Science in Democracy, by Mark B. Brown

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.

  1. Brown, 188, paraphrasing Mark E. Warren, “What is Political” Journal of Theoretical Politics 11, no. 2 (1999), 217-218.


  • W. Dean Reply


    Good review insofar as it will likely keep me from reading the book. A few points:

    1. Liberal rationalism

    While I don’t dispute that liberal rationalism as defined here is the dominant view of policy-making, I don’t see what the criticism of it is supposed to be. If the criticism is that some scientists are sometimes biased, then that’s a practical problem, not an institutional one. If the criticism is that scientists cannot be neutral, then it’s hard to see what can be done to counter it when they’re the ones who present the facts.

    2. Democratizing science

    Maybe it’s the absence of examples that has me baffled, but I don’t see the problem that “democratizing science” is supposed to fix. Are we poorly served by scientists and politicians making policy? I’d say yes, in some cases, no in others; but it has more to do ideological differences than institutions. For example, I live in a city with a garbage problem that could have been solved with high-efficiency incineration. For ideological reasons the city chose a “green bin” program that has been unpopular and thus ineffective and hence ridiculously expensive. Would more public participation have changed the outcome? Not likely, because the city is more or less evenly split between the big green dream and realism.

    3. Representing

    The decontextualized analysis of political “representatives” is cringe-worthy: as if the lexical definition of “representative” defined the political role. Direct democracy being impossible, we elect our legislators. No one supposes that representation can be quantified, anymore than anyone supposes that trade-offs don’t exist; the success or failure of a representative at balancing his constituents wants is determined by them according to their own collective lights. In short, it all comes down to judgments on both sides. Thus, it’s hardly remarkable that some part of the population will be excluded in some way, some of the time.

    As for citizen advisory boards as a way of filling the gap, I fail to see how this is anything but the doubling-up of politicians. Politicians were elected to represent us in precisely this capacity. Adding citizen advisors seems to float on the supposition that politicians somehow don’t represent the people that have elected them, which may be true in some cases. But the proposed remedy is really just more representatives who, in virtue of the fact that they are representatives only, will not be able to represent everyone.

    So I sympathize with your criticism in this respect, but I’d go further. If the defect of representation is its inherent unrepresentativeness of the whole, then a few more representatives does little to alleviate the problem.

    4. Non-experts and diverse perspectives

    Brown should have looked at some real world examples, like the institutionalization of non-experts in B.C.’s attempt to come up with a “new” voting system. Non-experts from all walks of life were convened and the result was (to me) entirely predictable: they came up with a voting system that was a mish-mash of every cockamamie scheme floated over the last thirty years to fix the “first past the post” system. It was so impractical and convoluted that no one understood how it worked outside the committee that constructed it (assuming they did themselves). Not surprisingly, the whole thing was shelved. We could hardly expect a different outcome when it comes to having non-experts making science policy. Deference to authority, it seems to me, is the least of the problems to be expected from such a congeries.

    I feel compelled to raise a separate complaint about the value of “diversity,” which is often asserted by never explained or even illustrated. Suppose, for example, a policy committee was being convened on best practices in chicken farming, which would include the usual suspects: government, scientists, industry. What could the condo-dwelling, urban file clerk and the suburban dentist add here? No doubt they have “perspectives” and they do indeed add “diversity,” but what is the value in their “diverse perspectives”?

    If what is meant by ”diversity” is really just the avoidance of the obvious kind of institutional or political uniformity (i.e., stacking the deck with partisans), then some set of procedures geared to avoiding this is the solution, not some open-ended plea for diversity.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Thanks, I guess!

      Obviously I can’t do justice to Brown’s full argument in a 1000 word book review. So I hope you don’t judge Brown’s account of representation based on my reporting of it. All I can do is give a rough overview of what he covers and offer some crude reflections.

      His criticism of liberal rationalism isn’t that it’s biased. Perhaps his primary criticism is that it is epistemically insufficient – you need more than an elite group of scientists and politicians involved in policy deliberations in order to be able to make sound policy judgments.

    • Prajwal Kulkarni Reply

      To briefly try explain the value of diversity, I think you can turn some of the research on gender in science. It has long been known, e.g., that women’s health issues were routinely neglected as research questions. Furthermore, results of studies conducted entirely on men were often inappropriately applied to women. I believe it’s happened in the things like the prosthetic design, e.g. I don’t have any references off the top of my head other than this book, which gives a nice overview:

      I haven’t read the entire book, just bits and parts.

      • W. Dean Reply

        Hello Praj,

        My point about diversity is that its advocates often invoke it without further argument, as if its value was self-evident for any context. I think diversity is a lot more complex, so that we cannot assume that it adds value to any scientific or intellectual enterprise.

