According to this video (from @3:05 to 3:40), Neil deGrasse Tyson says believing in something that is wrong threatens democracy.

But this... but this whole thing-- it's just a symptom of a larger problem. There's a growing anti-intellectual strain in this country that many th... that may be the beginning of the end of our informed democracy. O-Of course, in a free society, you can and should think whatever you want. And if you want to think the world is flat, go right ahead. But if you think the world is flat and you have influence over others, as would successful rappers or even presidential candidates, then being wrong becomes being harmful-- to the health, the wealth, and the security of our citizenry.

If that is true, then how we are gonna define what is a wrong belief and which one is legitimate?

  • 28
    I just added the transcript from the video, and seeing it in context it doesn't seem like he's saying that wrong beliefs threaten democracy. Rather, he seems to be saying that people with influence who ignore facts are dangerous to the safety and wealth of the people they influence.
    – Giter
    Aug 27 '18 at 20:13
  • 11
    I'm not sure that this question is a good fit here. The question seems a bit broad, speculative and opinion-based. The question also seems to be based on a somewhat shaky premise; "wrong beliefs threaten democracy" is a bit of an oversimplification of what Tyson says. He specifically points out that some random person believing that the earth is flat is fine. But when the powerful are wrong about important issues, then they can be harmful. Which is sort of self-evident. He also says that a growing anti-intellectual strain threatens informed democracy. Which again is pretty obvious.
    – tim
    Aug 27 '18 at 20:13
  • 5
    @Xaqron The quote doesn't make a comparable statement between the two, so I would be careful not to misrepresent what he is saying. I think you could infer from the statement something about relative levels of influence (so if the rapper is more influential than the politician, the rapper could maybe have more responsibility to get their facts straight). Aug 27 '18 at 21:10
  • 5
    I don't see Tyson claiming democracy is being threatened in this question. He says "health, the wealth, and the security of our citizenery"
    – Dhara
    Aug 28 '18 at 11:18
  • 1
    Isn't this kind of thing specifically why, for example, the US chose not to be a complete democracy?
    – Clay07g
    Aug 28 '18 at 15:23

12 Answers 12


Yes and no.

A democracy is merely a memetic system: it's a set of ideas codified into formal laws and informal ideology and norms.

As such, specific beliefs can objectively undermine this memetic system, if they are popular AND contrary to the system's stability.

  • A belief that a religious deity is strongly opposed to democracy can easily undermine democracy, if that belief belongs to a dominant religion. For example, both original Judaism (which codified G-d anointed kings and priestly hierarchy) as well as 7th century version of Islam are not very compatible with democracy. Neither are the religious beliefs enforced by, for example, the Tokugawa Shoganate, the Meiji Restoration, or the Russian Orthodox Church.

  • A belief that a strong ruler is beneficial to the nation and that democracy is actively bad (for example, a view held by a large portion, if not an outright majority, of Russians who survived the 1990s; where even the word "democracy" is used as perjorative), is very threatening to democracy. Something similar happened during Germany's transition from the Weimar Republic in 1930s.

  • Marxist beliefs (or, to be fair, let's restrict ourselves to Leninist-Stalinist ones, to exclude things like Trotskyism or anarchism) actively undermine democracy at the very least based on historical precedent (any country that implemented them, ended up as a totalitarian one); this was the official position of US government for a long time; up to and including prohibiting immigration for people who professed to hold such beliefs.

  • More in line with Tyson's assertion, some beliefs can be so harmful in their consequences that they threaten the actual society, meaning that there just won't be a socium to sustain democracy if their holders have their way.

    To take an apoliticized example, imagine a sect whose members believe that AI is far superior to humans and that humans don't deserve to exist as a species. Imagine that sect's leader gaining a position as a leader in a powerful tech conglomerate, a blend of Google/Facebook/Monsanto/Pfizer/Amazon.

    They would be in an actual, somewhat practical position to both develop a general purpose malicious AI (and it doesn't have to be Sci-Fi "Skynet" type malicious, just mundane Paperclip maximizer); and some sort of bioweapon which can wipe out humans.

