Scientific Authority in Democratic Societies: Two Conclusions from Bentley Allan

This June, Alfred Moore and Mark Warren of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia convened a workshop on “Scientific Authority in Democratic Societies.” The central problem confronting the participants was, as the workshop outline said, the “ways in which science, technology and expertise have become politically problematic.” From controversies in the Food & Drug Administration in the United States to contestation over climate change in the international arena, the politicization of science has taken on added significance in the last thirty years. The dependence of complex modern societies on scientific expertise is problematic because it is not clear how the demands of democratic legitimation can be balanced with the demands of scientific authority. Scientific knowledge is created by a small group of well-trained individuals and is not accessible to everyday citizens. However, everyday citizens provide the basis for legitimate government in democratic societies.

Thus, it appears that scientific authority cuts against the egalitarian impulses of democracy. That is, if we empower scientists to make controversial political decisions, do we not disempower everyday citizens? Are expert decisions hopelessly unaccountable to the will of the people? As Mark Warren pointed out in his remarks, this is actually two separate problems. The first is a problem of inclusion that concerns who should have authority. Who should participate in complex, technical decisions? The second problem is about how much authority science should have. The last thirty or so years of science and technology studies scholarship has shown that science often overreaches, makes mistakes, and thus undermines the authority of science in the eyes of the public. Both problems raise questions of institutional design in science policy: how to design institutions that both bring expert knowledge to bear on important problems, and respect democratic values.

The workshop papers addressed these issues from diverse perspectives in political science, political philosophy, sociology, and science studies. One group of papers offered a critical or skeptical view of the relationship between science and politics. Sheila Jasanoff, Lisa Disch, Albert Dzur, James Bohman, and myself argued that existing science-politics institutions have potentially negative effects, or at least limitations. All of these papers set a high bar for science institutions; they must avoid a wide variety of mistakes and pathologies if they are to be trusted and effective in modern societies. Another group of papers sought to reconstruct the relationships between science and politics: Alfred Moore, John Beatty, Robert Evans, Heidi Grasswick, Anita Ho and Stephen Turner analyzed the basis of scientific authority and theorize how scientific actors might generate authority and public trust. The key lesson here was that the authority of science must be created in context and that authority rests on norms and understandings that can be mediated by social institutions. A final group of papers presented research from cutting edge experiments in institutions that bridge science and politics. Michael Burgess, Thomas Dietz, David Guston, and Maarten Hajer all shared their experiences working at this interface.

These papers demonstrated the complexities, but also the personal challenges and rewards involved in realizing theory in practice. Dzur and Disch both offered this group a warning: institutions that combine deliberation and science policy will be weak or purely symbolic if they are disconnected from real problems and communities. Rather than attempt to summarize the discussion as a whole, I want to share two conclusions I took away from the workshop. The first is that while I think we know the basic outlines of the solution to the problems laid out above, there is a lot of conceptual and empirical work to be done. On the one hand, I get the impression that we basically know what the solution to the problems of scientific authority in democratic societies looks like. If institutional designers combine the now quite sophisticated literature on deliberative democratic institutions (Fung and Wright 2003; Thompson 2008; Warren and Pearse 2008) with a deeper, more humble understanding of science in political contexts (Jasanoff 1990; Jasanoff 2003), they would have a pretty powerful toolkit to build new institutions of science governance that can balance scientific authority and democratic autonomy. Deliberative democratic institutions that make honest assessments of scientific knowledge accessible to everyday citizens may be able to simultaneously check the power of science, democratize science policy, and restore the authority of science.

On the other hand, that insight doesn’t tell us all that much. This was stated powerfully at the workshop by Mark Warren who closed the two day workshop with a list of questions the proceedings raised or left unanswered: • What does scientific authority look like in a democratic context? • How can scientific authority be generated in modern democracies? What practices or performances support scientific authority? • How should we frame and think about uncertainty? Does admitting too much uncertainty in the public sphere undermine science and provoke skepticism? • How can we design deliberative democratic systems to establish checks and balances on science? How should these institutions balance authority, accountability and representation? • Should scientific advisers and bodies be accountable to citizens? How? • What is the role of trust in epistemic authority? What are the grounds of trust and how is it supported? With these questions, Warren left the participants with a big homework assignment. But this leaves the basic insight intact: we need more citizen participation in science governance if we are to build reliable, trustworthy links between the public and scientific institutions.

Turning now to my second conclusion, I worry that this vision raises a deep normative problem first highlighted by Horkheimer and Adorno (2002 [1969]) and other members of the Frankfurt School. They warned that modern experiences with science and technology would change the very way people thought. The mechanical systems of technology and instrumentality of science would degrade the critical capacities of citizens, reducing humanity to passive, calculating machines without knowledge of truth, justice, or beauty. While, I do not share this concern, which seems melodramatic at best, I do think the underlying insight is worth preserving: science has indirect cultural effects that change the way people think and that shape the terms and concepts of politics. Indeed, my own paper argued that science can change the values and goals of organizations and societies that rely heavily on experts and scientific knowledge. No matter what checks and balances better science governance can put in place to guard against bad policy, experience with science will continue to change society in potentially negative ways. What if some negative effects of science are unavoidable? If the implicit vision of this research program is realized, science-politics relations will be mediated by deliberative institutions that incorporate everyday citizens and experts in advisory political bodies. But if these institutions are themselves normatively problematic in some way, then a host of questions are raised about the relationship between science and politics that the workshop did not address.

The participants, myself included, seemed to accept that science will continue to play a necessary and crucial role in modern life. This assumption prevents us from asking the political question of whether science should play such an important role in modern society that we are left with no alternative but to become eager participants in the ongoing management of scientific controversy. This begs the question, when should science have authority and do we have any control over when scientific knowledge itself becomes an essential part of some domain? Why must our society be so complex that expertise is needed in all aspects of life? When and how can a system be simplified so that experts and scientific authority are not necessary? The recent ‘food politics’ movement seems to ask these questions implicitly when it asks, when should science be a part of our food supply and when do traditional methods suffice? I think we need to start asking these questions, rather than focusing solely on how to check the power of science, assuming it has already become an irreversible part of every sphere of politics. Indeed, if some of the negative effects of science are unavoidable, then we must ask if it makes sense to reduce the influence of science in some domains.

-- Bentley B. Allan is a graduate student at Ohio State University. You can reach him at allan.29 [at]


Fung, Archon and Erik Olin Wright. 2003. Deepening Democracy. New York: Verso.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. 2002 [1969]. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edmund Jephcott, trans. Stanford University Press.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 1990. The Fifth Branch. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Jasnaoff, Sheila. 2003. “Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science.” Minerva Vol. 4, No. 3: 223-244.

Thompson, Dennis. 2008. “Deliberative Democratic Theory and Empirical Political Science.” Annual Review of Political Science Vol. 11: 497-520.

Warren, Mark and Hilary Pearse. 2008. Designing Deliberative Democracy: The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly. Cambridge University Press.