General, Science and Democracy

Climate Science and Political Domination

Let me briefly express and then partially exorcise a general worry about current environmental discourse: that it’s depoliticizing. And let me do it in staccatos.

  • Climate Science and Environmental Science are often asked to make pronouncements on enormous and highly variable objects of study.
  • Their conclusions, then, are highly abstracted, highly technical, and non-contextual.
  • This situation is in some ways analogous to specialist talk of ‘the global economy’ – insofar as it is highly abstracted and decontextualized.
  • This technical expertise in economics¬† tends to blur into technocratic political leanings; the question of ‘what we should do’ can be answered, for these people, by sophisticated Cost-Benefit Analysis.
  • This technical exercise in aggregation is profoundly elitist and anti-democratic. There is no role for discussion, argument, or deliberation.
  • A parallel worry applies to Climate Science – that a highly technical and abstract level of analysis would lead to a technocratic kind of politics. This attitude is not uncommon. James Lovelock (of ‘Gaia’ fame) expressed outright contempt of democracy not so long ago.
  • So – moving quickly – there is an overall worry that technical epistemic expertise in problems which are highly abstracted and decontextualized can slide into an ideal of technocratic political expertise which – it goes without saying –¬† threatens the political life of the rest of us.

Indeed, this political tilt of many scientists is only surprising with regards to its tedious repetition. Francis Bacon, for one, had the utopian vision of scientists as both epistemic experts and technocrats in The New Atlantis (1627).

Now, caricatured as it is, I think this is a legitimate worry. But it’s not an inevitable one. In fact, I think this is all more or less a consequence of various self-deceptions we have about how science works. Chiefest of these deceptions is the myth that science is a discipline which is free of values – that it represents facts about the world and that’s that. This is the mother of all errors and maybe I’ll summarize some arguments against it in later posts but there are many other dubious assumptions which could be challenged like, say, that science is fully empiricist and free of metaphysics (false – it mostly operates on unquestioned foundations about reality, like that it’s mechanistic) or that our relationship with the truth is an individualistic matter of assessing evidence for our hypotheses (highly contestable, for too many reasons to mention).

There has been a lot of important work in the Philosophy of Science to try and correct these errors, and it leads in one general direction: that science can and should be socialized and democratized. Our epistemic goals and our practical or moral goals are all tied up together; our scientific projects are inextricably bound with the rest of our politics.

If our image of science can change like this then not only does the worry about possible technocratic domination dissolve, but we also see that it was the assumptions about science which failed us. The political anxiety starts to look contingent and remediable once we realize that it was premised on a very poor image of how science works. We get a new way forward when we see that our science doesn’t have to be awkwardly compromised with technocratic ambitions. As a departing shot of optimism, I would add that this new kind of vision also holds promise for resolving the environmental and political stalemates in which we already find ourselves – but that may seem too optimistic to be credible. I hope to expand on these themes in coming posts.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *