There is a growing movement to democratize science, involving the public, often lacking traditional scientific credentials, in the research process. This inclusivity manifests in various forms, particularly involving the public in making value judgments that play a vital role in the scientific decision-making process. As demonstrated by philosophers and scholars of science, scientific inquiry frequently involves making non-epistemic value judgments. These judgments are essential in defining concepts, establishing classification systems, setting standards for hypothesis acceptance, and determining how to present study results.
However, can ‘democratic science’ be ‘democratic in excess’? Are there situations in which scientists should object to the public’s values, or even veto them? So argues the philosopher S. Andrew Schroeder in a recent paper of the journal Philosophy of Science 1.
According to Schroeder, there are several reasons to invite public participation in shaping the value judgments on which many aspects of scientific research depend. First, scientists typically lack specialized training in ethical, social, or political values, and therefore their claims to expertise in these matters are not clear-cut. Consequently, there is no inherent justification to prioritize scientists’ judgments over those of the public in value-laden matters. Second, especially when research can influence public policy, democratic principles indicate that the public should have a say in value-laden matters. While democracy doesn’t entail putting empirical questions to a public vote, it is crucial to involve the public in decisions related to values, especially those influencing public policies, as, for example, in the decisions about economic sacrifices for addressing climate change or the confidence threshold required to make COVID-19 vaccines available to the public.
But, according to Schroeder, the validity of these reasons depend on what justifies scientists in seeking public input, and this can lead at times to reject the public’s input. He presents a hypothetical scenario where an education researcher, committed to democratizing science, involves the public in operationalizing concepts like student-to-teacher ratio, creating classification systems for educational institutions, and devising outcome measures for students. However, what happens when the public’s consensus on certain positions clashes with the researcher’s beliefs? Perhaps, they propose outcome measures that strongly focus on traditional subjects like literacy and numeracy, whereas the scientist believes it is critical to also consider students’ social and emotional development. Or perhaps they propose classification systems that will make salient differences among high-performing schools, while obscuring differences among poorly performing schools, whereas the researcher believes that it is more critical to pay attention to differences among that latter group. The central question arises: Can the researcher, while committed to democratizing science, set aside public judgments they find fundamentally misguided?
Schroeder introduces two pivotal claims to tackle this question. The first claim argues that simply disagreeing with public value judgments cannot justify scientists in rejecting them. To meaningfully democratize science, there needs to be a significant number of instances where scientists agree with the public’s decisions. The second claim maintains that scientists can permissibly reject public judgments in certain cases without compromising their commitment to democratizing science. For instance, if the public advocates racist value judgments, it is justifiable for scientists to reject these judgments without being seen as anti-democratic. This veto power is, however, asserted to be limited. The discussion then delves into framing the problem by exploring these two claims in depth. The first claim posits that the degree of disagreement with public judgment cannot be the sole basis for rejecting it, as complete agreement isn’t necessary for meaningful democratic engagement. The second claim introduces the concept of ‘gravely unjust’ judgments, suggesting that scientists can reject public judgments when they are objectively and significantly morally wrong or harmful. However, Schroeder deems this proposal impractical and counterproductive, leading to inconsistent outcomes and counterintuitive implications. I would add that the assumption that ethical claims can be objectively true or false adds no benefits to the discussion, when the disagreement between the agents is about which moral values are objectively right or wrong.
So-called democracy and democracy in the Western sense
Then, Schroeder adds a detour into political philosophy, specifically about the limits of public authority in a democracy. It distinguishes issues lying beyond public authority—typically issues involving grave injustices like racism and misogyny. These issues contradict the fundamental principles that underpin democracy, making them inappropriate for public decision-making. The analysis suggests that scientists should similarly reject public judgments when they conflict with the foundations of democratic authority. The subsequent discussion connects these insights from political philosophy to the realm of science, summarizing the lessons for scientists. Schroeder’s proposal is, hence, that scientists can ignore public values when they contradict the foundations of democratic authority. For example, issues involving racism, sexism, or any form of discrimination fall into this category. This approach is seen as upholding the essence of democratizing science, as it rejects values that are fundamentally anti-democratic. The article acknowledges the challenge of practically implementing this approach, given varying interpretations of what constitutes racism, sexism, or discrimination. Despite this challenge, the author emphasizes the necessity of developing a concrete methodology to guide scientists in incorporating public input effectively, aligning with democratic values in scientific research.
In my opinion, one naive aspect of the proposal is that scientists are often represented by Schroeder as more apt than the public to discern the coherence of some moral values with the hypothetical ‘foundations of democratic authority’, whereas in many historical cases what happens is probably the reverse. His argument would better support a view according to which the process of interaction between researchers and the public is ‘supervised’ by some political or legal experts at local, national or international instances… But this seems after all the way science policy already works in Western countries. Or isn’t it?