by doing so have obtained some of our deepest insights into physics. Consideration of the reference frame problem led to Lagrangian and Hamiltonian dynamics, and also to general relativity. Consideration of the balance of forces in relativity implies the existence of gravitational radiation, and leads on to the gauge-symmetry picture of physics.

Physical theories are models and as the statistician George Box said "All models are wrong, but some are useful." But to be useful, you need to know the limits of the model's validity, you need to know where the problems and inconsistencies and uncertainties are, because only then can you apply the models safely. Only then can you hope to discover what lies beyond.

But even for the layman, it is essential to know that even the fundamentals are still open to challenge. They've survived so far (with adjustments), but there's no guarantee they'll survive the next challenge. This is fundamental to understanding what science is. It's not a set of facts and methods to be memorised, that scientists have discovered and proved to be true, and that you have to regurgitate for the exam. Science is a way of looking at the world that questions and tests everything. It's a mental toolbox of methods for making it harder to fool yourself. And you don't have to be a professional scientist to make use of it.

And as a big example, science teaches us that one of the easiest ways to fool ourselves is to accept traditional authority and common knowledge without careful consideration. People think it's "obvious", or "well-established". They figure it must have been checked already, and so don't bother to check themselves. Usually it has, but sometimes it hasn't, and the problem isn't picked up because everybody assumes that somebody else must have checked it, and sometimes there are subtleties and limitations that the expert has glossed over, as we saw above. As Feynman said: "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts".

It's a paradox: scientists can trust textbook science without checking only because they know scientists don't trust textbook science without checking. They can skip the checks themselves only because they are confident that many other scientists didn't. Trusting scientists sort of works, but you can't make it a general rule and be consistent. It's practically necessary sometimes, but it's fundamentally not scientific.

December 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV: Compar what you are saying, particularly in last paragraph, to discussions we've had about nullius in verba. I detect movement -- on your part, toward my view. But there's still a good way to go!

December 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I thought it was pretty much exactly what I had said before? To quote:

"It's quite true that from a practical point of view, the requirements of science cannot be achieved."


"It's a paradox - it's trustworthy only because it is not trusted. Scientists can trust authorities precisely because they know that scientists don't. Essentially, they trust other scientist to do what they have chosen not to. They base their conclusions on the belief that others will have done what they consider to be impractical. It violates Kant's formula of the categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." Authority works for those who use it only because of the actions of those who don't."

It's not very original of me, but I liked the parallel with the mention of paradox in the first comment above, and it's a nice point from the earlier discussion that I thought was worth reviving. I didn't think either of us had moved the other, but thought that it might stimulate a discussion of the differences.

I don't think our positions are at all far apart regarding the effect. I agree that non-scientists do have various means to certify what is currently fashionable scientific opinion, that there is a lot of ad verecundiam regarding scientists in society, and that this gets infected with external partisan influences that bias thinking and polarise. I agree that both sides approve of science, and think they're the ones being scientific. My diagnosis is slightly different - I think it is a consequence of teaching science-by-authority that people are made vulnerable in their opinions to other sources of authority - and my solution would have a somewhat different emphasis - I agree on the need to improve science communication, but not as a way to make the existing scientific authorities more credible, but by giving people the mental tools to actually do some science, and to better understand its limits and capabilities.

We developed the scientific method precisely to do this sort of thing, as our best available method of finding out what's right. We ought to teach people how to use it. It's a challenge! But there really is no alternative to science that has the same capbilities.

I think one other difference might be that I don't see the current lack of a single authoritative institution or system for certifying what is known as a flaw in need of perfection. I think that's exactly how it needs to be. Science works like evolution by natural selection, with all contenders competing chaotically, trying to defeat one another. The strongest survive. It's not so well done by a central committee picking winners and losers - what you might call the 'intelligent design' approach.

The lions keep trying to eat the gazelles, and never stop. No committee comes along and tells the lions that the debate is over, the science is settled, they've decided the gazelles are the faster and more agile so they'd might as well give up and go home. And it's precisely because they don't that the gazelles stay fast and graceful. The system requires continual conflict to work. The alternative is like a protected island paradise with no predators - which sounds ideal, until you realise you've taken the path of the Dodo.

Things have gone somewhat wrong in the current situation, in that the external partisan influences are keeping certain hypotheses alive long after they've been 'killed off' according to the scientific process. We might disagree about which ones those are, but I think we both agree it's happening.

However, I think the concept of 'truth certifying institutions' is playing to those influences' strengths. Such a system would be a target for takeover by the partisans. Unless you have some ideas for how to stop that happening?

December 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


Your comment is very interesting. But I tried to anticipate your line of reasoning by using the clause "though he, she, or it believes that F = MA can be (and has been) put within a deeper, or broader, theoretical framework (e.g., special relativity, I think)." I still do not believe any "serious" physicist believes that further research etc., will invalidate F = MA. This, I think, is true even though in our everyday world matters such as centrifugal force must be taken into account, even though special calculations have to be made and "deeper" (or broader) principles have to be applied in domains where computations go awry if the principles of special relativity (or quantum theory etc.) are not taken into account, even though it is possible there are (or were) other universes in which "our" laws of nature do not hold, and so on. Serious physicists since Newton have used F = MA as a point of departure for further research and analysis, and not as a hypothesis open to refutation.

At its most general level, my point (to Dan Kahan) is that "free inquiry" requires some anchors for inquiry and argument. The idea that one must or can suspend judgment about anything and everything is wrong.

Your friendly non-physicist,


December 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Tillers

@NiV: Yes, well, the change in your position is very subtle, so I'm not surpised it doesn't leap out at you. The shift will continue in very small, almost indiscernible (actually, indiscernible; except to trained eye of expert) increments until in about, oh, 1 yr's time, you'll be where