In May 2010, Science magazine published an article by Philip Kitcher, in which he reviewed a selection of books relevant to the science and politics of global warming. These included books by climate scientists expressing their frustration at the reluctance of successive American governments to take up strong policies on climate change. This reluctance is taken to be one example of a series of cases (health effects of tobacco smoke being another) in which eminent scientists pushed American government policy away from the path indicated by scientific consensus by casting doubt on the evidence on which that consensus was based. This they did, apparently, without themselves being active as researchers in the relevant field.
Kitcher starts his article by presenting contrasting views on the relative value of free and open debate on the one hand and reliance on expert opinion on the other in guiding democratic decision making. In favour of open debate is the view that truth alone will withstand questioning and criticism and that open debate can therefore be relied upon to indicate the ‘correct’ decision, given enough time. A frequent criticism of that view, however, is that in the real world decisions have to be made urgently and the time available for debate is limited. Under such circumstances, unscrupulous parties may express endless trivial or frivolous doubts about any proposal they dislike to ensure that their own proposal is the only one that still looks strong when the time comes to decide. Open debate then becomes an open door to the ethic of might is right. Limiting the debate to those judged to possess comprehensive and impartial knowledge and understanding of the relevant facts is seen as a way of obtaining a much more controlled debate that can lead to the best possible decision in time-limited circumstances.
Kitcher doesn’t directly express his support of one view over the other and sometimes it’s not altogether clear whether his statements are his own views or what he takes to be those of the authors of the books he’s reviewing. Nevertheless, one might reasonably come away with the feeling that his bias is toward reliance on expert opinion. Here are a few quotes:
“genuine democratic participation in the issues can only begin when citizens are in a position to understand what kinds of policies promote their interests. To achieve that requires a far clearer and unmistakable communication of the consensus views of climate scientists” (p2)
“Serious democracy requires reliance on expert opinion.” (p2)
“messages have been distorted and suppressed because of the short-term interests of economic and political agents” (p2)
“They have used their stature in whatever areas of science they originally distinguished themselves to pose as experts who express an “alternative view” to the genuinely expert conclusions that seem problematic to the industries that support them or that threaten the ideological directions in which their political allies hope to lead.” (p2)
“It is an absurd fantasy to believe that citizens who have scant backgrounds in the pertinent field can make responsible decisions about complex technical matters” (p3)
On reading these, a number of questions occurred to me:
- Why would citizens have difficulty understanding their own interests and the policies that promote them?
- Why would understanding one’s own interests depend on understanding a consensus among scientists?
- What is “serious” democracy (as opposed to mere democracy) and why would it have to rely on expert opinion?
- Is there any reason why calling interests “short term” would make them any less worthy of respect?
- Is there any reason why the interests of “economic and political agents” would be any less worthy of respect than those of any other social entity?
- Why would the pursuit of citizens’ interests necessarily have to boil down to technical matters?
- How, except through special pleading, would it be established that climate scientists’ messages are more objective or more relevant to the common good?
- How would the public tell real experts from those who merely pose as experts?
In articles to follow this one, I want to look at the role of experts in democratically accountable decision making. The decision making issues around climate change make for a particularly interesting context in which to have this discussion because the stakeholders include practically everyone and their interests are therefore highly disparate; the scientific evidence, although extensive, is still contentious; the need to act quickly may be acute; and the potential for useful unilateral action by any individual actor is extremely limited. The problem therefore refuses to stay within the norms of any established political system or subculture.