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The Proper Role of Science in Liberal Democracy

Science is one of liberal democracy’s essential institutions, along with public deliberation, majority voting, rule of law, freedom of speech, and the independent press. But what is the distinctive role of science in liberal democracy? Surprisingly, this is a somewhat neglected question.

By Professor Klemens Kappel; Section for Philosophy, Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen.

In accordance with what we call the Classical View, the role of science can be couched in terms of a distinctive division of labour: science should deliver the facts, and just the facts, needed for political decision-making, whereas the evaluation of policy options should flow from the core values of liberal democracy, from deliberation and majority voting. 

More fully, borrowing from (Kappel and Zahle 2019), liberal democracy should acknowledge the epistemic authority of science. When relevant and otherwise feasible, policy makers as well as participants in democratic deliberation should consult scientific experts regarding the relevant factual input needed, and policy makers and public opinion should not question, reject, undermine, or distort findings of science, unless they have specific epistemic reasons to doubt the veracity of the messages.

“We will restore science to its rightful place…" said Barack Obama when he was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States in 2009. Photo: Cecilio Ricardo.

But equally important, science should supply the factual input needed in a way that is most conducive to democratic decision-making. This end requires input from science to be relevant to the deliberation and political choices on the agenda, and reliable in being highly likely to be correct. 
Finally, science should be normatively neutral in that it should not rig the scientific process or distort its communication of findings in order to promote certain political ends over others, or in other ways distort or undermine democratic decision-making.

The role of science can be couched in terms of a distinctive division of labour: science should deliver the facts, and just the facts, needed for political decision-making, whereas the evaluation of policy options should flow from the core values of liberal democracy, from deliberation and majority voting.

The Classical View, or similar views, is associated with German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) and his student Robert K. Merton (1910-2003). It has had many other proponents including scientists and policy makers, even if not adhered to in practice (see e.g. Merton 1942; Resnik 2009).

Science-Policy Frictions

The Classical View provides an attractive framework for understanding pertinent science-policy frictions. Post-factual politics may be seen as the unwillingness among policy makers to acknowledge the epistemic authority of science, simply not caring about certain inconvenient truths. A precursor to post-factuality could be depicted as caring too much about inconvenient truths, resulting in governments or public officials promoting political ends by interfering in science’s pursuit of truth, or in questioning, rejecting or undermining the authority of science.

Science itself has regularly been accused of (and is in some cases guilty of) violating political neutrality by deliberately framing the scientific process or communication to promote favoured political ends. The Classical View explains why post-factual politics, political interference in science, and politicised science are serious wrongs in that they disrupt the basic functioning of liberal democracy.

Despite impact and attraction, the Classical View is surprisingly sparsely developed. Moreover, the trend in recent debates in philosophy and sociology of science has been to question or reject the Classical View (or its cousins) as utopian, misconceived or even harmful. 

Value-Free Science?

A common worry is that science is not and cannot be value-free. However, properly understood, the Classical View does not require value freedom. Scientists can legitimately be motivated by moral or political concerns when selecting a research question, or in prioritising the issues to be communicated to the public or to policy makers. 

President Donald Trump has described climate changes as a ”hoax” and pulled USA out of the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement. Photo: Amber I. Smith.

What scientists cannot do is sacrifice the reliability and relevancy of their research in pursuit of their favoured political agenda. Such conduct would amount to a distortion of the democratic process. Similarly, there is no need for scientists to avoid value-judgments, or the use of value-laden expressions, if they are not presented as scientific views and do not impact the transparency and reliability of the scientific process.

Disinterestedness?

The influential sociologist of science Robert K. Merton proposed the famous CUDOS norms: Communalism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, and Organised Scepticism, together making up what Merton labels 'the ethos of science,' (Merton 1942, 269). Merton’s norm of disinterestedness, a core constituent of the Classical View, has been a popular target of criticism.

We argue that any reasonable interpretation of this norm requires that scientists’ personal interests do not diminish the reliability of the research process or distort the communication of the results. 