Having said that, as other answers noted, this general fact is not easily translatable into policy, for two reasons:

  • It is actually very difficult to objectively determine which beliefs threaten democracy. Some people deeply believe that capitalism threatens democracy while the others believe that socialism is the threat. Some people believe that specific political beliefs threaten democracy (Germany forbids Nazi propaganda), while others believe that forbidding ideas threatens democracy (US freedom of speech protections explicitly protecting even Nazi propaganda).

  • Along the latter lines, there are people - including US Founding Fathers - who argued that prohibiting ideas is more threatening to democracy than any ideas themselves.

This is not to be confused with Tyson's assertion, which, for all its grandiose wording, is of a much more limited nature.

All Tyson asserts, is that some beliefs may produce objective harm to the nation's population. It may not necessarily rise to the level of threat to "democracy" (but at the extremes, it may - see initial bullet points), but it may definitely cause harm.

For example, before 19th century, there was a widely held belief that gentleman doctors did not need to wash their hands. That belief literally and objectively murdered uncountable mothers and babies at birth; until the end of 19th century. Similarly, as another answer noted, the belief that vaccines cause autism, objectively harms people's health (an in a case of truly severe pandemic may cause socium to fully disintegrate, or at least fully reform - see the social, political and economic effects of Black Death in Middle ages, or effects of Eropean germs on Native American nations).

There is however a difference in most cases, between "harm to society" and "end to democracy", which for some reason Tyson glosses over.

  • 2
    @BЈовић actually it was. In 19th century... Aug 28 '18 at 11:08
  • 3
    @paul23 I believe the answerer is argueing from past experiences, not necessarily the "theory" of Marxism. They specifically refer to Leninism/Stalinism, and how the power goes from 'few' to 'many' to 'one' in all states that have implemented so called "communism". Invariably. Aug 28 '18 at 12:29
  • 3
    @Xaqron I'm not sure how you think this is contradictory. Neil does often simplify his language for a popular audience, but the general point is that reality continues to be real even if you imagine that something else is true. "Science" is his shorthand for "our current collective understanding of reality based on repeatable experimentation and evidence". This is perfectly in line with pointing out that believing in something not real can be objectively harmful, because that false belief will not stop you and others from being harmed by the reality you are ignoring.
    – Tal
    Aug 28 '18 at 13:26
  • 3
    @Philipp: I think religion straddles the boundary you try to draw: some people support unscientific ideas because of their religious beliefs. Whether beliefs in "strong/ authoritarian guy is the best form of government" are contrary to science or not... is probably a lot more debatable.
    – Fizz
    Aug 28 '18 at 15:04
  • 7
    @Philipp: I think you may be conceiving science as only "hard science", e.g. physics. But a lot of the policy debates are based on social science(s)... in which results are often less clear cut.
    – Fizz
    Aug 28 '18 at 15:11

I think most of the replies are misunderstanding what Tyson is saying, note that he says "end of our informed democracy" not merely "end of our democracy". The point here is that widespread belief in nonsense, and rejection of experts and evidence, harms the operation of a functioning democracy: i.e. a democracy that is capable of governing effectively and delivering a better life to its citizens.

This is likely true for two reasons, one banal, one political: (1) basing policy on falsehoods leads to bad policy, and this is directly harmful. Vaccines are an easy example, a policy of stopping vaccination based on the lies of disgraced and corrupt former doctor Andrew Wakefield would lead to an increase in deaths; and (2) truth allows a common consensus on which bipartisan agreement can be built. Without any accepted common ground politics becomes more partisan and tribal and is less able to function in the longer term.

It may also be that the loss of function in democracy harms the long term prospects of the survival of democracy itself, but I don't believe this is what Tyson is talking about in the given quote.

