Physicist and politician Rush Holt calls for science to enhance democracy
CLEMSON — Educator, scientist, executive and former U.S. congressman Rush D. Holt shared his unique perspective on the important role science plays in a democracy on September 10 when he presented the lecture “Science and the Citizen” on campus to Clemson faculty and students.
According to Holt, opinion and ideology have displaced evidence in many current discussions—from public policy debates to casual conversations. “[Scientific thinking] must be seen as a tool for democracy itself,” said Holt, the recently retired CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “Society badly needs us to shore up and encourage evidence-based thinking.”
Holt has a unique perspective on the topic, having served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District. During his tenure, he established a long track record of advocacy for federal investment in research and development, science education and innovation.
He also has a PhD in physics and was once a faculty member at Swarthmore College where he taught courses in physics, public policy, and religion.
Holt began his presentation with a brief history lesson on how our country got to this point. The modern scientific research enterprise, said Holt, began during World War II, when government-funded research and development efforts resulted in technology — radar, high-performance aircraft, transfusable blood plasma, to name a few — that helped win the war.
When the war ended, visionary leaders such as Vannevar Bush, presidential science advisor and driving force behind the formation of the National Science Foundation, saw the benefits of having government-funded research continue into peacetime.
“Bush gets credit for getting government to provide the funding for basic research and for granting the scientific establishment the authority to choose which projects to undertake,” said Holt, noting how science thrived during the subsequent decades and produced numerous products and processes that improved society and the human condition.
However, this science policy didn’t fully engage the citizenry. “It left an environment in which science was so poorly understood and integrated into public thinking that the strengths and benefits of scientific thinking are diminished today in democratic government, putting us at peril,” Holt said.
Government officials and citizens are prone to making decisions based on opinions, rumors, and ideological assertions rather than evidence and facts, Holt noted.
“Democracy is at risk when it becomes simply a contest of fervently held opinions or values not grounded in evidence,” he said. “When one opinion is as good as another, each asserted as strongly or even deceptively as possible, democracy cannot survive. Society is drowning in a sea of unmoored opinions and values.”
Holt proposed that science is the solution. “Science is the best path to reliable knowledge,” he said. “It’s a way of thinking that allows ordinary people collectively to master extraordinary things. Evidence rules and is the final arbiter of disagreements.”
Holt cited several examples where the scientific community has helped inform the citizenry on recent issues, including the fact that vaccines don’t cause autism, genetically modified foods are not poisonous, and climate science’s findings about increasing storms and draughts and melting glaciers are real.
He ended his presentation with a call to action. “I want to deputize you to help everyone – scientists and non-scientists alike – to understand that science belongs to everyone, not just scientists,” he said, explaining that democracy requires an informed and engaged citizenry. “Everyone has the obligation to ask on every public issue: ‘What’s the evidence. Let’s help all citizens know that they can embrace the essence of science even if they are not trained scientists.”
According to Provost Distinguished Professor of Genetics and Biochemistry Robert Anholt, who is the College of Science director of faculty excellence, having Holt speak on campus places Clemson in the national public discourse on the importance of science in our society.
“It was profoundly important, especially for our young faculty, students and post-doctoral fellows, to be exposed to a role model of Rush’s caliber,” Anholt said.
Holt’s message resonated with mechanical engineering doctoral candidate Malena Agyemang. “The biggest take away for me was making my research and science in general more approachable for the non-science community,” she said.
Added Julia Frugoli, alumni distinguished professor of genetics: “He just hit on it. It’s really important that people know how to think critically. It’s critical for our democracy. It’s critical for science. It’s critical for our future as a society.”
After his presentation, Holt met with students, faculty, and staff at a reception in his honor.