Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Is Science Democratic?

I.

Consensus science looks to me like a profoundly democratic and democratizing process.

The revolutions, substantiations and explications of properly scientific description and belief are distributed across the community of practicing scientists, and in principle across the whole community of scientifically literate people. And so, there is something deeply democratic for me at the very heart of what it is about science that distinguishes it from the authoritarian utterances of priestly elites who would otherwise solicit the belief of the faithful.

Scientific and democratic cultures arose and ramified together historically to reinvent human emancipation and transform the lived experience of human freedom. And the interminably disruptive impact of science on received customs and established authorities, no less than the unprecedented creative and remediative power it unceasingly unleashes, is an incomparable ally to those of us who would continue to struggle to democratize the world.

There is no question that an invocation of "science" has regularly underwritten terrible antidemocratic forces and projects. Socially pernicious pseudo-scientific movements like those that drove nineteenth-century "race-science" to justify imperialism, or scientistic movements like those that drive contemporary reductionist misapplications of genetic science to rationalize misogyny, racism, heterosexism, or class-warfare are among the obvious examples.

But scientific sense has prevailed and I think will continue to prevail against these movements mobilized in its name because of the democratizing breadth of its substantiating and falsifying collaborators. Consensus science prevails because good scientific practice emerged together with and responds still to the ongoing pressures from the diverse and proliferating stakeholders of democratizing societies who constitute those collaborators in the widest sense.

The testability that articulates the scientifically sensible and the diversity that articulates democratic sensitivity deeply and interminably articulate one another, they respond to one another, and they are now responsible for one another.

And so, for me, it is not just right to say that science has been importantly democratizing in its historical impact, but also that what is methodologically distinctive about science is importantly democratic already. And I have no doubt that the hopes I hold out for both science and for democracy go hand in hand in a rather deep and abiding way as well.

II.

I say that science is deeply, even definitively, democratic. You know, this is a claim of mine that seems to frustrate to no end many of my patient technocentric friends, most of whom champion both scientific practices and democratic processes quite as much as I do myself but most of whom just like to keep the two topics much more scrupulously separate than I do myself.

One exasperated critic recently insisted:
you can read that Dale is saying that science is really just what is currently popular among scientists. While there is some truth in this, it is edging dangerously towards saying that "reality" doesn't exist unless we all agree on it. Whereas, of course, the opposite is true. "Reality" doesn't care about our opinions. Science should be the search for an ever more correct description of "reality."

As it happens, I happily do say that scientific truth is whatever the rough consensus of practicing scientists and scientifically literate people says it is. Pretty much, I think "scientific truth" is a shorthand we use to describe whatever is published in respectable middlebrow high school and undergraduate college science textbooks each generation.

I will eagerly welcome the news that some new criterion has arrived on the scene above and beyond the good but imperfect criteria already on offer and on the basis of which we already judge candidate descriptions scientifically warranted, good in the way of pragmatic belief: coherence, testability, repeatability, elegance, and the rest. These criteria shepherd our beliefs toward more predictive and instrumental power, but none of them yet has delivered us certainty, finality, correspondence, synthesis, transcendence, omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, millenium... And let's just say I'm not holding my breath.

It is hard for me to see how such admissions could be taken as tantamount to saying "reality doesn't exist," since I see little evidence that any consensus around such a claim has ever formed or is likely to do among scientists or scientifically literate people. And, no, this does not seem to me to be a glib or dismissive response to the worries of my friends in the least, and certainly I do not mean it as one.

Precisely because our environment has no manifest preferences at all in the matter of how we describe it I think it is always profoundly misleading to say of scientific progress that it is best characterized as an ever more "correct" description of reality, where "correctness" is figured as a kind of incremental approach toward descriptions that mirror or map the world in some finally decisive manner.

Scientific progress happens (and it does) when our descriptions get better at giving us what we want of them. While it is obviously but uninterestingly right to say that the world is susceptible of being described in ways that yield some instrumental benefits and not others, this susceptibility underdetermines actual beliefs -- which are selected, after all, on the basis of criteria that serve us well but none of which inevitably yield final or certain results.

All the many mimetic accounts of scientific practice, all the reflective, mirroring, picturing, representational, mapping metaphors through which truth is figured as an ever closer "approximation" of word and world tend to be much more trouble than they are worth in my view. This is because while they capture some of the progressive character of scientific knowledge, they tend to do so at the cost of implying that such progress could have closure (even if only in some "ideal" but not practical sense). These delusive dreams and "regulative ideals" of finality and closure invigorate pernicious orthodoxies, buttress priestly elites, and consolidate costly distractions from useful novelties and fruitful anamolies. Further, they disavow the extent to which truths don't only "say the way the world is" but always satisfy values and desires which themselves change over time for a whole quirky range of reasons.