  • 2
    I think this point deserves greater attention. It is a perceived problem in some circles in the U.S. that more and more of the voting electorate are poorly informed about current issues, candidates' positions, and related topics, such that they are not equipped to make rational decisions about which candidates are most likely to represent their personal interests. I do not take a position on whether this is an actual problem, but it is akin to what I think Tyson is describing. Many of the benefits of democracy are lost if people do not vote in their own interest. Aug 28 '18 at 13:54
  • What if something is good for individuals and harms the society if and only if some percent of individuals do that thing? Should we ban it from beginning or let it to reach the threshold or even don't intervene?
    – Xaqron
    Aug 28 '18 at 15:09
  • 2
    I'm with you except the "rejection of experts and evidence". Andrew Wakefield whom you coincidentally mentioned, was an "expert" and presented falsified evidence. He and his evidence were rightfully rejected. I would instead say the over reliance on experts and uncritical acceptance of evidence presented by others is a far more serious threat.
    – Michael J.
    Aug 28 '18 at 16:55
  1. there are wrong facts, for example the repeatedly-debunked idea that vaccines cause autism. People mistakenly believe this despite the evidence against it, which leads to bad policies. More broadly, if people can agree on the basic facts then we can have reasonable debate as to how to proceed politically, but if people disagree on the actual facts then there's no way to have a political debate. If I say "The median income of Americans has tripled in the past two years, everybody is doing better than ever!" then there's no way for us to have a good debate about, say, tax reform. My facts are simply untrue, and facts are a necessary underpinning of any political position (though certainly not the only one - even agreeing on facts there will be vastly different politics).

  2. this is too broad of a question to really be answered. In general, the government does not imprison people for wrong beliefs but for wrong actions. In the US, the first amendment protects you from criminal liability for voicing "wrong beliefs" in most cases that aren't libel/slander.

  • 11
    'Wrong facts'? Aren't those just untrue statements? @Xaqron that's not true. Many people may not be vaccinated for other reasons, for example they are too young or are too weak to be vaccinated (for example due to another disease). Those people are then susceptible and because they are already weaker than healthy people (very young children or already weakened by another disease) the disease may be more lethal to them.
    – JJJ
    Aug 27 '18 at 21:01
  • 13
    Something can't be true or false "from personal point of view" - it's either true, or it's false. Vaccines either cause autism or they don't.
    – David Rice
    Aug 27 '18 at 21:10
  • 11
    @Xaqron There have been multiple outbreaks of measles in this century. The disease keeps popping up and it spreads among groups where the vaccination rate is below a certain threshold.
    – JJJ
    Aug 27 '18 at 21:14
  • 11
    @Xaqron They may cause autism in the same way that an imbalance of the humours may cause illness.
    – David Rice
    Aug 27 '18 at 21:27
  • 10
    @Xaqron True we can never know for sure. However, doubt that something is valid is not invalidating. Science also cannot be sure that we will not fall off of cliffs if we step over their edges, yet we are secure enough in this 'fact' to stay clear of cliff edges unless necessary. Vaccines may cause harm, in fact, they definitely do if administered by an injection that involves breaking the skin to administer. There are no perfect solutions here, there are trade-offs. Vaccines have been shown to have minimal risks compared to those of the diseases they prevent. Being natural != being good.
    – Edward
    Aug 27 '18 at 23:30

1) People can have the same facts and come to very different conclusions. The importance is to minimize false facts, but not "false conclusions". Beliefs are built based on the conclusions. People can have unconscious biases to reinforce their own beliefs with the facts that favor their positions and ignore facts that disprove their beliefs.

2) Banning false beliefs is the antithesis of freedom of expressions and democracy.

  • 3
    Do we not also want to minimize false conclusions?
    – user1530
    Aug 28 '18 at 2:48
  • False conclusions can be minimized by engaging in informed and civilized debates. Aug 28 '18 at 2:57
  • @AlantheAlien part 2) of your answer doesn't answer the 2) question. Neither does your comment to user blip answer his question.
    – Communisty
    Aug 28 '18 at 7:14
  • "Banning false beliefs is the antithesis of freedom" Can you extend this part part? I don't understand how this is helping to answer the question.
    – nelruk
    Aug 28 '18 at 13:23
  • 1
    @nelruk To ban false beliefs is to empower some entity with the legal authority to suppress certain ideas. But once such authority exists, it can just as well be used to prevent expression of ideas that aren't so much "false" as "inconvenient" to the people running things. History shows that no matter how good the intent is of such bans, they are inimical to freedom. Instead of banning them, show that they are false. Teach people to think critically and not believe stupid things without proof. Aug 28 '18 at 18:19

The OP doesn't specify a country, but given that Tyson is a citizen of the USA and the quote concerns a topic of significant political interest in the US, I'll look at this from the historical American perspective.

