17 September 2010

A Democracy Paradox in Studies of Science and Technology

Along with Eva Lövbrand (Linköping University) and Silke Beck (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, UFZ) I am a co-author on a new paper in the journal Science, Technology, & Human Values that evaluates appeals to public deliberation found in recent reports and literature that focus on the role of science in society.

At the core of our argument is a question:
If scholars of science and technology draw on deliberative democrats’ normative account of legitimacy, but reject the principles for legitimate rule prescribed by the same theory, how do we know that deliberative expert practices are more legitimate than those they seek to counter?
In short, shouldn't experts in the interface of science and society be bound by the same criteria of legitimacy that they apply to other types of expertise?  The answer would seem to be "yes," but this is not how it works in practice.  For my part (not speaking for my co-authors), appeals to deliberative democracy by science studies scholars can not evade the paradox.  Instead, we must look to other conceptions of democracy to understand the legitimate roles of science and expertise in governance.

Here is the paper's citation and abstract: 
E. Lövbrand, R. Pielke, Jr., and S. Beck, 2010. A Democracy Paradox in Studies of Science and Technology Science, Technology & Human Values, first published on August 26, 2010 as doi:10.1177/0162243910366154


Today many scholars seem to agree that citizens should be involved in expert deliberations on science and technology issues. This interest in public deliberation has gained attraction in many practical settings, especially in the European Union, and holds the promise of more legitimate governance of science and technology. In this article, the authors draw on the European Commission’s (EC) report "Taking the European Knowledge Society Seriously" to ask how legitimate these efforts to "democratize" scientific expertise really are. While the report borrows from deliberative democrats’ normative accounts of legitimacy, the authors identify a tension between the principles for legitimate rule prescribed by deliberative democratic theory and the report’s celebration of diversity and dissent. While this inconsistency suggests that the legitimacy of deliberative governance arrangements is justified on empirical rather than normative grounds, it remains an open question whether studies of science and technology offer enough empirical support for such a justification. In this article, the authors address this pressing question and propose three possible responses.


  1. From the "Science in Democracy" book, interesting:
    To put my philosophical cards on the table: I am persuaded that rationalist, essentialist, and determinist conceptions of science and technology are neither empirically accurate nor normatively desirable. Technological determinism may capture the ways in which many people experience the technical imperatives that shape their lives, but it does not offer a viable theory of scientific and technical change.8 Technical facts and artifacts do not become socially established merely because they are true or effective. Scientists study nature by engaging with it; nature, scientists, and often society at large are transformed in the process. I also take it as given, however, that scientific facts are not socially constructed, if that means natural forces and entities play no causal role in their creation. The world does not lend itself to all possible constructions. This perspective, common among STS scholars who study the “co-production” of science and society, avoids radical constructivism or relativism on the one hand, and the traditional view of scientific truth as unmediated correspondence to reality on the other.9 Put in the most general terms, scientific facts emerge from hybrid processes shaped by human ingenuity and initiative, sociotechnical structures and institutions, and nonhuman entities and phenomena.
    Despite their historical association with elitist views of government, I argue that liberal-rationalist theories of representation contain elements worth preserving.

    On trusting expert advice:
    The paradoxical result is that people need experts more, yet trust them less. The politicization of expertise increases expert prominence, yet renders expert authority more vulnerable to challenge.
    Jaynes explained this in a Bayesian framework through prior probabilities for deception. In un-politicized science consensus is easy to reach because priors give low weight to deception being the explanation for a claim, but it is rational to place much greater weight on deceit being the explanation for politically motivated claims.

    I like his "Great Books" approach to the problem. Are you using this one in your courses?

  2. Can you read this paper without being a subscriber or am I somehow link-impaired?

  3. -2-Sharon F.

    I'll add a link as soon as it is up on our website, Thanks for letting me know!

  4. A thought-provoking read, but left me scratching my head on where it stands besides the call to better examine our assumptions. Maybe that's the point.

  5. Perhaps I'm a bit cranky, but given the subject matter of the post, I had hoped for a clearer explanation of the tension here. (My take: appeals to deliberative democracy from science and technology scholars aren't interested in the decision so much as making the decision process more inclusive.) The references to legitimacy are lacking an object - are we referring to the legitimacy of the deliberative democracy? Do we mean the legitimacy of the experts calling for the deliberative democracy (a possible interpretation of your second paragraph)? Or perhaps we mean the legitimacy of the relevant process as measured by whether a decision is reached at all?

    I think I know what you and your co-authors mean, but I have to infer it, and I think that's a bit risky.

  6. -5-David

    Thanks for the comment ... the argument is even simpler that this -- If I, as an expert in science and society, say that expertise is only legitimate if forged in the crucible of deliberation, yet I ground my own expertise in authority, that suggests a paradox.

  7. Roger,

    Thanks for the clarification, which I understand and am very sympathetic to, having waded through STS. In that field, that kind of paradox - arguments from authority in favor of various positions that diminished authority (writ broadly) - seems pretty common.

    So I was cranky and overthinking it...lovely.