Science in a Democracy
In the classic work Democracy and its Critics, Robert Dahl said Plato made the most compelling case against democracy. Most of us recall Plato imagined a republic where a philosopher king ruled over an orderly utopia. For most of us it’s difficult to take seriously the idea of a philosopher king today. Many conservatives even disdain academics and philosophers. As William F. Buckley famously said, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty.”
Nonetheless, the idea of a philosopher king raises many challenges even for those who view it as desirable. Perhaps the most obvious difficulty is selection. Of course, Dahl did not seriously think the idea of a philosopher king as attractive for a modernized society. Rather he saw the rule of experts or guardians as the more realistic alternative. Indeed, many political thinkers have considered various incarnations of technocratic governance. Even democratic governments have incorporated features of technocracy through a trained bureaucracy, central banking, and professional military.
Regardless, the relationship between expertise and democracy is always tense. At no time has this been more true than during the pandemic. Many communities have rebelled against mandates from public health professionals like masks, school closures, and shutdowns. Zeynep Pamuk admits, “The partnership between democracy and expertise is intrinsically unstable.” Of course, it’s easy to dismiss public dissatisfaction with public health officials as populism rather than democracy. Indeed, some of the loudest critics of public health officials defend some of the most egregious assaults on democracy such as the riots of January 6th.
A recent book from Zeynep Pamuk, Politics and Expertise, explores the role of science in a democracy. It’s among the most insightful efforts to explain how democracy can become participatory, deliberative, and epistemic. Let me explain…
Traditional theorists believed democratic governance required common experiences and ideas. Homogeneity made democracy possible. Thomas Jefferson, for example, imagined a republic of citizen farmers partly because they embodied the independence necessary for self-governance, but also because specialization was considered antithetical to democracy. Democracy demands a generalized knowledge from its citizens so they can participate in a wide variety of political questions. The division of labor in society inevitably implies a specialization in governance itself. It closes off the realm of government to specialists who become de facto elites.
Theories of epistemic democracy, on the other hand, embrace diversity in experience and knowledge. It views specialized knowledge as a contribution to the community. Moreover, it encourages deliberation to share different perspectives so the community can make the best decisions possible. In other words, it argues for a heterogenous or cosmopolitan form of democracy where different perspectives strengthen the collective decision-making process. Political theorist Hélène Landemore writes, “It is inclusive deliberation of all on equal terms followed by inclusive voting on equal terms that offers us the safest epistemic bet in the face of political uncertainty.”
Nonetheless, epistemic democracy does not merely defer to experts, but rather demands participation from citizens with different perspectives to provide a more complete understanding of problems. It’s not enough to simply follow the science. Doing so would only produce a single homogenous view of knowledge where opinions converge through education. Zeyned Pamuk explains, “While the public understanding of science is clearly important, starting from this question presupposes that the appropriate role of nonexperts has already been settled, and the primary goal is to inform and educate them about science.” Epistemic democracy views knowledge itself as heterogenous. This distinction opens space for nonexperts to make meaningful contributions based on their own experiences and perspectives.
Pamuk tends to place a heavy emphasis on the roles of experts, citizens, and political leaders. She argues citizens do not need to ignore science to make meaningful contributions in a democracy. Political decisions involve questions of values and priorities. They often involve tradeoffs between competing goals or objectives. Scientific advice may point to ways to achieve collective goals, but it does not resolve important questions of values or priorities Moreover, Pamuk recognizes, “Expecting scientists to discern and use social and political values in their research would be to assign scientists a duty of political representation. This is a role for which they are neither qualified nor properly authorized.”
During the pandemic public health professionals offered important guidance to bring down the rate of infections, reduce hospitalizations, and avoid unnecessary deaths. Many politicians followed their advice without any debate. Many justified their policies as following the science. Others attacked experts as elitist. However, some raised valid questions about school closures and lockdowns based on other priorities or values. Please note I am not making a case for or against these policies. Rather my point is democratic deliberation does not end with a scientific recommendation.
Political polarization in the United States has turned into a contest between those in support of science against those who ignore it. Neither of these approaches is healthy for democracy. Pamuk makes the case that science will receive more respect when citizens understand its value and its limitations. Moreover, science rarely offers the certainty policymakers and the public want it to deliver. Rather than simply understand science better, it’s more important for the public to understand degrees of scientific certainty and areas of dissent. For example, scientists recognize the reality of global climate change, but disagree about the best ways to approach it. The disagreements do not challenge the existence of global warming, but oftentimes reflect differences in policy preferences or even values. For example, many scientists advocate for greater resources devoted to adaptation rather than the mitigation of its effects.
The decision citizens must make is not whether to support or abandon science. Zeynep Pamuk shows science is often a starting point for further deliberation in a democracy. Critics of science miss this important point. Too often they refuse to listen to the advice of experts precisely because they are experts. This is not only misguided, but also dangerous for good governance. Pamuk makes a much more reasonable request, “Even if we grant pessimism about politicians, we should resist idealizing science and scientists at the same time.”
Zeynep Pamuk joins the podcast to discuss her book, Politics and Expertise: How to Use Science in a Democratic Society. Look for it tomorrow or subscribe to the Democracy Paradox on your favorite podcast app today.
Ivan Cerovac (2020) Epistemic Democracy and Political Legitimacy
Simone Chambers (2018) “The Philosophic Origins of Deliberative Ideals,” in The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy
Robert Dahl (1989) Democracy and Its Critics
Carolyn Hendricks, Selen Ercan, and John Boswell (2020) Mending Democracy: Democratic Repair in Disconnected Times
Hélène Landemore (2020) Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century
Zeynep Pamuk (2021), Politics and Expertise: How to Use Science in a Democratic Society
Steven Pinker (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Plato (4th Century BCE) The Republic
Susan Rose-Ackerman (2021) Democracy and Executive Power: Policymaking Accountability in the US, the UK, Germany, and France
Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund (2018) Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think