The University of Copenhagen, and specifically the Faculty for Health Sciences, is in the midst of a huge scandal. The details of the case about wrongdoings of the fallen star brain researcher Milena Penkowa are too many (and juicy) to recount here, but suffice it to say that it has put more science in the headlines of the media during the past months than we see in any given year or two.
There are many interesting points to take from this case. One of them is just how much science you can sneak into the mainstream media when it is anchored in an interesting existential moment, something that could be a utilized much more actively science communication more generally – there are good reason for telling people about science not just as a anonymous fact-producing machine, but instead as a creative, dynamic, intuitive and highly personal undertaking. But I’d like to highlight another point instead, namely that the Penkowa-case reminds us of the functioning of science as a communal undertaking, as an exercise in practical democracy.
The point was driven home to me when I read a recent essay by theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, co-inventor of loop quantum gravity, in which he recounts the some of the theoretical and institutional history of the debates between string theory and loop quantum gravity. In the essay, Smolin writes:
“Science is a kind of open laboratory for a democracy. It’s a way to experiment with the ideals of our democratic societies. For example, in science you must accept the fact that you live in a community that makes the ultimate judgment as to the worth of your work. But at the same time, everybody’s judgment is his or her own. The ethics of the community require that you argue for what you believe and that you try as hard as you can to get results to test your hunches, but you have to be honest in reporting the results, whatever they are. You have the freedom and independence to do whatever you want, as long as in the end you accept the judgment of the community. Good science comes from the collision of contradictory ideas, from conflict, from people trying to do better than their teachers did, and I think here we have a model for what a democratic society is about. There’s a great strength in our democratic way of life, and science is at the root of it.”
This is, of course, an idealized vision, and what is interesting about the Penkowa-case it that it highlights the flipside of this reliance on community, including political and economic ones. But that does not detract from the essential insight that Smolin puts forth: Science is democracy in practice, warts and all. And science has some built in quality checks and unwritten practices that the political community (and us, as citizens) could learn something from. At least it still (occasionally) makes headline news when scientists brazenly disregard the codes of the scientific community, whereas people these days hardly bat an eye when politicians disregard theirs.