The Founding Fathers enshrined the right to speech uninhibited by the government in the 1st Amendment. They believed that true (political) freedom required a free and open exchange in the "marketplace of ideas". They also believed that over time only the most meritorious ideas would rise to lasting prominence, and that this freedom of speech was necessary to ensure that merit would be the dominant factor: ideas would neither rise nor fall (in the long run) due to other factors. This conception of free speech in the US has also been used in a number of Supreme Court decisions over the centuries. In this idealized sense, "false beliefs" would not have been considered a threat in any way whatsoever. Over time the merits of truth would drown out the false beliefs, and the people would naturally move to democratically select truths over falsehoods.

The question, in modern times, then changes to asking how close we are to this idealized scenario: do we have free and open exchange on the marketplace of ideas, impeded only by the merits of our ideas? That's extremely difficult to answer, and hits on a number of divisive political issues.

For example, the liberal side of the political spectrum tends to decry the Citizens United decision, which allowed essentially unfettered and limitless political donations from corporations. The liberal side sees this as tilting things in favor of the ultra wealthy and corporate interests: ideas are rising to the top not because of their merits, but because of the wealth behind them, while other ideas sink because their supporters are (relatively) too poor to compete.

On the other hand, the conservative side of the spectrum tends to rankle at the effects of "political correctness" and public reactions to alleged scandals that they feel violates presumptions of innocence, or otherwise relies on little more than one person's claims. Because they cannot use the words they want without being attacked and vilified for the words rather than for the ideas (from their perspective, at least), they feel disadvantaged and marginalized. They feel they cannot speak freely, and must dance around the PC landmines or be shunned.

Those are just two items, one from each "side" of the conservative/liberal divide (and I try not to pass judgment on them here), but there are many more. And there are deeper and more subtle issues that contribute to the matter, which are largely independent of political leanings and individual perceptions of their place in the marketplace of ideas.

The internet, and mass media in general, has provided a vehicle for the exchange of ideas that was likely well beyond the imagination of the Founding Fathers. It is now much easier to find and associate with people who share your ideas, no matter how unusual the may be. It then becomes much easier to constantly hear support and reassertions of these ideas, which helps to hedge out competing ideas: an echo chamber.

The sheer wealth of information, and the ease with which information is accessed, is also on a scale that was unimaginable even just a few decades ago. It is relatively easy to find some minutiae to push an agenda, and difficult to quickly find a concise counterpoint. A favorite plaything of Creationists is to try to find some tiny thing that science does not yet entirely understand, or it does but is difficult to explain to laymen—e.g. mathematicians have a phrase "almost surely", which has a very precise and unambiguous meaning; but it sure doesn't sound like it's precise—, and harp it as evidence that science is false and a failure. This wholly disregards the incomprehensibly huge volumes of evidence science has for the large swathe of things it does understand pretty thoroughly, as well as the general principle that science is always growing and changing.

In this way an idea can seep into the minds of people, who then may surround themselves with the like-minded to the exclusion of all other ideas in perpetuity. Now they are no longer engaging in a free exchange in a marketplace of ideas at all.

Now it's hard to say if that all sounds worse than it is, or how different it really is from the past (we've had insular religious groups many times, after all), and what the true long-run future looks like. The point I think to draw is: ideas themselves, regardless of what objective truth they may possess or lack, are not a threat to (the American conception of) democracy. What matter is the marketplace of ideas: how we convey, adapt, and change our ideas. "False beliefs" in a healthy and uninhibited marketplace of ideas are not seen as a threat; they are a natural and welcome participant. But an unhealthy or inhibited marketplace is a significant threat, regardless of what ideas are peddled in it.


No, wrong beliefs in of themselves do not threaten a properly functioning democracy.

