Zeynep Pamuk on the Role of Science and Expertise in a Democracy

 

Zeynep Pamuk


Zeynep Pamuk is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego and the author of the book Politics and Expertise: How to Use Science in a Democratic Society.

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Science is never offering the whole truth. It may be offering us something accurate. Scientific findings may be reliable for now, but they are always incomplete.

Zeynep Pamuk

Key Highlights

  • Why is there a tension between science and democracy
  • The limits of science for public policy
  • The Proposal for a Science Court
  • Ways to provide greater democratic involvement in scientific funding
  • How have experts performed in the pandemic

Podcast Transcript

During the pandemic, the greatest champions of democracy have also championed science. But throughout most of history, intellectuals believed democracy was the enemy of science. Plato argued philosophers should be kings. Later writers have dreamed up utopian visions that were essentially technocracies. My point is science and democracy have a complicated relationship. 

Our guest Zeynep Pamuk is possibly the most qualified expert to discuss the intersection of science and democracy. Zeynep is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego and the author of the book Politics and Expertise: How to Use Science in a Democratic Society. 

Our conversation touches on quite a few subjects including her proposal for a science court and ways to make public research more responsive to the public. But the heart of this episode involves the delicate balance between epistemic and deliberative democracy. 

But before we start, I’d like to thank Maria Puerta Riera for her review on Apple Podcasts. She writes, “This is a great podcast. I find it useful, not only for academic reasons, but also, as a source of information for a concerned individual who worries a lot about the erosion of democracy as a social construct.” Thank you so much for your kind words Maria. Listeners can reach me at jkempf@democracyparadox.com or on Twitter @demparadox. But for now… this is my conversation with Zeynep Pamuk…

jmk

Zeynep Pamuk, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Zeynep Pamuk

Thank you for having me.

jmk

Well, Zeynep, I was drawn to your book, because I find it difficult to reconcile the role of expertise in a democracy. You see, I consider myself as somebody who believes in science, but also democracy. So, when they’re in conflict, it’s really difficult for me to reconcile these two distinct beliefs. In the book you write, “The partnership between democracy and expertise is intrinsically unstable.” Why is it unstable?

Zeynep Pamuk

Democracy and science ultimately get their sources of authority from different places. Science derives its authority from the truth, whereas democracy rests on the foundation that authority comes from the agreement between citizens. So, these are rival sources and when during political decision-making, democratic decisions or proposals clash with scientific ones then you have a clash between two sources of authority. And I think this is the intrinsic source of the tension. And I think this may be very well an inevitable source of tension. One that we cannot completely get rid of. I think there’s a further source of tension which is that science is never offering the whole truth. It may be offering us something accurate. Scientific findings, may be reliable for now, but they are always incomplete and sometimes they are uncertain and they may be completely wrong.

So, this means that the particular snapshot of reality that science offers us is shaped in very particular ways by scientists’ own values and assumptions, what they prioritize, what they think we need or they need. And these may not map onto the needs, priorities, concerns, and values of other citizens. So, the available scientific research comes with its own particular assumptions about what’s important and valuable and that too may not match what citizens think is valuable and important. And that’s another source of instability in the relationship.

jmk

Now, there’s a lot to unpack in the answer you just gave. And obviously I gave you a really broad question that I think we’re going to unpack throughout our conversation. But to start out a lot of politicians, especially right now during the pandemic claim that they are following the science. What are the limits of science for democratic decision making?

Zeynep Pamuk

So, first of all, as I just mentioned, science is intrinsically uncertain and scientists are very comfortable with this. They always say that when there’s new evidence, they will change their position. But, of course, in politics you need a decision now and that points to the limits of how far science can advise and inform a decision today given that it might well change in the near future. It’s also incomplete.

So, it gives us only one particular aspect of the kinds of knowledge that we would need to fully address an issue. And the other important thing is that science may not be appropriate for the particular purposes and contexts in which policy makers want to use it. That’s because science is conducted in its own context. This may be a lab context or it may be a particular local context in which researchers have developed the knowledge that’s available.

To say that that knowledge applies to some other context or broader context, a nation level or just to a different geography, different people that takes extra scientific work which we usually do not have. This kind of testing and mapping that makes the translation and use of findings appropriate in a new context, that is very difficult and often it’s a skipped step. So, then we have these frictions between the applicability of the knowledge we have and the purposes that politicians or citizens want to pursue. So, that’s another limitation in the relationship.

jmk

Can you give me an example of a case where there was this limitation that you just described between science and politics?

