Several recent items brought this particular discussion topic to mind. A column by Dr. Barry Starr asks if voters are qualified to decide issues like the labeling of GMOs, given that polls point to some massive scientific misunderstandings on the part of the public.
Part of the problem with the GMO debate is that the term encompasses everything from cattle pumped full of hormones (questionable/bad) to Vitamin A rice (good). But then that's the issue: popular will isn't known for fine distinctions.
On the other hand, science is a human process, and there are plenty of historic cases to give one pause in making policy based on today's science too quickly. As North Carolina battles over compensation for people whose lives were ruined by eugenics programs, it's worth remembering the damage done based on what seemed like sound science at the time, especially when good scientists' aversion to absolute certainty is removed and democratic rights are ignored.
For a more modern example, throw in Sam Harris' misreading of neuroscience to conclude that we should start brain scanning people accused of a crime.
This is a classic conflict of two desirable goals running into each other: in this case people should have a say in what goes on in their communities and ideas are tested by observable evidence and experiment.
So where's the dividing line? When science and democracy seemingly collide, who decides what wins? Plebiscite? Grand Science Council? What are systems are possible that respect science and popular will? Is that impossible?
Let's discuss below.