Democrats, Experts, and STS

Predrag Bokšić | perceptron
Governing is no easy task. While in some idealized, Athenian past, every decision required of the body politic might have drawn solely on common sense, these days every decision is intertwined with knowledge known only to specialists in the relevant field; it is locked behind walls of expertise. The body politic, if it is not to flail randomly in an insensate throes, must rely on the advice of experts. How then can rule by a small elite be reconciled with democracy?

The modern expert advisor is the spiritual descendant of Machiavelli. The brutally realist Italian revolutionized the Mirror for Princes genre, speaking directly in the vernacular, and cloaking his rhetoric in an objective "view from nowhere." To prove his credibility, Machiavelli erased himself, claiming merely to transmit the facts of history and psychology into applicable lessons on power. Early scientists, as exemplified by the British Royal Society of Boyle's era, used the same technique to 'merely transmit the facts of nature,' displaying for the public that which was self-evidently true.

The Machiavellian advisor works primarily at the point of power, at the person of the sovereign, but in a modern democracy, the sovereign is a fiction. The people rule, through their representatives. Though the relation of the people and their representatives is far from straightforward, (representatives speak for the people, make decisions for the people, and serve as targets of blame for the people, among their diverse function), a representative who strays too far from the desires of his or her constituents will soon fall. Therefore, expert advice applied at this level, once it departs from common knowledge, becomes useless. The experts and those who listen to them will be discarded at the first opportunity.

Instead, in a democracy, experts must also address the validity of their claims to the public. The end product of advice, and the advisory process itself, must appear credible. Science (roughly, the process of discovering facts about the natural world) in it's Enlightenment legacy, and the scientifically derived technologies around us, is one means of certifying the validity of expert claims, and representative decisions. Yet, because scientific claims speak to fundamental truths about the world, and can thereby override deliberation, astute politicians have learned to deploy counter-claims and counter-experts. Moreover, political figures has disseminated a narrative that discredits the ability of science to make any epistemically true and relevant claims about the world.

How then can scientists operate in a climate of such hostility? Dewey provides an model; by visualizing society as composed of a network of identities, with individuals belonging to multiple identities at once, he suggests that science can be democratized by tying as many people as possible to the "scientist" network. But what exactly is it that individuals should be educated in? There is no way for people to learn more than a scanty sampling of science. Rather, the chief science, the skill of kings, is learning to evaluate experts and their claims. There are universal patterns to how expert knowledge is created, and the vitamin that the body politic needs today is not more public scientific knowledge, but more public science, technology, and society scholarship.

1 comment:

  1. Cyrus2.3.11

    We could start by requiring that bills be peer reviewed by anonymous experts the fields relevant to the bill. The selection process for the reviewers must be merit-based and random -- i.e. a random member of the National Academy of the Sciences or other professional organization. The reviews should be made public before the bill is debated.