        Consider the example of two groups of engineers. Group A consists of 10 engineers from the top ten schools around the world. Group B consists of the top graduate from the same school for the last ten years. I have no problem allowing that Group A will likely be more creative and innovative than Group B, in virtue of the diversity of their backgrounds. But I also think that Group B, in virtue of its members’ common background, will be more efficient. But things get more complicated when we ask wherein the diversity of these two groups of engineers rests.

        For example, does sex and ethic diversity count for anything with respect to the dynamism of Group A? Or does the assumed dynamism in this example lie in the diverse educational backgrounds of the different engineers? My suspicion is that the educational backgrounds will count for more than either sex or ethnicity. To argue otherwise, it seems to me, requires explaining what sex and ethnic differences can be assumed to contribute to engineering. No doubt, there are some cases where it will. Having a Nigerian engineer, for example, among a group of Swedes designing an engineering project for Nigeria might be better than having no one who knows the particulars of the country, its institutions, its soils and its climate. But this has to be argued, because examples like this suggest that the value of diversity is highly contextual.

        I’m also hesitant to accept completely historical cases like the ones you alluded to. While I haven’t read this book, I’m familiar with some of the arguments about women in medicine changing its practice. Now, I won’t take issue with the claim that women’s health issues received more attention as more women entered the health professions.

        But I am skeptical of the claim, for example, that the presence of women in medicine was a key factor in changing the view that drug treatments for men would work on women just as well. It seems to me that it was really new research (still on-going) that changed the biological assumption that all human beings are physiologically identical, such that what was true of any given subsection of the human population could be generalized to both sexes, all ages and all ethic groups.

        After all—if you’ll pardon an absurd counter-example—we now know that children’s anatomies react differently to drugs and yet, with the exception of Doogie Houser, there are no children in medicine to take up their cause.

        • Prajwal Kulkarni Reply

          Hi Dean. Thanks for the response. In my experience, diversity advocates definitely do NOT invoke it without further argument and as self-evident. I’ve found they spend immense time and effort trying to justify diversity specifically because the value is not always obvious.

          I personally think it is a pretty big deal that women’s health issues received more attention solely because more women entered the field. This type of change in research emphasis is a direct outgrowth of diversity efforts, and it shouldn’t be discounted. It’s not necessarily that more women or racial minorities will “improve” science (whatever that means). It’s that more women and minorities will focus on a different type of science. And without their presence, these different types of science will be ignored or neglected.

          It’s true, as you pointed out, that representation is a tricky concept and can’t be reduced solely to gender or race. But we can improve it along certain lines that have a great impact on society.

          • W. Dean Reply

            Praj. With respect to the first point, we probably have different diversity-proponents in mind.

            Now, I realize that you’re talking about scientific focus or interest as opposed to scientific value or results, but I think the same must hold true. Thus, my earlier engineering example is a good heuristic for either case, so let me reformulate the question: if team A and B all graduated from the same program, but A was ethnically homogenous and B ethnically diverse, would we be fair in assuming that, say, 60-80 times out of 100 that team B (i.e., the ethnically diverse group) will outperform the homogenous group in coming up with innovative ideas?

            I’ve heard of empirical research that supports your claim (if I may infer your agreement) that it would play out this way. But I’m skeptical of the result because I know of no one who has really quantified the variables at work in making the diverse group more innovative.

            Come to that, how do we quantify the differences between cultures and the homogeneity within them while controlling for their relevance in determining scientific results or scientific pursuits? I would argue, for example, that there is considerable cultural difference between someone raised in rural Alberta and someone brought up in urban Montreal. Moreover, I would suspect that the latter would be closer culturally to the second generation immigrant living next door. On top of that, being a second generation immigrant is not the same as being a recent one, at least from a cultural standpoint.

            And this is where things get bizarre: if there is a gain from diversity, are there not also diminishing returns correlating with the degree of homogeneity? Would a second generation immigrant, for example, be less “diversity-making” than the first generation one? Or would such an analysis have to account for the variability of cultural retention among different cultures?

            I’d be skeptical that such questions could be answered because of all the confounding variables involved. For example, some cultures place a high value on their children becoming medical professionals. No doubt some would cite this as a case of diversity of focus or interest improving medical science, because the large number of people going into the field raised the overall quality of the people in it. But it was not the diversity at work directly within the science that improved medicine; it was the diversity in the population at large that indirectly improved the quality of people within medicine.

