What Should Democracies Know?

December 9, 2016
By Jessica Cussins

As many Americans continue to struggle with the recent election results, trying to make sense of what has been referred to as “post-truth politics,” Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology & Society (STS), directed by HKS Professor Sheila Jasanoff, has launched an Expertise and Public Trust Project. On Thursday night (Dec. 8), the Project held its first event, a panel discussion titled “What Should Democracies Know?”

Known for its thoughtful critique of constructions of expertise and power, the STS Program has become a magnet for Harvard students interested in the interplay between knowledge and politics. STS fellows Jacob Moses and Gili Vidan introduced the panel speakers to a large audience in Bell Hall at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

The panel included Archon Fung, Academic Dean and Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at HKS, and his Kennedy School colleagues Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, and Jane Mansbridge, Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values. Panelists from outside HKS included Ned Hall, Norman E. Vuilleumier Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Harvard, and David Kennedy, Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Fung characterized experts within democracies as functioning within communities of inquiry with shared methods and norms that have some alignment with democratic values. However, he acknowledged, the recent divisive election has left many Americans feeling distanced from their fellow citizens, especially along two divides: left/right and mass/elite. Fung said that this social distancing has resulted in massive distrust that has made it challenging for experts to fulfill their democratic function. Members of the HKS community are often portrayed as residing in one quadrant – the left elite – which raises questions about their ability to honestly serve all Americans.

Hall opened with a joke about the experience of teaching a class on logical reasoning the day after Donald Trump was elected president. But Hall questioned the criteria that lead citizens to recognize someone as an expert, and pointed to the complex social cues that play into such determinations. He suggested that the “creation of knowledge is a collective exercise” and pointed to the current situation in which different pockets of people have accepted different ways of making judgments. He asked, “How do you find epistemic common ground?” Hall’s proposed solution was developing a capacity for “bull**** detection,” as well as an ethical sensibility.

Mansbridge called the current political climate a “pretty deadly serious business,” arguing that although the U.S. and the world are increasingly interdependent and need more free access goods (such as clean air, water, forests, and a stable climate), these goods are increasingly harder to secure. Mansbridge argued for “legitimate coercion” to keep access free: actions such as carbon taxes to counteract market failure. However, she suggested that the dysfunctional state of American democracy and growing national inequality make increasing polarization and gridlock inevitable.

Kennedy said bluntly, “Trustworthiness of experts is an inside-the-establishment problem.” He dismissed the notion that the elite are making pragmatic actions in the public interest, suggesting that technocracy has helped screen out politically important factors by framing decisions as being guided by facts rather than value-laden choices. Kennedy worried about claims of “expertise” that are separated from politics and concluded that “fretting about knowing in democracy is part of the pathology of established power, and we ought to get over it.”

Jasanoff brought the conversation back to the guiding question of “what should democracies know?” While admitting that the question is daunting, she suggested an answer begins with teaching. She joked that as a skeptic, whose field questions how knowledge gains authority, she’d like to present the most optimistic vision. Her vision of what students should know included five elements: the conditions for trust, the role of science in constitutional government, the nature of civic epistemologies, the processes for achieving consensus, and the meaning of cosmopolitanism in all its variety. Finally, Jasanoff argued for the need to understand one’s own views as well as the views of one’s opponent, adding that faculty may need to learn from students and elites from the bottom-up.

After their brief presentations, the panelists took questions from the audience, which began with Harvard’s role in strengthening and improving democracy. Hall noted that general education is one locus where this discussion could happen, but lamented the difficulty of interdisciplinary conversations at Harvard. Mansbridge spoke of the possibility of sending Harvard students beyond the metropolitan area to solicit and listen to other perspectives. Jasanoff lauded ongoing efforts to support diversity at Harvard but suggested that more needs to be done to engender intellectual breadth.  

An HKS student from Venezuela pointed out that democracy can destroy itself, and that the vote is not just a tool for democracy, but can also be used a tool against it. He asked, “How far can this administration go to destroy this democracy?” Kennedy reminded the audience of built-in tensions within the democratic system to limit authoritarianism, while Fung warned that authoritarian transitions happen slowly and can be hard to discern. He suggested that it might be helpful to write down a set of “trip wires” or anti-democratic actions, and keep a watch on the new administration. Mansbridge added that as a society, the U.S. remains in the infancy of democracy and is thus still experimenting.

Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology & Society

The Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government provides unique resources for coping with the resulting challenges for scientific and technological innovation, civil liberties, informed citizenship, and democratic government.


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