The futility of improving democratic discourse

I’ve spent a lot of time with my head in the 19th century, and one thing that is immediately clear is that real argument has not replaced vicious name-calling, if only because viscous name-calling has generally been the order of the day in American politics, and perhaps in democracies the world-over. —Ta-Nehisi Coates

To vicious name-calling I would add cherry-picking and politicizing science, which also also appear to be permanent features of democracies the world-over.  In my more idealistic moments (and I have many of them), I like to think that scientists can help improve public discourse by isolating the facts and letting politicians fight over politics.  But in practice, we are ourselves often guilty of the distortions and exaggerations we decry in others.  A careful reading of the evidence does not, after all, support the unbridled self-celebration of either science or research.  It’s not surprising that professional politicians behave similarly.

None of this means we shouldn’t try to make better use of science in politics.  It does mean, however, we should acknowledge that name-calling and cherry-picking may be inevitable.  And thus any improvements will probably be small and only at the margins.  As unsatisfying as this outcome is, it’s price we pay for living in a democracy.

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