Yet, the norm is controversial. In a quite influential work, sociologist Sheila Jasanoff (Jasanoff, 1990) dismisses the norm as merely a sort of glorifying idealisation of how scientists would like society to perceive them. We argue that these and similar objections largely misfire, and that the norm is not some obsolete scientific ideal (Djørup and Kappel 2014).


Merton’s Ethos of Science – the CUDOS Norms

Merton gives a formulation of the CUDOS norms in ‘The Normative Structure of Science’ from 1942 (Merton 1942, 269-271). Precisely what the norms assert is a matter of scholarly dispute, but a reasonable interpretation is the following:

  • Communalism: scientific theories and evidence are the common ownership of the scientific community. 
  • Universalism: scientific claims should be accepted and rejected according to criteria that are independent of race, nationality, religion, class and other personal qualities. Careers in science should be careers open to talent.
  • Disinterestedness:  scientists’ economic, political, religious or other interests should not diminish the reliability of the research process or distort the communication of the results. (Djørup and Kappel 2013).
  • Organised Scepticism: all claims may and should be subject to scientific questioning and scrutiny. No claims are sacred or in desert of uncritical acceptance.

Why Privilege Science? 

Why accord science a different role in democratic decision-making than, say, religion? 

The place of religion in liberal democracy is a heavily scrutinised issue in political theory. The trend is to argue that since reasonable individuals disagree about religious views, such views should not feature as the sole justification for our common laws and policies. Due to its divisiveness, religion should be bracketed in democratic decision-making.

What scientists cannot do is sacrifice the reliability and relevancy of their research in pursuit of their favoured political agenda. Such conduct would amount to a distortion of the democratic process.

A similar line of argument could target science.  It might be argued that reasonable disagreement exists just as much about controversial science. Think, for example, about controversies over climate change, evolution, or the risks of genetically modified organisms. 

Why not say that when science is controversial, it too gets bracketed or loses its privileged standing as provider of facts in the area of controversy? For more on this difficult question, see (Jønch-Clausen and Kappel 2016).

Conclusion

The Classical View sheds light on worries about post-factual politics, political interference in science, and politicised science. While a popular target for criticism in recent philosophy and sociology of science, when carefully formulated, the view is vastly more plausible than its opponents give it credit for. 

Indeed, the classical view provides a very useful framework for explaining and addressing these pertinent issues. While the concern that the ideal of value-free science is utopian or even harmful is valid, it is a misconception that the Classical View requires value freedom. 

Value judgements that do not impact the transparency and reliability of the scientific progress can be perfectly legitimate. Sometimes a consensus in the scientific community is not shared by the general public. Such controversies threaten the justification for science as a neutral provider of facts. 

Surprisingly, prominent theories of political legitimacy do not provide a satisfactory framework for addressing this important issue.

Associate Professor Julie Zahle, PhD Stine Djørup and PhD Karin Joench-Clausen, Section for Philosophy, Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen have co-authored this article.

Publications

  • Djørup, Stine and Kappel, Klemens (2013) "The norm of disinterestedness in science; a restorative analysis", SATS, Volume 14, Issue 2; 153-175.
  • Kappel, K. and Zahle, J. (2019) “The Epistemic Role of Science and Experts in Democracy” in The Routledge Handbook of Social Epistemology, Peter Graham, Miranda Fricker, David Henderson, and Nikolaj Jang Lee Linding Pedersen (eds.). Routledge Publishers. 
  • Jønch-Clausen, Karin and Kappel, Klemens (2016). "Scientific Facts and Methods in Public Reason". Res Publica, 22(2): 117–133.

References

  • Merton, R.K. 1942: ‘The Normative Structure of Science,’ In the Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. The University of Chicago Press, 1973. 
  • Jasanoff, S. 1990: The Fifth Branch: Science advisers as Policy Makers. Harvard University Press.
  • Resnik, D. B. (2009) Playing politics with science: balancing scientific independence and government oversight. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

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