Is Science Undemocratic?

by Andrea Undecimo

A new truth has emerged: science is not democratic. This is at least what a famous Professor of Microbiology and Virology at the University of Milan, Roberto Burioni, has proposed in his book, published last year, whose title could be roughly translated as “The conspiracy of the ignorant: why science cannot be democratic”. From the height of his rank, the famous professor has ruled that the word of a doctor has more value than that of someone who didn’t study medicine. This approach is strictly linked to his support for a measure that institutes the obligation to vaccine children in nursery and elementary schools. The previous Italian government, following this line of thought, established the compulsion for 12 vaccines and the new government, despite initial criticism of the reform, kept it intact. Burioni, not quite satisfied, wrote on his social networks that “it could have gone better, but I guess in politics one must settle for any result”. Luckily, I would say, since there is no country in the world that has 12 obligatory vaccines.

Now, my criticism is not so much directed toward the benefits of vaccines; nor does it aim at discrediting science and scientists. What I find flawed about this way of thinking is the belief that the medical science- and science in general- with its statistical analysis and epidemiological data is the only source of legitimation in a democratic debate. Richard Horton, director of Lancet, the first medical journal for impact factor, has recently written that almost half of the scientific articles appeared on peer-reviewed journals might lack a scientific basis. This is not only due to methodological errors or to the size of statistical sample, but also to the conflict on interest that exists between scholars, doctors and pharmaceutical companies. On another leading journal in the medical field, the British Medical Journal, Makary and Daniel have demonstrated that a third of the deaths in the United States is caused by medical errors.

When it comes to the “big diseases”, the epidemiologist Tom Jefferson, in an interview to the Spiegel, has remembered that the fear of pandemic infections has been artificially constructed by the World Health Organization by removing from the old definition of “virus that spreads quickly and for which there is no immunity” the characteristics of “cause of a high number of diseases and high mortality”, thus paving the way to governments to fight terrible viruses that eventually never spread.

If things are really like this, what does it mean, then, to assert that science is not democratic? Remembering that measles, for instance, is a disease that cause ten thousands of deaths in countries with a poor and inefficient health system is an act that goes against the principle of argumentation on which democratic conversation is based? Am I a populist if I affirm that the decrease of deaths for whooping cough has more to do with the general improvement of the quality of life rather than with vaccines? Or does the mentioning of the risk of pressure by pharmaceutical giants on politicians for the introduction of vaccines imply that I reject the results of scientific research? Perhaps it means that I am brining interrogatives so that the public debate can be based, as Habermas has taught us, on more argumentative positions. Science, regardless what the proponents of the elitist thought have to say, should remain a democratic way of pursuing of knowledge.


Andrea Undecimo, Class of 2020, is an Anthropology and Law Major from Macerata, Italy.



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