For half a century, since the pioneering work of Thomas Kuhn (3), scholars who study the resolution of major scientific debates have understood how complex and difficult judgments about the probative value of data or the significance of unresolved problems can be. The major transitions in the history of the sciences, from the 16th and 17th centuries to the present, have involved intricate debates among competing research programs, among well-informed scientists who gave different weight to particular sorts of evidence. 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, on the basis of a few five-minute exchanges among more-or-less articulate speakers or a small number of articles outlining alternative points of view. Democratic ideals have their place in the conduct of inquiry, for it is arguable that there should be more communication between scientists and outsiders in the construction of research agendas, in the discussion of standards of acceptable risk, and in the articulation of policies based on scientific consensus. Genuine democracy, however, requires a division of labor, in which particular groups are charged with the responsibility of resolving questions that bear on the interests of individuals and societies. Other groups, those covering such questions in the media, have the duty to convey the results so that citizens can cast their votes as an enlightened expression of freedom, justifiably aimed at the outcomes for which they hope. Staging a brief disagreement between speakers with supposedly equal credentials, especially when it is not disclosed that one of them is answering to the economic aspirations of a very small segment of the society, is a cynical abnegation of that duty.
Democracy plays a key role in our society's scientific enterprise, but resolving technical debates is not one of them.
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