Science and Democracy

2 January 2022

Science and Democracy

Image Credit: evidencefordemocracy.ca

This essay provides a historical overview of the complex relations between science and democracy. It contrasts two main positions: The first understands scientific attitudes as applicable to matters of social and political life, while a second opposed view, portrays science as a distinctive activity ill-suited as a model for civic life. During the Cold War, the connections forged between science, industry and the military highlighted the uneven distribution between the cost of scientific programs and their social benefits. Responding to these concerns, many have examined ways to make science more democratic, highlighting how expert knowledge stands in tension with that goal. This has led to a deeper understanding of the nature of expertise and the examination of different forms of citizen participation, one that suggests a more positive alliance between scientific expertise and democratic citizenship.

The proper role of science within democratic society has been a central area of debate over the last several centuries. While science and democracy maintain an important partnership, their relationship remains full of difficulties. Democratic governments face demands for increased citizen participation over decisions that arise from the way science impacts the public. This include requests for greater control over technologies that seem to operate unchecked. In addition, the scientific community complains about the public’s ignorance, while citizens often view scientific experts with suspicion and distrust. Such contemporary concerns are tied to longstanding debates concerning the social organization of scientific research and its political significance. (1) Two main positions have emerged from such disputes. The first understands science as representing a method or attitude that can be further extended to matters of social and political life. In its most ambitious form this view saw modern science as the proper cultural foundation both for democratic politics and the making of moral citizens. A second opposed view, portrays science as a distinctive type of activity dealing with its own problems and therefore ill-suited as a model for civic life. From this perspective, science requires autonomy from the political sphere in order to ensure continued scientific and technological advance. This view was largely successful in supporting attempts to secure government funding for scientific research without the centralized planning that was thought to hamper scientific research and innovation.


During the Cold War, the authority and autonomy granted to science began to be more critically examined. The connections forged between science, industry and the military highlighted the often uneven distribution between the cost of scientific programs and their social benefits. Responding to these concerns, many have examined ways to make science more democratic, further highlighting how expert knowledge may stand in tension with that goal. A number of different models for public participation in scientific and technical decision making have been proposed with varying degrees of success. Recently the application of such models has moved beyond countries such as Canada, Denmark, and the United States to include the social contexts of Asia, especially in Japan, Korea and Taiwan.This has led to a deeper understanding of the nature of expertise and the examination of different forms of citizen participation. The following offers a brief overview of this transition concluding that while science is clearly not the royal road to democracy, increased citizen participation holds the promise of forging a more cooperative alliance between scientific experts and citizens.


Science as Civic Ideal: Scientific Democracy


A central feature of Western thought since the scientific revolution emphasized how the spread of science within community life would further support democratic self-government. This idea was a common theme in the early days of the American republic, and took on more ambitious form in late nineteenth and early twentieth century when science was depicted as a vehicle for strengthening American democratic practices. Advocates of this scientific culture attempted to reconcile what might be seen as the competing demands of scientific research and its democratic legitimacy. On this view, science and democracy should be seen as harmonious and mutually reinforcing components of American life.


These ‘Scientific Democrats’ argued that in addition to technological resources, greater scientific development offered a moral outlook suitable to American democratic life. They were mainly interested in making the central claim that science could help in the forming of moral citizens. The philosopher John Dewey was a leading voice in this call for ‘scientific democracy’. His guiding philosophical conviction saw modern science as containing the resources for an egalitarian democratic culture once extended to the study of human affairs, including the social and political spheres of community life. He further thought that promoting a scientific attitude within American life would help contribute to a more egalitarian democratic society. Such extensions of science to cultural life took many forms as is illustrated by Dewey’s own example. He offered experiment and experimentation as a model for political deliberation and at times presented science as a means of social and moral engineering. (2)


Consensus conferences have had notable successes in terms of their ability to increase public participation without loss of clarity or rationality within the decision making process. In Taiwan their use has demonstrated the effectiveness of interaction between experts and the lay public by increasing scientific literacy concerning controversies in science.

By ‘Democracy’ the scientific democrats simply meant the popular sense of a polity defined by popular sovereignty. Moreover, it was generally assumed that the social influence of science was found in its ability to improve the formation of the public will, where this crucially involved the molding of its citizen’s moral character. While there was resistance to these ideas, the view that science reinforced the values of democratic society was not deeply questioned until during the Cold War. Later thinkers would highlight the myriad ways in which the interests of science and democracy are not identical and further emphasis the importance of increased public participation in scientific decision making, especially when it affects the public.