Zeynep Pamuk

Well, I think there are a lot of experiments. So now, social scientists are running more experiments to see if, for example, certain policy interventions bring about the desired results. So, they’ll conduct experiments especially in development. They will give a bag of lentils to villagers in a certain country, in Kenya say, and then see what that does in terms of their economic activity or they will see whether women who are given certain financial support will also become more politically active. So, they did these experiments and in certain villages in particular locations.

But then to say that that finding from that village applies to some broader nation level policy is usually something they can’t do. That doesn’t translate to a general conclusion about what kinds of welfare policies we should have, whether that will hold in say India, or in some other part of the world. Usually, policymakers want something that is more broadly applicable and it’s simply not there. Another example, and this is more about gaps in our knowledge rather than direct inapplicability, I guess, is about climate change models. So, a lot of the information we have about more regional and local climate change effects come from the Western world. And there’s so few models that focus on specifics and, for example, African countries which are among the ones that will be worst affected by some of the effects of climate change.

So, we don’t have anything specific to say to local politicians in African countries that address their needs or that draw on previous rainfall patterns or climate events from these countries. So, there’s a mismatch as science is basically unable, even though we know a lot about global level temperature rise in certain parts of the world, we can predict with much more certainty what the climate change future will look like. At the local level there’s still a lot that’s unknown and it follows certain predictable neglects of whose needs we can address better.

jmk

It sounds like there’s a lot of layers to this though. Where if we’re talking about climate change on one level, the question is, ‘Is climate change occurring?’ and we can pretty confidently right now say, ‘The science points to yes, climate change is happening.’ But what you’re referring to isn’t the question of ‘Is climate change happening?’ but the nuances of how do you deal with climate change in your specific environment? What steps should you take? How is it going to affect you? What’s going to happen? Am I hearing that right?

Zeynep Pamuk

Absolutely.

jmk

So, what are some of the problems that happen when science makes these broad-brush assumptions and people are trying to apply it to very specific situations and there’s a disconnect. The broad-brush idea doesn’t apply to somebody’s specific situation. Can you offer an example where people were trying to use a big picture idea and it just didn’t fit for their specific environment?

Zeynep Pamuk

So, one famous example is about the nuclear fallout in the Cumbria region of the UK where after this nuclear explosion, scientists were advising sheep farmers about the effects they would expect. And they basically said, ‘Oh, this will pass in about three weeks.’ And they were assuming that the soil there was a particular kind of soil and. the expected results did not materialize. So, the sheep farmers were basically in the position of culling their entire herd. And it turned out later that they didn’t understand that the particular soil in the Cumbrian region was different. So, they were taking knowledge derived from a different context and applying it without getting the local knowledge that the farmers had about the soil and basically it just was wrong.

jmk

Is this a case where the locals really did question the advice from the experts and then went along with it against their better judgment though?

Zeynep Pamuk

So, it’s a good question, because you could say that the farmers themselves couldn’t have said what the effect would have been and they wouldn’t have been able to name the type of soil. So, it wasn’t clear that they knew that the experts were wrong, but they could observe that something was wrong. And the experts’ predictions about what would happen was not being borne out by their observations. And they certainly were not included in the decision-making process.

So, the idea would be something like, the scientists incorporate or try to seek out more input from the local farmers and learn about what they can contribute and then they bring their own expertise which is developed in other contexts. And there’s a synergy between local knowledge and scientific expertise that is more academic or scholarly. And so, neither on their own would have it. Right? So, it’s not a matter of, ‘Oh, the farmers knew, but they were overruled.’ But it just shows that there’s mutual dependence that experts can help, but if they listen and that is the lesson.

jmk

Now, that’s obviously a theme that comes up a lot in the literature on deliberative democracy. The idea that if we have more opinions brought to the table, we can oftentimes filter out the best epistemic form of democracy in the end. But you also bring up another reason why expertise needs to be questioned. And you write in the book, “Choice under uncertainty also requires moral judgment about the outcomes and mistakes that decision makers want to avoid and the attitudes they take toward risks which are morally and culturally determined.” How does moral judgment factor in when we’re looking to take advice from experts?

