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

Monday, January 13, 2014

Scientific Authority in Democratic Societies Must Be Democratically Politicized Science

Upgraded and expanded from my response to a comment in the Moot:

Warranted consensus scientific truth is essentially what is taken to be true enough to be published in everyday textbooks right now. Yes, that will change. Yes, some things taken to be true will be replaced by different things rendering false what is warranted now as true. Yes, actual practicing scientists are warranted in their legitimate research to take as warranted things that are not yet taken up by a sufficient consensus to make it into the textbooks.

By the way, I am aware that Republicans are being attacked for "politicizing" the contents of textbooks as well these days -- teaching "the controversy" as a way to pretend that christianist folk mythology is as scientific as Darwinian biology in biology classrooms, rendering the climate consensus around anthropogenic climate catastrophe "controversial" as it is not, teaching long-falsified laissez-faire economic pieties as if the introduction and repeated confirmation of the Keynes-Hicks model never happened, and so on. My response to this problem mirrors the response I made in yesterday's post. It also reflects the same concerns I have about the inadequacy of most of too many of my allies in the effort to defend the teaching of the warranted consensus in these fields and insist on the accountability of policymakers to the authority of such expertise: The problem is not that Republicans are "politicizing" textbooks the contents of which are above or prior to politics, the problem is ensuring that the always political process of determining the contents of textbooks be compatible with the support of consensus science (itself a matter of political processes embedded in a sustaining ideology as I said yesterday) and compatible with democratic norms, solving shared problems in ways that equitably distribute costs, risks, and benefits to the diversity of their stakeholders.

That trained scientists within scientific fields are still working through evolutionary, atmospheric, ecosystemic, macroeconomic, therapeutic puzzles is not to justify denial by interested but non-expert everyday citizens of the questions on which these experts share a strong consensus of conviction. That human activity is causing and can still be made to ameliorate catastrophic climate change actually isn't debated among the relevant scientists in a way that justifies hesitation (let alone ridicule) on the part of citizens or their accountable representatives. You don't have to be a scientific expert capable of contributing to a field in order to stand in a more or less reasonable relation to the knowledge claims arising from that field -- especially to the extent that those knowledge claims figure in the cause or amelioration of public problems of shared concern.

In my post yesterday, I analogized "the convenient denial of climate science by petrochemical CEOs who otherwise trust the consensus of, say, relevant medical researchers." What I hoped this would make clear is that the anti-scientific counter-revolutionaries of the right are screwing around with the norms on which political procedures depend to translate the state of consensus scientific knowledge into policymaking to which representatives must be accountable. This is a matter of consistency in the recognition of the warranted consensus of experts in a field of the kind that finds its way to substantive textbooks (the petrochemical CEO accepts the verdict of medical science and most other expert fields in the conventionally reasonable way the literate interested non-expert citizen does, but refuses to accept this verdict, or at any rate cynically pretends not to do so, when the issue of his parochial profit-taking trumps that reasonableness) as well as a matter of consistency in the practice and application of technoscience to the democratic values of sustainable equity-in-diversity. The problem here is in the democratic constitution of expert authorities to which elected representatives are made accountable by a mostly non-expert but interested electorate.

I was trying to zero in yesterday more clearly than I think defenders of warranted science with whom I am otherwise allies often manage to do to account for just what is being violated by the reactionary anti-science Republicans today. And as I said in the post, I think the eagerness of my allies to declare anti-science politics a kind of relativism or nihilism about facts risks mistaking for an epistemological phenomenon what is indeed a political phenomenon. Worse, this mistake tends to make defenders of science actively denigrate the political problems at issue in ways that threatens the work of their urgent correction, and progressive champions of science end up lodging their defenses instead in what amounts all too often to a quasi-theological viewpoint in which a personified Universe is imagined to have preferences in the matter of how human beings describe it factually, preferences that that the Universe is imagined to endorse by conferring gifts on the humans speaking its language with powers of prediction and control (and in the most pathological variations of this view, a certainty and finality of scientific belief rendering it merely a kind of secularized faith, and rendering scientific expertise a kind of priestly authority).