Some Dissenting Voices: The Need for Scientific Autonomy


During this same period, the differences between science and democracy were vividly depicted by those who criticized the idea of extending scientific ideals to civil society. In Germany the social scientist Max Weber sharply criticized assigning political significance to scientific work. He argued that expertise and specialization were conditions of scientific success and that this type of achievement did not further generalize to addressing the problems of life. Other notable anti-democratic approaches to scientific planning were opposed to the idea of an autonomous science disengaged from political and social life. Examples included Marxian views where cultural conditions were presented as responsible for scientific advance including the idea the technological practice drives theory construction. The Soviet emphasis on scientific planning was also influential. Scientific results were taken to derive from state organization, where the further application of its methods would abolish human dependence on the material world.


The Soviet emphasis on the idea of scientific planning led to an increased interest in the scope of freedom assigned to scientific inquiry, where the focus turned to the crucial issue of scientific autonomy. The American sociologist Robert Merton offered an argument for the autonomy of science with his discussion of the ethos of science involving four key norms: universalism, organized scepticism, “communism” or the sharing of scientific results, and disinterestedness. Merton argued that social integration depends on cultural norms, but that the normative structure of the scientific community was not derived from public standards. This is precisely what made science vulnerable to ‘anti-rationalist’ attempts to exert centralized control over science. For him, the way forward involved recognizing that scientific autonomy is threatened by ideals concerning the cultural extension of science, and that science and democracy are compatible only if the autonomy of science is recognized and maintained.


The scientist Michael Polanyi offered further influential arguments for the autonomy of science by claiming that science did not need political governance since it was already governed by its own traditions. He stressed that scientific method was a non-mechanical activity of discovery based on inarticulate knowledge grounded in tradition. The scientific community was then distinct from the planning mentality of corporate bureaucracy, where such planning would destroy the very community that allows for the freedom of scientific discovery. This further suggested, however, that science shares features of other communities with the importance of strong tradition, free discussion and decisions of conscience. Such commonalities recommend an attitude of mutual respect between science and democracy that Polanyi thought would help highlight how scientific advance is secured through its autonomy.Harvard president James Conant was a further important voice in rejecting the idea that science makes better citizens, and this viewpoint informed his own case studies based education policy. Both he and Polanyi concluded that science should be governed indirectly by facilitating active competition among scientists. The American historian of science Thomas Kuhn further argued that neither science nor its reward systems operated democratically. These views lent increasing support to the idea that the demands of scientific research and the interests of democratic society were not the same.



Crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale, one of the first two women to be elected as a fellow of the UK Royal Society, in 1945. Image Credit: Charles Hewitt/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty and Nature.com

Postwar Debates: Expertise and Public Participation


In the postwar era the political autonomy and authority given scientific research was challenged by scholars who sought a renewed democratization of scientific practice. The increasing tensions between science as an authoritative technique and science as a vision for civic life would later develop into a political debate over scientific authority and expertise. The connections between science, politics and public interests were now more carefully examined in the attempt to make scientific work more accountable to the public. (3)


The key problem with any deference to the authority of scientific expertise within democratic society stems from its apparent threat to citizen rule. The challenge becomes one of attempting to carefully situate expertise within an ongoing commitment to democratic values. It is here that commentators have recommended the increased public evaluation of scientific results and assumptions made about the social world. The sociologist Stephen Turner argues that in principle expert judgments can themselves be democratically accepted, while remaining both tentative and open to challenge. In the same vein, others emphasis that an increased public evaluation of scientific results can help identify conflicting values among interest groups and further indicate how this impacts public risk. Steven Epstein chronicles how AIDS activists recognized faulty assumptions within the protocols devised by scientists for new drug testing. This enabled them to further question both the ethics and artificial nature of these clinical trials.


