Mark B. Brown’s Science in Democracy is a must-read for anyone concerned with the interaction between science and politics. It is a tour of political theory — from Machiavelli, to Rousseau, to Dewey, to Latour — as well as an argument for rejecting the traditional “liberal rationalist” view of science and politics, and a guide to facilitating a better relationship between them.
Although I have always been very aware of the connection between science studies and political theory, I have had no more than a vague conception of the theoretical and historical roots of that connection. Brown’s first task, in part one of the book, is to explain liberal rationalism and how it became the dominant view of science and politics. Roughly, liberal rationalism is the idea that there is, and should be, a strong separation between scientists, politicians, and the public. Scientists are expected to be disinterested, objective, and politically neutral. Politicians are supposed to act in the interests of their constituents. The public is supposed to articulate those interests, but not to participate in the operation of either politicians or scientists, lacking the expertise necessary for participating in either sphere. In fact, the very ability to participate in either sphere may, in this view, disqualify one from being considered a proper member of the public at all. Many efforts at public engagement deliberately exclude anyone with knowledge or “preexisting views” relevant to the issues at hand (231-232). Machiavelli plays a dual role for Brown in this respect, both as an early advocate for the kind of public participation in politics that Brown advocates and as the historical originator of a “rhetoric of expertise” that created a strong division between the scientist and the public. Jean-Jacques Rousseau plays a much less ambiguous role, as an avatar of the most extreme vision of liberal rationalism. Rousseau advocated excluding not only the general populace from social or scientific deliberation, but also advocated excluding all but the most exceptionally talented — the Bacons, Newtons, and Descartes — from science or government.
The second half of the book is devoted to the positive project of democratizing science. Brown’s three chief interlocutors in this task are Thomas Hobbes, John Dewey, and Bruno Latour. Hobbes’s main role is to question the possibility of separating science from politics. As those familiar with Shapin and Schaeffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump will know, Hobbes feared that, in the absence of a sovereign power authorized to be the final arbiter, debates in all spheres, including natural philosophy and even geometry, could descend into intractable power struggles. Brown does not endorse Hobbes’ authoritarian conclusion, but uses Hobbes’ arguments against deliberative democrats who see no need for an institutional structure to constrain and direct deliberation. The need for such institutions is one of Brown’s main conclusions. John Dewey, despite his arguably oversimplified vision of extending scientific reasoning to all areas of society, is the closest person to a hero in Science in Democracy. Dewey’s chief contribution to Brown’s project is to argue for a rich public engagement with the sciences and against the idea that politics can be somehow prior to science — that science can be a purely instrumental activity devoted to best achieving goals already determined in the political sphere. Dewey calls for a kind of negotiating process between science and politics, where ends and means are adapted to each other continually. Latour’s main role is to help explicate a major theme of Brown’s: the relationship between scientific and political representation.
Scientists are often said to represent the world through constructing theories and models. The traditional criterion for judging such representations is correspondence: how closely do those theories and models correspond to how the world really is? Those in philosophy of science will know that it is incredibly difficult to attach a definitive meaning to this question, let alone answer it. Politicians are similarly said to represent their constituents, and it is equally difficult to determine what this is supposed to mean. How can, for instance, a political representative aggregate the desires and interests of all her constituents into a coherent set of policies? Should a public advisory board, or any other political group, be composed of members that correspond to the demographic profile of the citizens they are meant to represent? What criteria would we use? Gender balance? Income distribution? Political interest? As Brown points out, such an effort is doomed to fail, as there will always be some statistical property of the population that the representative group fails to replicate.
The connection between scientific and political representation goes beyond analogy though, as political actors will often claim to be representing science, or making a scientific representation. Both sides of the climate change debate, for instance, claim to be “standing for”, or representing, good science. This is the sort of representation that concerns Latour the most. In Latour’s view, scientists represent the world by attempting to substitute themselves for some part of it. Ultimately, scientists become the final link in a chain of representations through substitution, where successive objects substitute for other objects until finally the scientist represents the world. Scientists compete to have their particular representations, and thus themselves, be accepted by society as the representation of the world.
One of the few significant difficulties I had with Science in Democracy was understanding just how all of these notions of representation fit together. Although I can see that political adversaries will often both claim to be representatives of good science, I am unsure if that sort of representation can be connected to discussions of scientific representation in a way that illuminates either the political or scientific process. Rather than sort out the complex relationships between different senses of “representation”, I wish we could have just picked different words to use for each sense, if only to avoid confusion.
The final chapters of Science in Democracy are concerned with “how science becomes political” and how democratic representation can be institutionalized. To address the first question Brown borrows a useful definition of politics from Mark Warren:
[P]olitics is a subset of social relations in which people face pressure to undertake collective action in the context of conflict over means, goals, or domain of their activity, where at least one party seeks to resolve the conflict through the exercise of power.1
This definition leads to three conditions when science is unlikely to become political: when there is neither conflict nor power (for whatever reason, everyone agrees), when there is conflict but no power (say in discussions amongst scientific peers where there is no chance of sanction), or when there is power but no conflict (say when there is a hierarchy within a department or laboratory, but no disuputes). It seems plausible that much or most of science is going to fall into one of these three categories, and thus not all science will be political.
Finally, Brown considers the role of institutions, particularly guidelines for forming government advisory panels, in democracy. Brown’s chief recommendation here is to level the playing field between experts and non-experts. Rather than keeping the two groups separate and evaluating their potential contributions with different sets of criteria (professional training for experts and personal values for non-experts), he proposes considering them as part of the same group, with the chief criteria for panel formation being diversity of perspective. Brown thus rejects the idea that allowing experts to intermingle with non-experts in such groups would lead to the non-experts being overly deferent to or intimidated by the experts with whom they are in conversation.
Overall, I found Science in Democracy to be a fascinating tour through different conceptions of the relationship between science and politics. In doing research in one small area of analytic philosophy of science it is easy to lose sight of the “big picture”, and Brown manages to offer an expansive vision without merely offering trite platitudes about democratizing science or scientizing democracy. I was also struck by just how closely linked theories of politics and science have been for essentially the entire history of both subjects. As I said at the beginning of this review, I think this is a must-read book for nearly everyone in science studies and anyone interested in the subject.
- Brown, 188, paraphrasing Mark E. Warren, “What is Political” Journal of Theoretical Politics 11, no. 2 (1999), 217-218. ↩