Zeynep Pamuk

So, I would take this question one stage earlier, which is about how moral judgment factors in at the stage where scientists are dealing with uncertainty. So, scientists make many myriad judgments about whether to assume this or that. Whether a certain level of evidence is sufficient. Whether a certain approximation in a model is sufficiently good. And at each stage they face this question of what the consequences would be if they make a mistake. So, this is a kind of decision under uncertainty, but it happens throughout the scientific research process. And in each stage, they make these judgements based on something they expect about the results.

So, it can be a scientific goal. Something like whether this will meet a standard of evidence set by the scientific community, or it can be a practical goal especially if the science itself is more practically oriented such as public health or something. And then the consequence would be something like if we make these kinds of errors, what would the results be on a patient population? Can we afford to be wrong in this way? And these are moral judgements because in application, science has direct effects on the lives of people about whom decisions are made relying on the science. So, these decisions often have to be made by scientists themselves. But they also, at the stage of use, might clash with what the patients themselves would like to have made.

So, for example, in the HIV/AIDS case in the 1980s scientists’ judgments about what was sufficient evidence or what kinds of experimental setups were reliable were questioned by activists because they believed that given the effects that these experimental results would have on actual patients, they should have more say in determining the amount of risks that should be taken and the amount of uncertainty that they could live with. And on these points, they differed with the scientists and they pushed back saying their view was the correct one or that they should have a say in how these scientific judgements should be made. So, it’s not a question that only is about applying existing science, but it affects earlier stages of this science or it forces citizens or activists to question some of the judgments that have been made at earlier stages of the research process.

jmk

So, it sounds like there’s a lot more assumptions that are being made in the scientific process than the general public realizes. Are you essentially saying that science has a wide variety of different forms of bias that are baked into the process?

Zeynep Pamuk

I don’t like to use the word bias, because it has negative connotations. It suggests prejudice perhaps. It’s linked to unfairness in other realms. But I would certainly say that science involves value judgements. That it’s partial and that there are value judgements throughout the scientific process. So, that is something I feel very comfortable saying.

jmk

Okay. So, when the scientists offered their advice, not even just scientists, but we could talk about bureaucrats, we could talk about policymakers, we could talk about just anybody who has some level of expertise. How should a democratic public receive that type of advice? Should they be thinking consciously about the different assumptions that are being made? Should they be considering how the science is approached? What are the expectations that a normal democratic citizen should be making when they’re dealing with scientific information?

Zeynep Pamuk

I think they absolutely should be asking about the assumptions behind the science and whose needs it was designed to meet and what purposes it was designed to orient it towards. So, I wouldn’t say that this is the individual responsibility of each and every citizen, because I do think that’s quite demanding. That requires a high level of knowledge and time. And we know that not every citizen in a democratic society will be ready and willing to take on that task. But I do think that in the democratic process with all its many institutions, whether it’s in the public sphere in informal conversation or in the political process, more formally in Congress, debates between representatives and parties, this kind of scrutiny is crucial.

So, trying to uncover what the assumptions of the science were, what scientists bracketed, what they assumed, what they thought were important, what kinds of moral judgments they made under uncertainty and what they omitted altogether. I think this kind of scrutiny is crucial for effective use of science in a democratic society.

jmk

Would you put a higher level of standard on political elites? For instance, I’m thinking of that one story that you told in the book where President Ford was told by some scientific advisors that a new flu pandemic was on the cusp and he provided this major vaccination campaign for a pandemic that never was going to happen. I get the sense in the book that you feel President Ford should have asked a lot more questions. But in terms of the general population, we wouldn’t expect every single voter to necessarily ask those questions. Do you see a different level of expectation for our political leaders than for your average everyday citizens?

Zeynep Pamuk

Yeah, certainly. So, not just President Ford, but I think Congress should have been more involved in asking those questions because it required a huge budgetary allocation. I think it was about $135 million which Congress was asked to approve, but they were given very little information about the science itself. So, they took it on trust from the president. And this shows you that it was a bit of a different era.

So, certainly President Ford should have been asking more questions. Congress should have been asking more questions. Individual citizens should have had more information about what that committee, the vaccination committee within the CDC, had considered, what they dismissed, what other possibilities there were, how certain the advice was. So, that information should have been available though it’s not necessarily the task of every citizen to evaluate it for themselves. So, I certainly agree with what you said.

jmk

The committee itself is interesting. Because one of your bigger points in the book behind that example was that there’s dissenting views within that committee that weren’t brought to the light of day and for you dissent plays such a key role in the idea of trying to discern scientific advice. And you’re really the first that I’ve come across that’s really emphasized the role of dissent within democratic deliberation particularly linking it back to court decisions. In the book you write, “If court decisions embody the authority and finality of law, dissenting opinions open these up to scrutiny in democratic processes that rests on the opposite idea. That the possibility for revision and change always remains open.” So, I want to give you a moment to just kind of explain this concept that you bring up. How do dissenting opinions create space for the democratic process?