Suppose the majority people have wrong beliefs, and therefore elect enough candidates with wrong beliefs to pass laws based upon those wrong beliefs. Eventually the bad results of these mistaken laws will affect the people, who will suffer the consequences of their error and thus grow wiser. While that is happening, that minority of people with somewhat better beliefs will be debating away, and their ranks will gradually swell with the penitent and increase to a majority. At which tipping point better legislators are only an election cycle away.

A state's government doesn't always need to be consciously and fluently rational, analytical and introspective, but it always needs to avoid fatal mistakes. Our ancestors didn't need to be scientifically minded botanists to avoid eating poison plants or drinking from contaminated wells, nor did they need a physiological theory of how a particular poison kills. The broad dumb abstraction of "poison" is enough for common purposes. Similarly, voters might not understand every potentially important ramification and subtlety of a political party's platform, or be capable of articulating why it may help or hurt both the nation and them. It doesn't mean their feelings aren't very useful. Birds and butterflies have always performed complex migrations without being able to articulate their itinerary; perhaps the electorate also follows some similarly excellent system of instinct, environmental feedback, emotion, and sociability.

So it's questionable whether a working democracy's voter base requires rationality so much as it does minimally noisy I/O and sufficiently low latency, (or in some cases sufficiently high latency, as with a cooling off cycle). On the other hand, there have been many fallen regimes throughout history that prided themselves on their state's comparatively higher state of rationality, and yet which still did the damndest self-destructive things... and sometimes not in spite of their rationality, but because of it.

In a corrupt democracy however, there must be grand concealment, big lies, and diligent censorship, (whether official, de facto, or both); the wrong beliefs of the majority are not the cause of the of the corruption, rather the wrong beliefs are its product. Corruption threatens democracy.

  • 6
    There are good reasons to believe that your first analysis is not true. At least, it's not something that is necessarily true. Even in a society without lies and censorship, people can be systematically wrong. This topic has obviously been of much debate, but an argument against your position can be seen in Bryan Caplan's book "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies."
    – Eff
    Aug 28 '18 at 10:35
  • What if minority finds out the consequences takes a long time to correct the system via feedback mechanism? Should they make the fall faster, say for example by supporting the flat earth theory?
    – Xaqron
    Aug 28 '18 at 15:16
  • @Xaqron Re "Should they make the fall faster": please clarify what "the fall" refers to.
    – agc
    Aug 28 '18 at 16:00
  • 1
    @agc He goes into details why this argument doesn't work for voting. Since an individual's vote is almost certainly not going to matter, the costs of voting poorly are not paid by individuals who vote poorly. A person eating a poisonous plant does face individual and severe consequences for their actions. Obviously, I'm not here to argue particularly about this point. I just wanted to note that there are people who disagree with the point you made. If you want to see his argument fully fleshed out, you have to read the book. He addresses your counter-argument.
    – Eff
    Aug 28 '18 at 16:23
  • 1
    @agc "Favorite tomes", "Because the Bible tells you so". You seem to be acting as if I simply argue dogmatically from authority, which is ridiculous. I simply gave one reference that argues against the position stated here. I didn't say that Caplan is infallible (In fact, I disagree with several of his positions, even positions in the book that I referenced). You can read the book if you're interested; you don't have to.
    – Eff
    Aug 28 '18 at 17:10

There's one interesting public choice theory that argues wrong ideas are uniquely dangerous to democracy. The ideal way a democracy would work is that if a majority has a wrong idea, then it will be enacted into policy and then some bad/wrong thing will happen. People will reject the wrong idea and then the policy will change. In his book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter" Bryan Caplan argues this doesn't actually work. Bryan argues, people change wrong ideas when they're costly. If I think that the world is flat, that's not that costly to me. I can still travel the world and make money, at most it has a little social cost when people mock me for this view. If I wrongly think that the world is ending, that is very costly. I might spend all my money, take out loans, quit my job etc. When the world doesn't end, I'm going to have to seriously reevaluate my wrong belief.

