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SCIENCE IN A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY
By Philip Kitcher
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2011 Philip Kitcher
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE EROSION OF SCIENTIFIC AUTHORITY
1. DISAPPOINTMENT AND OVERCONFIDENCE
Since the eighteenth century, the forms of inquiry classified as natural sciences, sometimes collectively designated as "Science" (with a capital and in the singular), have increasingly been viewed as the epitome of human knowledge, potentially capable of delivering great benefits for nations and for the human species. During the twentieth century, governments became convinced of the wisdom of investing in scientific research (Kevles 1978), and citizens became accustomed to think of natural scientists as authorities on whose conclusions they could rely. In recent decades, however, a variety of challenges to particular scientific judgments has fostered a far more ambivalent attitude to the authority of the natural sciences. Many Americans do not believe contemporary evolutionary theory offers a correct account of the history of life. Europeans are skeptical about scientific endorsements of the harmlessness of genetically modified organisms. Around the world, serious attention to problems of climate change is hampered by suspicions that the alleged "expert consensus" is premature and unreliable. The optimistic legacy of the Enlightenment is increasingly called into question.
It is easy to identify some sources of concern. Intellectuals who worry about the Enlightenment and its legacy may view particular academic movements as sources of the erosion of scientific authority. Reactions to fascism breed distrust of Enlightenment ideals and ideas (Horkheimer and Adorno 1978); philosophical ventures—under the loose label of "postmodernism"—disrupt the attribution of "knowledge" to scientists or "truth" to their judgments (Derrida 1976; Lyotard 1984); and historical and sociological studies of science insidiously depict scientific inquiry as politics by other means (Kuhn 1962; Foucault 1980; Bloor 1976; Collins 1985; Shapin and Schaffer 1985; Latour 1987). Reflection on these intellectual trends easily moves scholars who mourn the loss of trust in scientific authority to expose the errors of the supposed enemies (Gross and Levitt 1994; Sokal and Bricmont 1998; Koertge 1998). So the "Science Wars" are declared and fought with gusto.
Yet this has little to do with the real sources of concern. Skepticism about scientific authority has not grown because postmodernism has been injected into the drinking water. The movements briefly mentioned have various merits and flaws, but one common feature of them is a focus on theoretical pictures of scientific inquiry. Many of the authors who scrutinize historical, philosophical, and sociological judgments about the sciences are quite explicit in declaring that their critiques leave the status and authority of science in public life untouched (Kuhn, Shapin, Collins). Even the most widely read of them reach only a small fraction of the public, and most readers find the conclusions unthreatening: philosophers reacted defensively to Kuhn's ideas about the growth of scientific knowledge, but scientists who read his influential monograph have usually found his description of their practices both insightful and congenial.
Live skepticism about the authority of the sciences stems from a cluster of attitudes, far more prevalent in human societies. Particular areas of inquiry are suspect because of their perceived impact on ideas and ways of living that people cherish. Opposition to Darwin's ideas about the history of life persists because the evolutionary account is seen as denying central tenets of popular forms of religious belief—commitment to a literal reading of the Bible cannot allow that some major kinds of organisms were not created at the beginning. Citizens in countries with a checkered history of manipulating human lives, most notably Germany, are sensitive to the dangers of interventions using molecular genetics, and their concern fosters doubt about the reliability of the underlying biological ideas. The primary reservations are not about Science, in the singular, but about individual sciences, and, as the number of instances increases, areas that do not impinge directly on human lives and ideals are affected by contagion.
Yet these specific doubts are only one strand in the cluster. Alienation from scientific inquiry is reinforced by the sweeping declarations of enthusiastic scientists. For the legacy of the Enlightenment can be interpreted in two different ways. In its modest form, it claims only that certain types of scientific inquiry—first in physics, then in chemistry and geology, later in biology—offer reliable information about particular questions that matter to people; in the further course of investigation, there is hope for new findings in these areas and for the development of other fields in which similarly authoritative advice will be available. More ambitiously, the Enlightenment legacy may maintain that all questions of a specific type can be addressed by future research, or even that all important issues can eventually find scientific resolution. Scientism—to give the less restrained interpretation a familiar name—abounds, and its excesses stimulate reactions that detract from the credibility of more sober scientific judgments.
When the US Congress decided to fund the Human Genome Project, many supporters tacitly welcomed an opportunity to lead in an area of technology in which the United States would be competitive with the (then-dominant) Japanese, but the principal official reason for the initiative lay in confidence that mapping and sequencing the genome would yield cures for hereditary diseases. As many scientists and commentators pointed out at the time (Holtzman 1989; Nelkin and Tancredi 1994; Kitcher 1996), the immediate medical "benefits" would lie in increased powers to test and diagnose— providing knowledge that was not always welcome—and cures or methods of treatment would come only later, at a slow and uncertain pace. Nearly two decades on, genomics has enormously enriched our understanding of heredity, development, and cellular metabolism in a wide variety of organisms, as well as offering refined tools for evolutionary studies, but, as far as medical payoffs are concerned, the gloomy forecasts of the "pessimistic" commentators have proved, if anything, too hopeful. With a great deal of further research, most of it focused on nonhuman organisms, we may hope to understand enough about major human diseases to intervene successfully, but the beneficiaries of the program begun by the Human Genome Project are likely to be several generations removed from the politicians who enthused over the prospects of immediate success.
Scientism crept into the advertisements for medical genomics, overestimating the rapidity at which the promised benefits will accrue—yet the consequences desired may materialize one day. Far less certain are those claimed in the name of other widely touted areas of science. Those who celebrated the "decade of the brain" often believed that the development of neurophysiological tools and techniques, with a demonstrable record of success on a small range of relatively simple problems, could be expanded rapidly to fathom human psychology and behavior. Perhaps, centuries hence, historians of science will be able to look back to our times and identify the achievements of the pioneers who began a lengthy enterprise of understanding how the brain affects many important aspects of our lives. Or perhaps not. Even with the most dedicated efforts and the most ingenious investigations, the most fascinating facets of thought and emotion may prove too complex for us to comprehend.
For other forms of scientism, the gap between promise and performance is larger still, and yet more likely to endure. Since the 1970s, distinguished evolutionary theorists have argued that many topics traditionally investigated by the humanities and the social sciences can, and should, be tackled by deploying neo-Darwinian tools. Sociobiology ambitiously promised to sweep away the mushy and tentative efforts of psychologists and sociologists in favor of biological rigor. Contemporary evolutionary psychology has slightly tempered the original ambitions, but it remains reasonable to believe that the questions it sets for itself, if taken with the seriousness that pervades the most well-grounded evolutionary studies, are far beyond its resources. At its best, evolutionary theorizing provides precise models of the phenomena to be explained, and the development and testing of those models require details of genetics, development, and environmental conditions that are inaccessible for the forms of human behavior about which evolutionary psychologists spin their most celebrated yarns (Kitcher 1985; Vickers and Kitcher 2002; Haufe forthcoming). Nor are matters better with another program of scientistic imperialism, one centered on the thought that the mathematical tools of neoclassical economics are sufficient to explain all human social phenomena.
Grand theories of nature-in-general, or of human nature, not only produce reactions of disappointment when they fail to live up to their advance billing, but they also contribute to a picture of science as an alienating institution. The thought of the community of scientists as embodying the modest reading of the Enlightenment legacy, patiently working, where they can, to provide valuable information that might assist this or that facet of human life, gives way to an image of a unitary movement, aiming to displace prior ways of thinking about the world and about ourselves in favor of a disconcerting novel understanding. For people who already worry about the judgments issuing from particular fields of research, ventures in scientistic imperialism easily provoke discomfort with Science, as a whole. Their resistance, or alienation, is reinforced by a third strand in the cluster.
The specific worries present particular sciences as a threat; scientism conjures the image of scientists as overambitious and arrogant. Prominent episodes in recent public discussions of various sciences suggest that scientific inquiry is inevitably prejudiced, biased by individual aspirations or political allegiances. Some scientists clamor for restrictions on familiar ways of behaving because of danger to the environment; others disagree, claiming any such constraints are unnecessary. Some researchers denounce products or procedures as unsafe; others contend the items in question are valuable and offer no serious risks. Newton's third law applies: to each scientist judging a controversy, there is an equal and opposite scientist. Even with respect to allegedly settled disputes—Darwin's account of the history of life, for example—there are "scientists" on both sides. Does it really matter that some belong to the National Academy of Sciences, and that others mostly teach at institutions set up to promulgate a particular faith? There are stories to be told to explain that distribution.
The "science-friendly" story is familiar. Part of the Enlightenment legacy consists in celebrating the freedom of scientific research from judgments of value: supposedly, there are value-neutral ways of evaluating evidence and coming to scientific conclusions. In cases of persistent controversy, some participants do not proceed in accordance with the value-free canons of evidence and good reasoning. Perhaps those who lapse are not skillful in these regards—they make mistakes in much the same way as those who bungle arithmetic. Or perhaps they are in the grip of antecedent prejudices, so blinkered they overlook important evidence or give a disproportionate weight to the fact that some problems remain, as yet, unsolved. The skilled, intelligent, and disinterested are rightly recruited to the most prestigious positions and are rewarded with the largest honors. By contrast, the unskilled and the biased make their careers at colleges, universities, and research centers where their specific conclusions resonate with the antecedent convictions of the founders and their contemporary heirs.
There is an alternative story. Institutionalized Science is dominated by people with biases that oppose the ideas of the folk. Behind the elite universities and the honorary societies is a subversive agenda, one intent on rooting out popular convictions and values. The teachers at the Bible colleges are debarred from other, more "prestigious," positions not because of lack of skill or "neutrality," but because their honest efforts run counter to the program favored by the elite. The story may continue by inverting the assessment of its "science-friendly" counterpart: the marginalized live up to the Enlightenment ideal of value-neutrality, and the "orthodox" are the ones infected by biases. Or, true to Newton's third law, it may concede that both sides make presuppositions, it may maintain that value-judgments are essential to research, and it may contend that there is no reason to sacrifice the rich values of the folk to the crass substitutes offered by arrogant scientific imperialists.
Recent decades furnish enough examples in which policies based on scientific judgment are publicly contested and in which citizens are not persuaded by claims of an "expert consensus" to substantiate my primary thesis that the authority of Science has been eroded. Attention to the rhetoric employed in these controversies reveals the cluster of themes I have viewed as responsible. Extensive sociological research would be required to justify thinking of these attitudes and concerns as the main constituents of resistance to or alienation from Science. Without being able to point to detailed data of this sort, I can only claim, tentatively, that a composite vision of the sciences as threatening, imperialistic, and resting on unsupported elite prejudices plays an important role. For my purposes, however, the incompleteness of the evidence does not much matter. Beginning with dissent about the authority of scientific "experts," and with possible, even likely, sources of discontent with Science, is a way of introducing the central problem with which this book is occupied.
2. THE DIVISION OF EPISTEMIC LABOR
One of the problems facing any democratic society is to decide how to integrate the plausible idea that, with respect to some issues, some people know more than others, with a commitment to democratic ideals and principles. An extreme way to solve the problem is to deny the plausible suggestion of unequal knowledge, or to deny that unequal knowledge matters. Policies for the society as a whole are to be thoroughly subject to discussion and vote: democracy requires, on this vision, that people make up their minds about the goals to be achieved and the facts pertinent to reaching those goals, free of any norm that would counsel trust in supposed authorities. Citizens are entitled to their own opinions across the board. Responsible participation in public affairs requires nothing further than making up your own mind, as you see fit. Call this the commitment to epistemic equality.
There is an alternative vision, or family of visions, of the ways in which democracies work. These perspectives favor the idea of a division of epistemic labor. Consider the entire range of questions pertinent to public life, all the matters about what the society should aspire to and how it might realize whatever aims are set. These topics are partitioned, divided into nonoverlapping sets, and for each set in the partition except one, a particular group of people is designated as authoritative with respect to that set. For the remaining set, epistemic equality holds: that is, on these topics each citizen is entitled to make up his/her own mind. Because there are alternative ways to partition the topics, there are alternative perspectives that count as dividing the epistemic labor.
Excerpted from SCIENCE IN A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY by Philip Kitcher Copyright © 2011 by Philip Kitcher. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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