            As for women in science, I don’t dispute that an increase in their number correlated with an increased focus on women’s health. I dispute the suggestion that it was just a matter of the inclusion of female scientists, i.e., I dispute that an increase in the numbers of female scientists was the sole cause. Coeval cultural changes (e.g., women’s rights) and the expansion of science and medicine more generally must be accorded a large role in this development.

  • W. Dean Reply

    Mike, I suppose it did come across as faint praise. At any rate, you’ve probably told me all I need to know, because you’ve answered the following: [1] what is the problem? and [2] what is the solution?

    The problem, I gather, is that policy decisions are unrepresentative and the solution is to make them more representative. But every policy decision ever made is unrepresentative in some respect in virtue of the fact that representatives (as opposed to everyone) have to make them. So the real argument against liberal rationalism, if there is one, is that bad policy decisions have been made, where bad means “caused harm,” “cost money” or “showed favor” to those directly or indirectly involved in making them.

    It’s not enough, in my view, to find a theoretical objection to liberal rationalism. Arguing, for example, that it’s “epistemically insufficient” only begs the question, epistemically insufficient as compared to what? If the answer to this question (i.e., Brown’s solution) is “compared to more public participation,” then the whole argument becomes circular: the only problem more public participation solves is less public participation, which was never shown to be a problem in the first place. I’ll leave aside the practical problem with adding more non-expertise to decision-making because I think it speaks for itself.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Actually your criticism of representation—that every decision is bound to be unrepresentative in some respect—is one of Brown’s criticisms of representation, or what he calls “representation by delegation” I believe. The problems with political representation that I described above (paragraph 4) come from Brown, they are not criticisms of Brown. He spends a lot of time discussing representation and has, I think, a sophisticated account. My main criticism is with his attempt to bring all of the diverse meanings of “represent” under one umbrella, which I’m not sure is helpful.

      As for why we want diversity, I think there is an argument for diversity for diversity’s sake. It makes people feel they “own” the decisions that affect them. Even if there is some efficiency cost of deliberative democracy, it might be better than benevolent dictatorship even if the exact same policy decisions are made, just for the kind of social cohesion, and empowerment it promotes.

      That aside, most arguments for “democratization of science” or associated movements do argue that it results in better policy from some according to some sort of external standard. To mangle a familiar example, local sheep farmers should be brought into the discussion of the environmental impact of a local chemical factory because they did in fact notice evidence of contamination that the experts missed. Or in Epstein’s account, AIDS activists really did cause there to be better clinical trial procedures.

      • W. Dean Reply

        Mike. You misunderstood my criticism of Brown. I meant that unrepresentativeness is a practical limitation of representation; I didn’t mean it as a criticism. On the contrary, I meant to suggest that Brown’s criticism of representation (i.e., that it’s representative, rather than identical to its constituency) is a moot point. It’s like criticizing editors for not including every submission that comes their way, when the editor was chosen to select in accordance with a mandate.

        Moreover, representative democracy (to take the political example) is not a problem for which direct democracy is the solution. It’s the other way around: representation is the solution to the utter and complete impracticality of a direct democracy consisting of more than 20 people living with the limited choices of hunter-gatherers.

        Assuming we mean by diversity the inclusion of persons who would fall outside one of the usual policy-making categories (i.e., experts, industry, politicians and bureaucrats), I fail to see how including regular Joes will add political legitimacy. The tiny group of regular folk who could be included in a policy decision could hardly be supposed representative of the population at large in any meaningful sense. In fact, past experience suggests popular participation backfires, because any political legitimacy outsiders might have would be lost through the inherently undemocratic process of selecting them.

        After all, if politicians cannot be trusted to be representative by their constituents, how can average Joes handpicked by these same politicians be considered representative? I would not feel empowered by knowing that the party-man living down the street will be making decisions on my behalf.

        Much the same goes for your ‘sheep farmers’ example, because it’s susceptible to a tactic successfully employed by lobbyists and activists. When activists, for example, don’t have scientific support for their case, they advocate public consultations because they know they can count on chemophobia, which has so permeated the public consciousness that people will come out in droves to testify about how they “felt [their] immune system[s] shutting down when pesticides were sprayed on the field next door” etc. Open public participation is always self-selecting; and it incentivizes nay-sayers over the indifferent majority.

        Finally, I don’t endorse rule by experts. But we ultimately exercise authority over the state through our elected representatives. By-passing them with average Joes is not only empty posturing, it excuses our representatives from absolute responsibility for political decisions. I also think public consultation is a good thing. But everyone should realize that people with a direct stake in the outcome have a stronger incentive to participate than those whose interest is merely in seeing the best thing done.

  • Praj Reply

    Great review. Thanks for posting. I also enjoyed your insightful comments Dean.

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