November 7, 2020

“Defactionalizing” Science

In his first inaugural address, President Barack Obama boldly promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” thus implying that science had been subordinated to factional political ends. This promise brought wide praise from the scientific community and those generally on the political left, who expressed disdain for the allegedly antiscientific actions of the previous administration.

Implicit in this phrase is that the “rightful place” for science in public life is selfevident. This is incorrect—even more so now than when those words were spoken eleven years ago. Indeed, the role of scientific expertise produces one of the sharpest cleavages in American life today.

The phrase also invokes a verbal sleight of hand: “science” is a process for identifying truth, not something that exists on its own. So talk of “science” in public discourse typically means “practitioners of science,” both individually and through the institutions that support and advance scientific research and knowledge.

In a liberal democracy, scientists provide valuable input into public policy and civic life. But experts should be “on tap, not on top” as the old saw has it, the servants of liberal democracy, not vice versa. Anti-expert sentiment has been fueled by scientists who have claimed (or have been awarded, by political actors) the mantle of philosopher kings, answering not just the empirical questions that scientists are uniquely placed to answer, but also normative questions about which science is silent. Daniel Sarewitz refers to this as the problem of “scientizing politics,” a more useful concept than “politicizing science.”

This is an opportunity for the philanthropic sector to advance a more nuanced discussion about how preferences, beliefs, and values—including the value of individual liberty for its own sake—interact with science in a democratic polity. This is a departure from traditional philanthropic approaches to science, which focus primarily on support of pure and applied science or as an input in solutions to various social problems.

Philanthropic support, for instance, in developing new modes and institutions to mediate scientific expertise, democratic legitimacy, and liberal values, can help rescue scientists and experts from their positions in the culture war and indeed save the experts from themselves.

Read more at the Knight Foundation website.