In democracy, wrong beliefs are not costly. If I vote for politician A, that individual vote doesn't determine the outcome of the election. The world will 99.999% of the time be completely the same no matter how I vote. For this reason, there's nothing forcing me to be careful with my vote or even suffer the negative effects of my vote. My vote didn't have a noticeable effect. For this reason, it's almost costless to have a completely wrong idea about political policy. Since it's costless, there's no reason for me to change that wrong idea even if the policy it results in has bad results. To make matters worse measuring the effect of public policy is very difficult. It's easy to blame something else for a policy's bad results (another costless wrong idea). Caplan calls this idea rational irrationality. If having a wrong political idea makes you feel good or helps you socially it's rational to hold such an irrational belief. To put it in economic terms the utility of a wrong political idea is greater than the almost zero cost of having that belief. Caplan argues rational irrationality is a serious limitation to democracy that must be grappled with by people thinking seriously about democratic political theory and institutions.

  • Great answer. Is it moral for the minority to speed up system failure so the majority can see the flaws that some minority are exploiting deliberately? Say if someone gonna claim something wrong then let it be B.o.B rather than Mark Zuckerberg.
    – Xaqron
    Aug 28 '18 at 17:55
  • Re: "The world will 99.999% of the time be completely the same no matter how I vote.": It's unclear what's implied by this vague generalization. How one votes relative to others might be very influential -- a minority vote over several cycles can begin a gradual increase and eventual cascade. Also almost nobody just votes -- they talk, kvetch, buy papers, tell jokes, any individual's true influence has many avenues. And there's the general civic peace of mind from the process itself. It'd be truer to say the world is always different after one votes.
    – agc
    Aug 28 '18 at 18:06
  • Re: "measuring the effect of public policy is very difficult": and that seems to contradict the ability to estimate the effect of a vote -- that is, if we say a bad result should have changed a future vote, perhaps our measurement has failed to encompass some unnoticed good result that offset the bad result.
    – agc
    Aug 28 '18 at 18:10
  • 1
    @agc public choice theory doesn't really find your network effects of voting to be meaningful enough to make voting rational see the paradox of voting. Many people can't accept that voting doesn't make sense and reject public choice economics.
    – lazarusL
    Aug 28 '18 at 18:21
  • @agc This argument isn't based on measuring how people vote, it's a logical argument based on utility theory. I'd be interested to see evidence that the average person in a democracy is amazing at gauging the effect of policy and changing his votes accordingly.
    – lazarusL
    Aug 28 '18 at 18:26

In any democratic society, there are going to be a plurality of beliefs people hold. Some of these beliefs are simply going to be factually incorrect. If one party says a reduction in taxes for the rich is better for the economy, and another party says an increase in taxes for the rich is better for the economy, then by definition one of the two parties has a "wrong belief". Thus, if you ban every party with what you consider a "wrong" belief, then this is ultimately a slippery slope to totalitarianism.

Wrong beliefs are bad. Banning wrong beliefs is worse. Because when someone starts banning "wrong" beliefs, then the unspoken claim here is that the person or entity banning these "wrong" beliefs is an unquestionable and infallible arbiter of what is true. This entity (which is typically the state) has a God-like status. This is what happens currently in North Korea, and what happened in the past in the Soviet Union.

The idea behind liberal democracy is that people are allowed to question what is true and what is not true. People are allowed to criticize the majority opinion, because the majority opinion can be (and often is) false. Just because CNN or MSNBC says something is true, that does not mean it is true. These questions are resolved via debate and discussion, not censorship.

