INSIDE Chico State
0 February 27, 2003
Volume 33 Number 11
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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‘Intellectual’ Alan Ryan on Science and Democracy

Alan Ryan as seen by New Yorker cartoonist Tom Bachtell

Left: Alan Ryan as seen by New Yorker cartoonist Tom Bachtell (from Alan Ryan’s Web site: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ajryanl)

“If I were asked to choose an academic to run a small country,” extolled Professor Troy Jollimore, Philosophy, in his introduction to the Feb. 6 Humanities Center lecture, “Science and Democracy,“ Alan Ryan would be my choice.”

Introducing the man many call one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the Anglo-American world, Jollimore stressed the deep respect and affection with which Ryan is held in the field of philosophy and offered an encouraging quote from his book on Bertrand Russell (Russell: A Political Life, Oxford, 1993): “Political and intellectual seriousness can also be fun.”

Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford (a warden is the head of the college) and a former professor of politics at Princeton University. Currently he is a distinguished scholar of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Making light of his reputation, Ryan denied status as a public intellectual, suggesting that it gave the impression of his standing on a street corner, buttonholing people and saying, “Let me tell you about Hobbes.”

His talk explored the relationship between science and democracy, focusing on the question: Is science a model for democratic decision making? He declared his answer a “slightly blurred yes.” Ryan dryly suggested that “prosperous liberal democracies promote energetically the technology that underlies high consumption and national prestige, but are bad at promoting other sorts of inquiry.” He cited the “disproportionate attention paid to the diseases of the rich” and the bias in research into genetically modified foods—an issue he has considered as chair of the Working Party on Genetically Modified Crops, sponsored by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (UK).

Ryan contrasted the views of several great thinkers on the subject of science and democracy, starting with the Vienna-born British philosopher Sir Karl Popper. Known for his theory of scientific method, Popper was a passionate defender of the view that science was a model for democratic decision making.

Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies, Ryan said, set out to destroy the view of Plato and other great thinkers, that only those who know should govern. Ryan agreed with Popper, quoting William Buckley: “I’d rather be governed by the first 300 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.”

Ryan then proposed to confront Popper with the views of philosophers he had not considered when cataloging the enemies of his Open Society:

— Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), English philosopher and political theorist, whose interpretation of science led to a support of absolute monarchy rather than Popper’s liberal democracy

— Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), American historian of science, who claimed that science does not uniformly progress strictly by Popper’s scientific method but by “paradigm shift,” when “one conceptual world view is replaced by another”

— John Dewey (1859-1952), whom Ryan described as “a sort of intellectual conscience to the American people” and whom he claimed made a better case for science as a model for democracy than even Popper himself

Those audience members for whom philosophical dissection was a bit esoteric took pleasure in Ryan’s witty asides, such as, “Science has failed to come up with whiskey without the hangover,” and his tweaking of academia, “Once you’ve got tenure, have lots of bad ideas so they will discredit those who steal them.”

Ryan also led a morning symposium, for faculty and students from Philosophy, Political Science, History, and Religious Studies. Professor Matt Thomas, Political Science, praised the “agility and force” of Ryan’s arguments and felt that his presence at Chico State “contributed significantly to the intellectual climate of the university.”

Ryan’s visit was sponsored by the Humanities Center and the Committee on Arts and Lectures, with support from the Honors Societies of the Philosophy Department (Phi Sigma Tau) and Political Science Department (Pi Sigma Alpha).

Francine Gair

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