I really do think issues of the authoritative force of Keynes-Hicks macroeconomics, Darwinian biology, anthropogenic climate change are all pretty cut and dried as you say at a general level to which an interested literate electorate should require their representatives to be accountable in their policymaking, as a straightforward matter of consistency with the norms that otherwise induce that electorate to trust heart surgeons and bridge engineers while also expecting them to be licensed and regulated. But the legibility and force of these secular democratic commonplaces depend on the prior recognition that scientific practices of research, credentialization, publication, funding, regulation, implementation are political processes as the accountability of elected representatives to the authority of consensus science is likewise sustained by political processes. This means that anti-science politics we should decry are not a matter of apostasy about revealed truth as matters of political dysfunction brought about by the violation of pragmatic and ethical norms, practices of opportunistic or confused inconsistency amount, as often as not, to active fraud, and hence politicized through and through as their remedies also must be.


jimf said...

Who is More Phobic About Science--Conservatives or Liberals?
Evolution: This View of Life
Published on Apr 26, 2012

David Sloan Wilson poses this question to Jonathan Haidt,
author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided
By Politics and Religion. Jonathan's answer might surprise you

Dale Carrico said...

Haidt proposes the left denies evolution as much as the right because on the left we are not racist enough?

In making this case, he pretends the category of "race" is exhaustively characterized in evolutionary terms, even though racial categories are social and cultural in a ways that have richly documented historical vicissitudes and diverse forms and effects. While racist behaviors are clearly compatible with evolutionary forces they are also radically underdetermined by evolutionary forces.

Haidt's vaunted evopsycho douchebaggery is actually profoundly pseudo-scientific and yet he declares the exposure of the historical complexities of race-thinking by social scientists and historians of the left as a form of crazyness comparable to young earth biological, geological, cosmological christianist denialisms?

In his effort to produce his own BS "both sides do it" narrative he proposes that the democratic value of equality is a commitment to homogeneity rather than equity (equal recourse to law, equal opportunity, active address of systematic inequities) and proceeds as if liberals are hostile to diversity when nothing could be clearer that it is, once again, the reactionary right that is fearful and intolerant of diverse lifeways.

The comments section for that video stinks like a slaughterhouse with racist comments and palpable ignorance, precisely as you would expect.

Haidt's larger point that moral beliefs operate differently than scientific beliefs is one with which I agree as a pluralist, but part of the problem is that the different forms of reasonable belief are far more various than the blunt instrument of fact/value is/ought -- there are scientific facts but also legal facts and the criteria for warranted belief in and application of their facticities differ, so too I argue in many places that moral, aesthetic, ethical, cultural, political normativities have different warrants and satisfy different needs. And the examples multiply both existentially (the Arendtian labor, work, action, narrative, thought, reckoning, judgment provide an inkling) and disciplinarily (sociology, macroeconomics, literary criticism, molecular biology, aeronautical engineering, and so on).

Reasonableness of belief is both a matter of satisfying the criteria of warrantability associated with the kind of belief on offer, but also identifying which mode of belief is relevant to the situation of belief at hand. Haidt seems to me to be misidentifying the discipline most relevant to the phenomena he uses in his race example, and it is unsurprising that mischief ensues.

As I have said elsewhere, the decline of respect for science across the Republican right (which is a selective thing, by the way, few who deny or pretend to deny the consensus of relevant climate scientists also deny the consensus of relevant medical experts when the time comes for open heart surgery) derives in my view from the increasing need of deception more generally to keep a voting coalition together to get majorities to vote against their best interests in service to the greed and authority of elite-incumbent minorities when the demographic diversification and secularization of America undermines the national viability of the usual racist and (hetero)sexist appeals to fears and resentments. The normalization of deceptions and the irrational clinging to prejudices is not an environment conducive to a critical, let alone scientific temper.