III.

Part of the trouble with my claim that science is democratic, of course, is that democracy is an ideal that properly means a number of different things to different people. Broadly speaking, democracy is simply the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them. A process is more democratic when and to the extent that more people have more of a say in it. But it is clearly an ideal expressed in different degrees, and with indefinitely many different implementations.

For instance, a market libertarian critic of mine has entertainingly snarked that
some of the actions you hold up as examples of democracy in action, such as sending bespectacled inspectors to shut down a [dangerous or misbehaving] science lab based on laws the scientists never contributed to (never had a say in), would be [the] antithesis [of science as democracy].

Now, scientists do things that have an impact on people other than the scientists themselves, and in relatively democratic societies those people should also have a say about such things. Scientists may choose to take heroic personal risks or make tremendous sacrifices, say, in their pursuit of new knowledge. Other scientists may assume comparable risks and costs in substantiating or refuting the results. But if scientists impose risks on others it is perfectly democratic to restrain them via regulation arrived at through legitimate processes exercised by accountable authorities.

As a scientist-stakeholder to the collaborative interrogation of the environment a scientist may grumble at an "undemocratic" "imposition" from ignorant "outsiders," but as a citizen in a democratic society in the context of which her scientific practice takes place she knows she participates as an insider and a stakeholder herself in the processes that eventuate in her own frustration in the more delimited context.

It shouldn't really be that difficult (even for a market libertarian) to see how a scientist can be a stakeholder and collaborator in more than one democratic project simultaneously, the claims of one of which can occasionally trump others without rendering any of them less democratic in consequence.

Another critic of mine has suggested that as a straightforward ethnographic sort of matter "science as practiced today is in fact more like a priestly caste telling others [what to do] than a collaborative project among most citizens." He went on, reasonably enough, to point out that "[w]hen influence is very concentrated in a small subgroup, it makes more sense to call the social context more dictatorial. In actual practice, influence is highly concentrated in science, compared to most walks of life. So it isn't relatively democratic."

Presumably, this critic is talking about the undue influence of big donors (private and public) on research, the disproportionate influence of eminent scientists over newcomers, the influence of unelected experts on the policies promulgated by elected lawmakers, and things like that.

In exchange for the democratic resonances I find at the heart of scientific practice, most of my critics discern and champion instead what they consider its "objectivity" -- a quality that sounds to me more like divine revelation the more they talk about its various merits and parts. And so, the first thing to note about this ethnographic criticism of my proposal is that it rather unexpectedly highlights aspects of actual scientific practice that tend to be emphasized by scholars who, like me, are often mistakenly criticized as "hostile to science" just because we refuse to attribute to it the presumed purity of "disinterested" objectivity or "indifference" to the play of power in the world in which, like all other practices, scientific practice also actually takes place.

That aside, I agree with my critic that what is democratic about the collaborative scientific interrogation of the environment in search of pragmatically better beliefs could and should be even further democratized by ameliorating the influence of elite interests over ongoing research. But it is hard to see why any of his qualifications would render science more essentially anti-democratic than democratic, though, even if they do suggest scientific practice and culture are open to even more beneficial democratization.

As far as the influence of experts goes, there is nothing inherently undemocratic about a division of labor. It seems especially absurd in this historical moment to propose that scientists constitute a tyrannical elite, when unscientific and actively antiscientific attitudes prevail catastrophically across George W. Bush's America. But even under Administrations relatively more sympathetic to the recommendations of knowledgeable scientists and experts it seems strange to suggest that there is something inevitably antidemocratic about their influence. Sometimes we will say of an institution or practice that it is democratic because it is directly responsive to the will of majorities, sometimes because it is administered by elected representatives, sometimes because it is accountable to such representatives, sometimes because it is defined by standards and practices administered by these representatives. Democracy takes many forms, and the practical and institutional experiments implementing the democratic idea are proliferating to this day.

IV.

Champions of consensus science like Chris Mooney (whose consistently excellent work I strongly recommend to readers of this blog) regularly decry the ways in which religious and market fundamentalists "politicize" science, the ways in which they undermine legitimate scientific standards, protocols, and published results in the cynical service of their particular political agendas.

We are all familiar with the countless ways in which established powers will work to subvert the verdicts of consensus science whenever these threaten to undermine elite privileges or expose the dispensability of parochial prejudices. Moneyed elites deny the well-established threat of climate-change, minimize the environmental impact of factory farming, croon about fictional "safe cigarettes," conceal studies that expose health risks associated with popular drugs... Social and religious conservatives champion demonstrably ineffectual "abstinence-only" education programs that put lives at risk and then seriously propose folk-poetry as a scientifically rigorous alternative to evolutionary theories.