  • 7
    Are you suggesting that CNN presents falsehoods as fact and that they should be debated and discussed? Like Conway tried with her alternative facts?
    – JJJ
    Aug 27 '18 at 23:03
  • 3
    @JJJ CNN is the archetypal example of mainstream, corporate news media, which is more or less beholden to establishment interests. The organization's reporting has been criticized by both the progressive left and the "Trumpian" right. They occasionally do present blatant falsehoods (e.g., with regard to situations in Sweden and South Africa), but more typical is a sly manipulation of public opinion through selective reporting and, especially more recently, the permeation of a systemic anti-Trump/anti-conservative/pro-establishment bias in nearly all of their reporting.
    – user5904
    Aug 27 '18 at 23:28
  • 8
    How can they be anti-conservative and anti-establishment? Surely conservatives in the US (having a majority in the house, the senate and supplying the president) are the establishment? Do you have a concrete example of CNN presenting a falsehood as a fact? As it is, your answer seems to be nothing more than an unsupported rant.
    – JJJ
    Aug 27 '18 at 23:32
  • 4
    @JJJ I do not regard people like Paul Ryan as being serious conservatives. They are Republicans, but not conservatives. They are a part of the broader Washington establishment machine, like the recently departed John McCain was (notice the praise and adulation he got post-death from the entire corporate media establishment). Moreover, I'm using "establishment" in a broader sense than strictly political power. The left is the current cultural establishment, having a firm grip on the news media, social media, Hollywood, etc.
    – user5904
    Aug 27 '18 at 23:34
  • 3
    If I understand you correctly, the group of non-establishment politicians is rather small (by your comment the dems and possibly many republicans are establishment). Doesn't that mean that because the group is so small, they represent only a small group of society and naturally they wouldn't have much power (political, but also in other areas you named)?
    – JJJ
    Aug 27 '18 at 23:40

I would reject the notion that believing in something wrong threatens democracy.

Let us for a moment remember what democracy is - the rule by the people for the people. It is the people having and taking self-responsibility for their actions. If you look at a teenager, making decisions and learning from them - even from wrong ones - is the most promising way to his or her maturity. There may be decisions that are so catastrophically wrong that parents want and have to protect their teenage childs from those, but generally you have to give them opportunity to make their own mistakes.

So what prevents growing maturity? It is not making mistakes, but instead not taking responsibility, not learning from mistakes, not correcting them. Immature persons will always claim that someone else is at fault, will not correct their mistakes even when faced with negative consequences, or make the same mistakes over and over again.

There is probably not much difference with the people and democracy. There will be wrong decisions, based on wrong assumptions, but that is okay if they are evaluated and corrected afterwards. A party will suggest a policy based on wrong ideas, it gets implemented, then it fails due to reality, and another party is elected. Yes, some people may be harmed, but in general we will see progression and living democracy. Trial and error. (Exceptions hold for catastrophic events; you don't want to let Hitler check out if the state fares better with all Jews extinct.)

Problems arise when mistakes are not acknowledged or the blame is always shifted to other groups. That is where ideology problems set in: If the regime is infallible because of a higher deity or an untouchable dogma, if critizing the state is inacceptable, if the people simply assume that always politicians are at fault, but never their own voting or acting, then we have a problem. Even if elections are held, in such an "immature" democracy mistakes will not be corrected, and erroneous beliefs can persist even in the face of counterevidence.

As an example (that isn't even a democratic one, but the principle holds in general), look at the communist parties of the Soviet Union and China. The former was, for the most of the time, unable to acknowledge that their politics drove their country to ruin. The latter was able to adapt their views based on the results of their actions. The former doesn't exist anymore, and the Russian economy still did not recover from the Soviet times. The latter is more powerful than ever, and China's economy is by now the largest in the world.

Thus it is not believing in wrong things that is the problem. It is holding onto that beliefs even when it turns out that they are all wrong.

  • If you look at the question it is the beliefs that are disprovably wrong that are the problem. Aug 28 '18 at 9:59
  • @JeremyFrench If beliefs themselves are disprovably wrong, how do you know they are wrong? A flat earth can be disproved. If someone rejects the proof although confronted with the evidence, that is exactly what I am talking about.
    – Thern
    Aug 28 '18 at 11:34

From the question

that may be the beginning of the end of our informed democracy.

note the word "informed".

So we can answer that a) factually wrong beliefs of course undermine the idea of the democracy being run on correct information



If that is true, then how we are gonna define what is a wrong belief and which one is legitimate?

The ones that can be demonstrated as at the very least not to be completely fabricated out of nothing and factually untrue; so morals can be held either way, but believing that we need to build a huge rim-wall to stop us falling of the edge of the world is counter to an informed democracy.


user4012 makes a very good point that beliefs that are anti-democratic are obviously a threat to democracy, but I think there is more and it is related to the quote in the question.