Zeynep Pamuk

So, I emphasize the role of dissenting views within science and the analogy with courts is instructive, because that is also an expert realm in which those who possess higher knowledge determine an issue and the citizenry basically takes their cue on the law, on the technicalities from the judges. And it’s similar with the science. So, citizens don’t have access to the research except in so far as it’s translated and shared with them by experts themselves. So, this gives experts a lot of control over what they disclose, what they share, and what they do not. The role of dissent here is to allow citizens to have a better sense of the uncertainty and weaknesses of the advice that they’re getting.

So, scientists often are in disagreement. This is not to say that there isn’t a scientific consensus on issues like climate change. So, sometimes it exists. But on many issues, and on issues like climate change at earlier stages of an issue, there’s quite a lot of disagreement. But expert committees are usually expected to give consensus opinions and this is taken to bolster their authority which I think it does. But this can turn out to be wrong and it can close off avenues for debate whereas dissent allows for scrutiny. It also allows for citizens to push for alternative ways of doing things.

So, for example, again going back to the AIDS case. If all agree that a certain way of setting up an experiment is the only scientific way to do it, then citizens are basically left without any other recourse. But if there are dissenting scientists, as there were then, that push for an alternative, they say, for example, ‘Oh, we can have a different approach to randomized controlled trials,’ which more paradigmatic, which are a bit more messy. But it could also be scientifically valid. Then citizens can weigh the values behind that alternative, consider the weaknesses of the majority position, and then align themselves.

So, it allows for a broader range of policies to be pursued. It slightly weakens the decisive authority that comes with declaring the position of truth effectively. Of course, my point is that it’s an uncertain and potentially reversible position. And we should know the uncertainty and whether it might be reversed. During the pandemic, the advice on masking really exemplifies why dissent and disagreement are important for organizing the public use of science. So, in that case there’s a lot of certainty put behind a position that basically was not certain.

There just was not that much evidence about the effects of masking in preventing COVID-19. It was a totally new virus scientists didn’t know and there was disagreement, but this disagreement wasn’t shared. If it had been in the public sphere, then we can imagine that some citizens would have just wanted to wear masks. And then when the policy was reversed later on, the reversal could have been more effective because the possibility that this might happen would already have been part of the debate. And I think when experts are wrong and dissenting views are not shared, then there can be a lot of damage in terms of public trust and expertise.

jmk

I think consensus also requires people to limit the scope of decision to something that is very simplistic sometimes. But it oftentimes gives the impression that it actually covers a much broader range of topics. So, if you’re looking at things from different perspectives, and every question has multiple perspectives and layers to be able to approach it, you can have very different answers. There’re examples where Ruth Bader Ginsburg has given some very famous dissents that didn’t change the opinion of the court and didn’t have any impact on the legal tradition going forward, but actually spurred new legislation in Congress to be able to change laws.

And I can imagine how if a scientific committee is meeting that rather than giving consensus, somebody stands out and takes a dissenting opinion that doesn’t challenge some of the ideas in the consensus. But challenges, the approaches that they took or challenges something else that says, ‘Hey, we need to consider these ideas.’ That it can definitely change the scope of the democratic conversations and maybe open up the door to some different policy decisions that otherwise wouldn’t have been taken

Zeynep Pamuk

Absolutely. An example from the pandemic of exactly the dynamic you are describing comes from the vaccine allocation proposal that the advisory committee on immunization practices recommended. So, there was a lot of criticism of their initial proposal which would have put the elderly behind the most vulnerable members of the community, minorities and marginalized groups who were more likely to be essential workers, but also, they were more likely to be young. So, people said, ‘Well, that will lead to a greater loss of life and it will affect the elderly very badly. That’s not a just distribution.’ So, when this criticism was made public… So the advantage of this committee is that it’s very open to public participation. It broadcast its meetings on YouTube. So, this kind of dissent and counterargument is welcome. It’s, encouraged. It’s part of their process.