But what worries me about the term "politicization" as a way of formulating the dangers in the political subversion of science is that it risks proposing as an alternative to this pernicious politicization of science a fantasy of depoliticized "objectivity" that is entirely unrealistic and hence, to my mind, altogether unscientific itself.

Science is a process in which scientifically literate people collaborate in various measures and in the context of well-managed relatively democratic societies to apply shared standards to the solution of problems. This process is ineradicably political in its everyday practice, in the communication of its results, in the distribution of its effects, in the determination of its applications, in the weaving of meanings arising out of its impacts.

Because science is ineradicably political it is likewise ineradicably vulnerable to abuse by political interests. Denying this inherent vulnerability to pernicious politicization by promoting a sanctimonious self-image of depoliticized objectivity does not protect science from this danger, but incomparably exacerbates it.

Science, then, it seem to me, wants good politicization, not quixotic depoliticization. And what is required first of all is a recongition of just what constitutes and supports such good politicization. Pretending not to be political, or decrying the political, or striving sanctimoniously to be oblivious to the political are all remarkably inept strategies, whatever their apparent charm and ubiquity among otherwise sensible champions of scientific culture. Science needs no priests, only collaborators.

And so, part of what I mean to propose in insisting on a tight connection between the political projects of consensus science and democratic experimentalism is to embrace a self-conscious politicization of science conceived as the collaborative interrogation of our shared environment in the service of shared ends by means of shared standards that stand the test of time.

When I say scientific practice as a project of knowledge acquisition is democratic I am simply highlighting the way in which those who propose a candidate for scientifically warranted assertibility solicit testing from across the culture of scientists, and in principle mobilize the active participation of literally every potentially scientifically literate person in the ongoing project of scientific substantiation, revision, and education. Notice that to the extent that it is the testability or falsifiability of a claim that identifies it as uniquely scientific in the first place, this implies that part of what it means for any scientifically literate person to say that they truly understand a specifically scientific account is that they can describe experimental results that have made it compelling and can explain what sorts of results would falsify it.

Scientific practice is democratic more generally to the extent that it is beholden to the demands of all of its stakeholders, who then regulate it to ensure that its costs, benefits, and risks are all distributed in ways that better reflect their actual interests. Whenever and to the extent that these conditions are met we can say of science not only that it is democratic itself, but that it is profoundly democratizing as well.

5 comments:

Razib said...

i would say science is a republic, not a democracy.

Dale Carrico said...

Fair enough, especially if you mean a democratic republic... My problem, of course, is with those who want to make it a Church.

TangoMan said...

Transparency is also key to both good democratic governance and to good science.

Overall, a good essay.

Martin Striz said...

Science is more democratic than people give it credit for. There are a few scientists with a stature capable of influencing public and scientific opinion on certain matters, but not many. The reason why they appear more numerous or influential to laymen is an observation selection effect: famous scientists are famous enough to be known by laymen, ordinary scientists aren't.

But who are the influential luminaries in Alzheimer's, circadian rhythms, metal hydroboration, or nitrogen fixation research? Nobody. Anyone who has data and wants to challenge established theories can do so easily.

One legitimate place where science might be considered undemocratic is in publication. A small group of people (peer reviewers) is responsible for permitting information to be passed on to the rest of the scientific community. However, for any field, there are multiple competing journals to submit to. Further, these journals are scored with "impact factors" based on how many citations the articles that appear in them get, so that the scientific community votes democratically on the worthiness of the journals (and consequently the peer reviewers).

I would say it's more a democracy than a republic.

Dale Carrico said...

Great comments, Martin -- my own sense of science squares with yours.

But I'm cheerfully willing to wave aside democratic republicanism versus republican democracy as a tomayto tomahto sort of thing, since I'm so happily surprised by the generous reactions of the Gene Expressionists to my essay.

Of course, the default culture of the Gene Expression blog is defined among other things by their distaste for "snark, political correctness, and social constructionism," every single one of which is amply in evidence in my thinking of these questions (at least on some definitions of these terms). I was fully expecting dismissal as a purveyor of "fashionable nonsense" or "menacing postmodern relativism" or something like that.

Anyway, the fact that they were open to my efforts to explain where I'm coming from as an anti-reductionist champion of consensus science makes me think that scientifically literate people who take social constructionist/science studies work seriously (as I do) might need to take greater care in formulating our positions.

I can hardly be the only one who loves Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour as much as I do Chris Mooney and Carl Sagan, and all of a piece in a single progressive pro-science vision of the world, after all!

I like to think a conversation really is possible among reasonable, scientifically literate people of good will, from both of Snow's "Two Cultures," a conversation that is alive to the possibilities of a rational enlightenment defined by sensitivity conjoined to objectivity, responsibility conjoined to instrumentality, solidarity conjoined to novelty.