Greater participation can also highlight those concerns that remain in the public interest but which are simply unknown by scientific experts. Brian Wynne’s examination of Northern English Sheep farms possibly affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident revealed how farmers remained sensitive to other possible sources of radiation and had relevant knowledge about sheep farming absent from scientists. This issue can be further framed in terms of the nature of expertise and expert knowledge. Expertise can come in many forms, and the public may exhibit a type of expertise conducive to scientific advance that is lacking in the scientific community. The sociologists Harry Collins and Robert Evans have offered a taxonomy of different types of expertise in order to clarify meaningful forms of participation in the hopes of yielding a greater knowledge egalitarianism. Another approach to combining different kinds of expertise involves what philosopher Philip Kitcher calls an ‘ideal of well-ordered science’. (4) According to this model, scientific research is well-ordered when the problems it addresses are selected by a diverse set of representatives that are fully informed about what science has established, what areas remain open, and who are committed to addressing the perceived needs of the public. These ideas have been used in developing democracies such as South Africa where attempts at ‘civic science’, the active dialogue between scientists, engineers and other community members, are seen as effective means for resource management. (5) This interaction supports democratic processes through recognition of diverse sources of expert knowledge, and further creates an environment favorable to the promotion of democracy through science.


The key problem with any deference to the authority of scientific expertise within democratic society stems from its apparent threat to citizen rule. The challenge becomes one of attempting to carefully situate expertise within an ongoing commitment to democratic values.

Such examples have led to greater insight into how public participation in technical decision making improves the value and quality of science and technology. Participatory processes are especially effective when they are representative of those interested, encourage fair deliberation, provide sufficient resources for informed debate, remain transparent and accountable, and are conducted efficiently. This democratization of science and technology has taken many forms including ‘Consensus conferences’ originating in Denmark and further used in other parts of Europe, Canada, the United States and more recently in Asia. Consensus conferences consist of citizen panels responsible for making non-binding recommendations to government concerning a specific technical issue of broader social concern. These panels can hear from experts but retain sole responsibility for their recommendations. Consensus conferences have had notable successes in terms of their ability to increase public participation without loss of clarity or rationality within the decision making process. In Taiwan their use has demonstrated the effectiveness of interaction between experts and the lay public by increasing scientific literacy concerning controversies in science. The lay public is further able to identify the biases and positions of scientific experts, and also raise important points not clearly suggested by scientific experts. The use of consensus conferences in Korea and Japan has led to exploration of other models of public participation, where an important guiding theme focuses on clarifying the precise ways in which local community contexts impact the process of public deliberation over technical decisions. Such citizen panels provide clear examples of how informed citizens can identify scientific bias and introduce significant issues not suggested by scientific experts. (6) What this then suggests is that the relationship between scientific expertise and democratic citizenship can be less antagonistic, as increased citizen participation can help to forge a more cooperative alliance between scientific experts and citizens.


 

NOTES


1. For a helpful overview seeRoy Macleod, “Science and Democracy: Historical Reflections on Present Discontents” Minerva v.35 (1997).


2. Further details on the scientific democrats can be found in Andrew, Jewett. Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. The main lines of Dewey’s varying views on science and democracy can be seen in his Reconstruction in Philosophy, Beacon Press,1920 and “Science and Free Culture.” In Freedom and Culture, 102- 118. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1939.


3. These issues are further examined in Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael Lynch, and Judy Wajcman, eds. The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies 3rd Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. See especially the chapters by Bucchi and Neresini, Irwin, Sismondo, and Turner.


4. Further details are found in H.M. Collins and Robert Evans. Rethinking Expertise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2007 and Philip Kitcher. Science in a Democratic Society. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011.


5. Further details can be found in E. van Wyk, C. M. Breen, T. Sherwill and D. Magadlela. “Challenges for the relationship between science and society: developing capacity for ecosystem governance in an emerging democracy.” Water Policy 9: Supplement 2 (2007): 99-111.


6. These issues and cases studies are treated in the following articles: Jill Chopyak and Peter Levesque. “Public participation in science and technology decision making: trends for the future.” Technology in Society 24(2002): 155–166; Dung-Sheng Chen and Chung-Yeh Deng. “Interaction between Citizens and Experts in Public Deliberation: A Case Study of Consensus Conferences in Taiwan.”East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal 1(2007): 77–97; Kohta Juraku, Tatsujiro Suzuki and Osamu Sakura. “Social Decision-making Processes in Local Contexts: An STS Case Study on Nuclear Power Plant Siting in Japan.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal 1(2007): 53–75; Margaret Sleeboom-Faulkner and Seyoung Hwang. “Governance of stem cellresearch: Public participationand decision-making in China,Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.” Social Studies of Science 42: 5 (September 2012): 684–708.

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