And because that’s the case, we saw that in certain states new committees were formed. So, this is advisory. Obviously, the CDC does not make binding rules on vaccine allocation. So, for example, in Boston there was an alternative committee which used the data that the CDC had made available. And then they came up with recommendations that were more suited to their local needs including church leaders and teacher unions in the decision-making process. So, it didn’t reject the data. And a lot of the science that they were offering was taken on board, but it allowed for different kinds of policy at different levels that allowed for experimentation. And this was possible because the committee welcomed dissent and made the basis of its decision publicly accessible.

jmk

Another area during the pandemic that comes to mind is the decision to keep the schools closed. Because that had multiple layers to the conversation. Obviously, keeping the schools closed would be able to help control the spread of the virus, but there were other decisions made in that such as trying to keep students educated, especially students that were more high risk educated, being able to have it so parents were able to reenter the workforce easier. A lot of different conversations involved in that and I’m not trying to take a right answer or wrong answer on school closure, but it brings it back to the idea that there’s a lot of dimensions to these discussions that don’t just break down to the science. But involve moral decisions, moral deliberations that affect lots of different people in a democratic society.

Zeynep Pamuk

Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. So, the science can only do so much, but there are so many moral decisions about what follows from it. But I would also add, and this is something I really try to emphasize, that the way the science is done already pushes in the direction of certain kinds of policies appearing desirable, or feasible, or, you know, leading to fewer lives lost. And we have to scrutinize the science in order to have a fuller grasp of the kinds of moral judgments that they have made in light of the direction we would like to go.

So, you mentioned school closures and a lot of the advice on these types of issues come from scientific models which have their own assumptions about how to model the concept of health and what kinds of measures of precautionary and which mechanisms they should consider and what kinds of social dynamics would be included in the model and not. So, depending on how these are made, depending on whether, you know, the effect on children’s future development, cognitive psychological whether that’s considered, whether mental health issues are also included in health, these kinds of judgements are in the models. They’re usually there by omission so they’re not included at all.

But in other cases, certain aspects of them are included or they’re given certain weights and the models will then lead to advice that is already morally tinged. And unless we understand how data about facts already includes these moral judgments then we will be one step behind when we’re trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.

jmk

So, one of the fascinating ideas that you bring up in the book, let me clarify that it’s not your original idea, but you bring back to the political conversation is the idea of a science court. Can you explain what a science court is and why you think it would be useful in a democracy?

Zeynep Pamuk

Yeah, so I have to say that the version I’m proposing is quite different than the original science court proposed by an engineer and policymaker called Arthur Kantrowitz in the 1970s. But what I propose is a policy institution, not a scientific institution, which takes up political issues with a scientific component. And the agenda is set by citizens, citizen groups who collect signatures and there’s scientific disagreement. And scientists representing two sides of it are invited to make the case for different sides of the question. So, it’s not a question about a purely scientific issue. It’s about a policy question with a scientific part and the scientists make the case and then a citizen jury listens to them, interrogates them, they cross examine one another in order to bring out the weaknesses of each other’s views and then the citizen jury deliberates and offers a, verdict which is in favor of one of the proposals policy proposals on the table.

jmk

Okay. I’ve got a few questions for you on this. So, you really emphasize the idea of dissent and having dissenting opinions. Wouldn’t a science court close off the idea of dissent by saying, ‘We’ve already made a decision on this. Global warming isn’t really a problem. We decided that in 1970. Why do we need to revisit it in 1980 or 1990?’ How would we deal with that?

Zeynep Pamuk

I think I would emphasize that this is a political institution. And I think we all understand that political decisions or at least democratic decisions are always reversible. So, if this were a scientific institution and Kantrowitz’s original proposal was a scientific institution and there he had scientist judges who would resolve a scientific disagreement for the scientific community. And I think your concern would be exactly right in that case. It would just give a final verdict and then that would have the effect of shutting down further dissent as if this were settled. In my case, it’s a political decision. The verdict is for here and now.

So, it’s not meant to stop scientific debate from going on, but it’s meant to decide which of the available scientific views we take to be certain enough or reliable enough or most appropriate for particular political purposes and then build policy on that science. So, it’s sort of like a policymaker’s dilemma or a politician’s dilemma about which of his or her advisors to listen to, just brought more into the public eye with citizen participation. So, it wouldn’t stop scientific debate from going on.

jmk

So, new studies happen all the time. If a new study comes out that shifts the conversation in one way or the other, does that mean that we’re going back to science court yet again to be able to challenge the previous decision. And as more information challenges that last study, I mean are we going  to go back and forth on these decisions so there’s no real finality behind it?

Zeynep Pamuk

You could certainly go back to the science court and I think in certain cases the new evidence would be so dramatically different that you would probably have to. But also as with many policy scenarios, in some cases you make a decision and it stays for a while and you revise it when the time or need arises. So, certainly I can imagine this being a cyclical process. An issue being opened up again and again, but you can also imagine the science court settling the political conflicts around the issue, such that when more evidence becomes available later on it’s not a matter of such contention.

So, you wouldn’t have to do a science court for every single issue. In some cases, the evidence can be just less controversial, easily incorporated without a lot of public scrutiny or disagreement. This is more about issues. Where we have a highly charged situation where there would be need to settle disagreements and if an issue remains that way after the science court, yeah, I can see having another one.

jmk

So, these are oftentimes going to be very specific issues is the impression that I get. And if the science court makes a decision, does that mean the policymakers are obligated to follow their decision or is this just one step in the political process and policy making process?

Zeynep Pamuk

It’s one step. So, in the literature on participatory institutions, there is a debate about whether these institutions should be given the power to make binding decisions. I’m a bit reluctant to give them binding power, because at the end of the day they are made of unelected citizens and there is a political system of parties and the majority of the citizenry not taking part in these experiments which basically leaves them out of the process and denies their right to contribute.

So, I wouldn’t give them binding power, but I would try to make their role in the process as weighty as possible. Maybe putting in rules that say that their recommendation has to be considered. And if it’s declined, then you have to run another science court, so just tie the hands of policy makers a bit more and also make them as public and visible as possible.

And I think their effect in directing public opinion should also be considered. I think an important role could be that it organizes public debate, aligns with a majority view and the public sphere then it would just show that policy makers are ignoring the majority view. And if it ends up endorsing a minority more idiosyncratic view than it would give citizens something to think about. It would make the dissent stronger so it would just act the part of the dissenter. Either way I think it could have a salutary influence on citizen opinion even if it doesn’t have the power to make binding policies.

jmk

Well, it definitely would be interesting to get direct citizens’ input. Hopefully, it would do something to just lower the temperature on polarization over conversations. Now, a different topic that you bring up that I found was really interesting was the role of scientific research and funding it. And again, a lot of people, especially on the left, would want to be able to provide the scientific research to those areas that seem to have promise that would think that the scientists can be able to figure out what the best decisions are. But we’ve got people on the opposite side of the political spectrum, like I imagine Rand Paul getting up there and reading off all of these different studies that are being made, and he tries to find the most outlandish ones and put them in the worst possible light he can on the Senate floor, to be able to discredit public funding of science. You do think that the democratic deliberative process needs to be more involved in the funding of scientific research. Explain why and explain how.

Zeynep Pamuk

So, after the Second World War, there’s a big push to expand public funding for scientific research. This was a new thing. Science wasn’t always publicly funded. It used to be more of a private activity for the wealthy, but this push was done in the interest of the public good. So, the claim was that spending billions of dollars on scientific research would come back to citizens in the form of science that serves their interests. And yet, they were given very little input into the process of distributing research funding. Scientists were given a high degree of autonomy and the principle behind us was that scientists pursuing their own curiosity would just further the public interest. And I think that claim is a bit shaky.

We don’t have evidence to believe that scientists just doing whatever, pursuing wherever their curiosity leads them to will serve the public interest. So, it can lead to scientific discoveries, but we can’t equate that with the public interest and the justification behind public funding is that it should serve the public interest. So, I think there should be more democratic input in the direction and the allocation of scientific resources into issue areas. Having said that I don’t suggest that citizens or bureaucrats sit on funding committees, but it would be at a more issue level and within issues. It would direct funding perhaps a bit more finely than it is currently done towards particular aspects of the issue, towards particular communities whose needs are not being served, or representing a broader base of the citizenry in the kind of research that is undertaken with public funds.

jmk

So, you’re saying that citizens should be involved in the big picture decisions, but not on the specific grant level decisions. Right?

Zeynep Pamuk

Yes.

jmk

So, we’ve seen how scientific funding can have a dramatic effect on our society during the pandemic. The mRNA vaccines are due to significant funding into science that the American government has done. Do you have any kind of fear though that if regular citizens are more involved in those types of decisions that they might’ve thought, ‘Well, gosh, this is a waste. We’re investing into research into a vaccine that we may never use.’ I mean, the reality is that we did end up needing those vaccines.

Zeynep Pamuk

There’s certainly a worry, but there’s also a symmetrical worry that scientists will use those funds to pursue projects that we actually will not use, that we will not need, that we cannot think of any conceivable direct – I mean, I’m not suggesting – this is not a contrast between basic and applied science or anything like that. I do believe that basic science is often necessary and shouldn’t be constrained with practical applications, but I think the uncertainty can be quite symmetrical. And what I propose is that we do more studies. That we just undertake a more holistic understanding of the spending of public funds on science and what the return is, what kinds of science has delivered, and what has not delivered. The most puzzling thing to me was that there is no large scale accounting of what happens to this money.

And I think this can validate the value of public funding. When examples like the one you brought up, an excellent example, can show that the public funding is extremely valuable, but it can also show us areas like the superconducting supercollider project in the nineties which was going to have huge amounts of funding. And it wasn’t really clear what anybody would gain from it. And then ultimately it failed. So, some more directed approach to understanding what works with the public interest in mind, because ultimately we don’t have anything that ensures that, you know, the mRNA vaccine is undertaken and this more fantastical or wasteful project is not undertaken.

And we certainly know that certain communities are historically neglected by science. And now with the increase of private funding, we know that corporate interests and, in some cases, philanthropists are pushing more for science that serves their interests. So, I think we need more evidence rather than picking out individual cases that make the claim for and against more public input.

jmk

Are there any areas of scientific research that you think have been ignored either currently or in the past that if there was greater democratic participation possibly would have been pursued earlier?

Zeynep Pamuk

I think on the climate change question, the fact that a lot of climate models focused on global level temperature changes at the expense of understanding more local changes which means that state level policy, which is where most of the climate change action is today, is left with much less scientific evidence to work with. So, we don’t have as much finely detailed local knowledge. So, that’s one area where a different allocation of resources could have led to different results. Similarly, there was much more push for climate change mitigation rather than adaptation. So, adaptation was not considered and that wasn’t a public debate. There wasn’t much discussion about what we want science to do or how we might combat climate change and its effects in the best possible way or in a feasible way.

So, we basically had the science that was presented and I think a different distribution of climate change funding could perhaps have opened up more areas. I’m certainly not suggesting this would have been research that showed climate change doesn’t exist. Of course not, but just directly funds towards areas where more could be done and also the GMO example is another good one. So, I’m just picking out issues that have become highly charged in the public sphere. So, there was a lot of molecular lab level research showing again and again that these are not harmful. That they don’t do anything to human cells and it’s completely anti-scientific to think that GMOs are harmful. But I think what was going on there was that the claims against GMOs were not being heard and researched.

So, a lot of the push against GMOs was about environmental effects, was about the sustainability of local seeds, and the effect of GMOs on local ecosystems as well as food security and the sustainability of farmers in the long run who would become dependent on these seeds. And research to show these more environmental ecosystem level and more social scientific effects was rarely undertaken because the corporations that produce GMOs did not have enough incentive and they would have been expensive studies and long-term studies.

And this is also partly tied to regulatory processes and what they require in terms of scientific evidence. So, this kind of molecular level evidence is enough to pass a GMO as safe for consumption. And that was basically what was done. And a lot of money was spent to show that. Whereas the push against GMOs was not backed by funded scientific research, which was unfortunate. And it ended up in its presentation as being completely unscientific. Whereas I think it was a result of the science not being funded, not existing.

jmk

Do you think that there should be greater federalism within the allocation of funds for scientific research? I imagine that some communities would be much more concerned about the effects of climate change or the effects of GMOs and so like California would probably pursue very different studies than a state like Texas. It would also allow much more specific studies to be done about local communities as well. What would your thoughts be on that?

Zeynep Pamuk

I think that would be great. That would certainly allow for more control of citizens and communities over the kinds of science that’s produced. I think that would be fantastic. The one issue is that it would require a rethinking of where the money is and how it moves. So, a lot of the grant distributing organizations do it at the federal level, so the NSF and NIH. So, these are big funders and they don’t operate at the state level. So, the amount that’s available to states is less, but I think it would certainly be a healthy development. And there you could see community involvement happening. Not necessarily, again, sitting on grant committees, kind of involvement. But just in setting the priorities that would be more feasible.