There are three important aspects:

  1. The wrongness of the belief

    Is it explicitly wrong or is it debatable by reasonable people. I may have an idea that someone else thinks is wrong, but it could be a matter of opinion with no objective truth either way. When people hold beliefs that are at odds with objective reality it starts to be a problem.

  2. The harm caused by the wrong belief

    If someone believes that toast always lands butter side down, it's not likely to be a big problem in itself (Though you would have to question the persons critical thinking skills). If they believe that alcohol does not impair their ability to drive or make good judgments that is more likely to be a problem.

Both these aspects only really matter at an individual level, so by themselves don't threaten democracy. The third aspect is much more important.

  1. The influence of the person who has the idea

    Any wrong idea, if it is restricted to an individual who others know to be of suspect judgement is not a big problem. If you know someone who swears by the astrologist in the local paper it is not going to threaten democracy as they are only influencing themselves. However, once people who have a lot of influence over others have wrong beliefs it begins to be a problem. If someone with a wrong belief starts to influence government policy it becomes a bigger problem. And if a dangerously incorrect belief gets codified into law you have a huge problem.

All of this in itself could be harmful but not threaten democracy. But then you get ideas like 'CO2 does not cause global warming' that are 'believed'* by a major political party in one of the most powerful nations on earth.

Why does this threaten democracy?

By derailing CO2 reduction globally it threatens the ability of the earth to sustain human civilisation.

A harmful, disprovably wrong idea, which is held by at least one of the major political parties in one of the most powerful nations on earth, can threaten not just democracy but human civilisation itself.

* It is arguable if this is believed or just a paid for opinion in many cases.

  • Didn't downvote, but I didn't get your reasoning. Why should a wrong and harmful idea threaten democracy (apart from catastrophic events like the wipeout of human civilization by a nuclear war)? Let's say people have the idea that zero taxes is the best for all people in the country. Let's say that this is utterly wrong, and many people will be off worse. Why does this threaten democracy by itself? You can maybe argue that any harmful idea might weaken the economy or raise dissatisfaction in the society, but that is far off from the argumentation line of the OP.
    – Thern
    Aug 28 '18 at 12:43
  • 1
    That is totally my reasoning. The idea that AGW is is false is a dangerous idea that with enough momentum could wipe out human civilization which obviously would be harmful to democracy. Unless you count voting about who to eat next as democracy. Aug 28 '18 at 13:56
  • The problem with this reasoning is that most false ideas will not wipe out civilization. So the equation "false ideas = problem for democracy" is false for all but the most extreme examples.
    – Thern
    Aug 28 '18 at 14:57

"Wrong beliefs" are actually core of democracy

People like deGrasse belong to often self-appointed "educated elite" which has a nasty habit of overestimating their own intellectual abilities and underestimating common man. This holds especially true in social sciences, which are less exact then natural sciences do to lack of mathematical models and rigorous proofing standards. Granted, deGrasse is an astrophysicist, but he often dabbles into sociology and even politics.

What deGrasse and other like him do not understand is that there is no fixed truth in science, and often claims that were supposedly repudiated in the past emerge once again in new shape . For example, in physics theory of aether now makes some sort of comeback with theory of Higgs field. In social science and politics things are even more fluid, one social model that was deemed successful could become obsolete and even harmful in decade or two. One example would be debate about free trade or tariff system, other would be debate are multicultural societies better then monocultural etc ...

In politics, change rarely comes from the top . People on the top are usually satisfied with current system, why would they want to change it ? Instead, those under, often deemed "ignorant", "deplorable", "backward" etc ... that feel all the wrongs of present situation and want to change. There are only two methods to resolve this conflict - either are they freely able to communicate their "wrong beliefs" and persuade others that they are in fact right (or be persuaded that they are wrong), or "elite" would forbid their expression.

In this other case, suppressed "wrong beliefs" would in most cases remain latent, and depending on circumstances would grow stronger, sometimes leading to open rebellions, revolutions and other kinds of conflicts.

It is core belief of democracy that individual citizens have enough mental power to discern what is best from them, and do not need tutors to guide them in life. Therefore, as a group, they must have opportunity to judge themselves about "wrong beliefs". Otherwise, democracy becomes a sham and society is actually weakened by efforts to censor various opinions .

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .