What Should Democracies Know?

By Sheila Jasanoff

Repeatedly over the past few months I’ve heard anguished cries from former students and junior colleagues asking how I might make sense of the strange time we’re in—a time in which so much we’ve valued about the making of robust public knowledge and critical understanding has been tossed overboard as if of no consequence to the conduct of the nation’s politics. How should we, as teachers of future citizens, respond to these calls, and what special obligation do we have as scholars of science and technology, with a professional commitment to understanding the role of facts and truth in society?

The “post-truth,” “alt-fact,” “fake news” era has drawn understandable outrage from thoughtful people. Some, especially in the mainstream media, assume that the line between truth and lies is clear-cut, and can be ascertained through careful fact-checking, as in a recent New York Times editorial on the real costs of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policy. Others, more historically minded and attuned to technological change, have called attention to social media and the ease of propagating claims that have not passed through the costly, messy processes of peer review or validation through experiment.[1] Still others have noted the rise of data as a substitute for tested facts, and how politicians’ reliance on mass measures of electoral sentiment may undermine the cultural habits of deliberation on real-world problems. All these are important arguments, with serious implications for public reason, but none have touched on the role of professors in this period of eroding confidence in the very meaning of evidence, facts, and truth. Yet, if ever there was a time to heed the Delphic mandate “know thyself,” surely for us in the academic business now is that time.

Democratic theory has spent thousands of years wondering what makes it legitimate for the few to rule the many. We have to cultivate similar awareness of what makes it acceptable for a few to know for the many

As a teacher in a public policy school, who also has a considerable involvement in undergraduate education, I feel an urgent need to address this issue. My interest is not merely in enabling students to judge for themselves why some arguments are better than others or why some claims are entitled to deference while others should be set aside as “not proven.” Those aims of course are basic, and I spend hours each week thinking how to make my students into more critical thinkers, more careful readers, and more persuasive writers. That, however, is not where the pedagogical buck stops. The challenge of the moment is to make students think harder about how knowledge and power work together in modern democracies, for good and for ill. To that end, I believe we also have to explore in our teaching why arguments take the forms they do, why some sources of knowledge count for more than others, why facts are not always available when needed, why one person’s settled knowledge looks like another’s baseless allegation, and why being uncertain is not an insurmountable obstacle to making wise public policy.

To turn students into critical users and evaluators of public knowledge, it is not enough to lead them into the thick of dueling facts and counter-facts. One needs to ask good questions about whose claims to trust and why. Democratic theory has spent thousands of years wondering what makes it legitimate for the few to rule the many. We have to cultivate similar awareness of what makes it acceptable for a few to know for the many. Why do some facts, especially those couched in numbers, carry so much political weight: unemployment statistics, poverty metrics, the GDP, life expectancy, pollution burdens, highway fatalities, dietary guidelines, and many more? What principles of accountability exist and are appropriate for institutions charged with producing these facts that we live by? What rights do citizens have against abuses of knowledge by those in power? How can those rights be better articulated, given that no society can make its rules of public knowing fully transparent? What, in short, is the constitutional position of science, those tacit or explicit principles that govern in any society the relations between science, expert judgment, and political power?

To answer these questions, we need not begin with empty slates. Work on the politics of knowledge has given us ways of thinking, as well as concepts to think with. A foundational insight from social studies of science is that facts are not facts until they have gained acceptance in a community of belief.[2] Such communities can form in a narrow sense around specific scientific theories—Thomas Kuhn’s famous paradigms—but more important for citizens in a democracy are the communal ways of knowing that constitute national civic epistemologies.[3] In any functioning political culture, there are established conventions for generating public facts. The adversarial style of US politics, for example, pits experts from opposing camps against each other, both sides claiming a monopoly on the truth, whereas Europeans more often rely on consensus-building processes that do not split knowledge into competing accounts, each claiming ultimate authority. These diverse ways of making knowledge have their strengths and weaknesses, their blind spots as well as their capacity to enlighten. It is important for citizens to recognize these constraints, and how such institutionalized fact-finding practices shape what can be learned, demonstrated, or argued in the realm of politics.

In complex policy domains, science often does not hold the answers at the moment when action is called for, and expert consensus must serve in lieu of definitive knowledge. Regulatory authorities could not function without relying on technical advisory committees to deliver sound collective judgments. Yet, citizens committed to democratic self-governance should learn not to accept consensus unquestioningly as a substitute for fact. How issues are framed matters, and the best scientific judgment will offer cold comfort if it addresses the wrong question. Process matters too, and practices of inclusion that look neutral on the surface but exclude important perspectives may weaken the persuasiveness of the facts that advisory bodies produce.[4] In particular, an exclusive reliance on credentialed experts can leave out essential, experience-based knowledge from those living vulnerable lives, such as workers, patients, historically marginalized groups, low-income households, or people living on lands threatened by environmental contamination.

My students have learned since their early school days how to evaluate the facts the world holds out to them. They are often masters of logic and technique, accomplished debaters, and skilled at choosing between weaker and stronger claims. Yet, like children taught to believe that babies are brought in the beaks of storks, they have not learned to question how facts are made. This moment calls for an end to that dangerous innocence. It is a moment made for the most potent kind of STS: the STS that engages with the deep structures of society, politics, law, and culture out of which robust knowledge springs, as well as its antithesis, non-knowledge.  Only through sustained reflection on why we know what we think we know can we find ways to strengthen, even augment, our collective knowing—and so push back against those who would dismantle the human institutions we have entrusted with the hard task of making public knowledge.

Sheila Jasanoff is the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies and director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Harvard Kennedy School.

[1] Yaron Ezrahi, “Science and the Political Imagination in Contemporary Democracies,” in Sheila Jasanoff, ed., States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order (Routledge 2004), pp. 254-273.

[2] Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, F. Bradley and T. J. Trenn (trans.), Robert Merton and T. J. Trenn (eds.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) [published in German as Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache, Basel: Benno Schwabe, 1935].

[3] Sheila Jasanoff, Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the US (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[4] ———. “A New Climate for Society,” Theory, Culture & Society 27(2-3):233-253 (March/May 2010).