It would make more sense. It would also lead to more coherent representation since it’s easier to articulate local needs sometimes on local issues. Absolutely.

jmk

So, the question on the back of everybody’s mind right now is about the pandemic and you write an entire chapter about the pandemic and the role of experts within it. I just want to ask you point blank. How would you assess the performance of scientists and experts during the pandemic?

Zeynep Pamuk

Important question. So, I’ll start with the positives. I think the greatest success of scientists and their gift to humanity was on the vaccine front and that was just an incredible achievement. And without it would be difficult to fight the pandemic as we have. Which is not to say that we’ve done a great job, but at least it has made tremendous advances possible. So, that’s the big success. And I also want to commend scientists. A lot of scientists work tirelessly and they did it basically for the common good, for the global common good. And they accepted roles that were far more public than they are used to, than they’d probably enjoy or want. And in interviews they say they worked sleepless nights. So, I think that also should be recognized that scientists really took on a crucial public role in the pandemic.

As for the shortcomings of the scientific response, the one thing that really struck me was how secretive some of the advisory processes were. There were a lot of press conferences with scientists, but I think they were quite performative. So, we weren’t always seeing what advice governments were getting and what data it was drawn on. And for an institution that prides itself on being transparent and sharing data and knowledge. I think the public wasn’t seeing a lot of that. It wasn’t presented very transparently.

I think the earlier model, some of this we touched on in this conversation, but some of the models that guided advice on school closures, on masking, on lockdowns didn’t fully incorporate the needs of all communities, the needs of essential workers, of children, of the elderly, mental health needs. social scientific factors were often neglected. There was surprisingly little discussion of uncertainty and disagreement. It’s surprising, because we knew they little about the virus when it emerged. And I think everybody knew that so nobody expected scientists to deliver certainty.

And yet, they spoke with such certainty at many turns and then they reversed their judgments. Which the reversal was of course expected given the science was constantly evolving. But the certainty was uncalled for. And I’m here thinking about the masking recommendation and the school closure recommendation also. It kept changing. And at each point it was expressed with far more certainty than was warranted. And I think that was problematic.

jmk

So, as we come to a close, I want to come back to a line in your book where you write, “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.” So, as we kind of come to our conclusion. Do we expect too much from scientists in politics in today’s political environment?

Zeynep Pamuk

Possibly. I think my argument is basically against putting all the onus on science to be both correct and to lead us to good outcomes. But also, to be politically astute and to speak to everyone. Science cannot do all of this and scientists certainly are human and they have their own perspective. They have their values, their beliefs, their moral stances, their political positions. So, I think we absolutely need to take some of the political part of the division of labor between politics and science more seriously and recognize that it should be more than people take responsibility for. And especially political leaders have a lot more to do here in terms of understanding the science and translating it for the public and questioning its assumptions and testing it’s match with their political agendas.

So, we have a model. Either it’s very scientistic and we expect scientists to guide the decision all the way or we deny science because it seems inconvenient or it seems like it challenges our beliefs, our way of life. And these two extremes are both pathological. So, we don’t have a healthy interaction. Part of the responsibility could be put on scientists to be clearer about their uncertainty, their values, to work better with politicians, to be more publicly oriented. But it certainly is not on them to both be representatives of the citizenry and also do their day job and also speak to politicians.

So, it certainly cannot be on them. And I think views that say scientists should represent the moral values of the citizenry should guide the research. I think these are not bad things, but it cannot be expected that scientists will be good at active political representation. That cannot possibly speak for every citizen, but we do have processes which are tasked with representing every citizen. So, why not have them work more closely with the science and take off some of the responsibility and do it more effectively?

jmk

Well, thank you so much for joining me Zeynep. This is really a brilliant book. It’s such a timely topic, but you approach it with some real clear vision. And I think really makes sense of some of the challenges that we have today. So, thank you so much for writing it.

Zeynep Pamuk

 Thank you, Justin. That’s a very kind of you to say and this was a great conversation.

Key Links

Politics and Expertise: How to Use Science in a Democratic Society by Zeynep Pamuk

Learn more about Zeynep Pamuk at scholar.harvard.edu/zpamuk

Read Zeynep Pamuk’s article “The Contours of Ignorance,” in Boston Review

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