Pursuing deliberative democracy through scientific testimony

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Science skepticism is a central threat to deliberative democracy. Generally speaking, scientific investigations based on collaboration between scientific experts are far more reliable than individual efforts when it comes to finding the truth about complex matters. So, since public deliberation is better off when it rests on science, deliberative democracy requires a reasonably high degree of public uptake of science communication. However, there is a great deal of public skepticism toward science communication about polarizing issues (e.g., vaccine safety, climate change). Just consider slogans such as the conspiracy organization QAnon’s “do your own research.” 

In my book Scientific Testimony, I identify some causes of science skepticism and consider some strategies for addressing it. Importantly, science skepticism is typically selective. Few people are wholesale science skeptics. Rather, science skepticism typically concerns the science about polarizing issues such as climate change, vaccine safety, gender biases, etc. Consequently, empirical research suggests that motivated cognition is a central source of (selective) science skepticism. Roughly, motivated cognition is the inclination to privilege or discard information in ways that favor those of one’s antecedent views that one is motivated to preserve. When these views are central to the subject’s social identity, the variety of motivated cognition is called identity-protective reasoning. The result is that a group will be resistant to science communication if they perceive it to be in tension with their social identity. Of course, there are many other sources of science skepticism, such as polluted information environments, which include online platforms with their algorithmic filter bubbles, microtargeting, and echo chambers. Further sources of science skepticism are public misunderstandings about the nature of science and folk epistemological biases that go beyond motivated cognition. Likewise, organized science skepticism is a serious threat. Science communication should be sensitive to all these factors.

To see which aspects of scientific testimony I will consider on this occasion, have a look at this map of types of testimony from the book:

From Scientific Testimony by Mikkel Gerken

I argue that scientific testimony differs from other types of testimony in that it is properly based on scientific justification (in Scientific Testimony, chapter three). The category which I focus on in this blog post is public scientific testimony. This is scientific testimony that is directed at laypersons. This category includes scientific expert testimony that is provided by scientific experts as well as science reporting that is provided by non-experts such as science journalists. Both species of public scientific testimony are critical to the pursuit of deliberative democracy. 

So, I have developed some general science communication strategies and norms that aim to alleviate these problems for deliberative democracy. For example, the following Justification Explication Norm (JEN):

JEN

Public scientific testifiers should, whenever feasible, include appropriate aspects of the nature and strength of scientific justification, or lack thereof, for the scientific hypothesis in question.

The argument that JEN is a sensible presentational norm for public scientific testimony is supported by both philosophical reflection and empirical research on science communication. For example, some empirical evidence suggests that explicating scientific justification may increase the uptake of polarizing hypotheses across the political spectrum. Moreover, I argue that JEN promotes long-term trust in science and may contribute to the public’s science literacy.

However, explicating scientific justification need not have the ambitious aim that the layperson recipients come to understand the intricacies of the scientific justification. A more reasonable aim is often to provide a basis for what I call laypersons’ appreciative deference to public scientific testimony. Appreciative deference can be based on a rudimentary understanding of the relevant scientific justification. But it may also be based on something even less demanding – namely, an appreciation that public scientific testimony is the most reliable source on the issue. In both cases, appreciative deference to public scientific testimony is generally rational for laypersons. 

On the basis of these ideas, I have developed epistemic norms for both the producers and consumers of public scientific testimony. I will not discuss the details of these norms here (which are outlined in chapters five and six of Scientific Testimony). Rather, I will discuss a question that they raise: Whose responsibility is it that laypersons appreciatively defer to public scientific testimony? In Scientific Testimony, I argue for the following distribution of normative requirements:

Fairly minimal requirements for the individual layperson consumers of public scientific testimony. Fairly demanding requirements for the individual providers of public scientific testimony. Fairly comprehensive requirements for the society that enables the individual testifiers and recipients to meet the requirements that they are subject to.

The idea is that since the layperson recipients are the least equipped to assess public scientific testimony, it is important that they are only minimally burdened. In contrast, stronger requirements for providing public scientific testimony are reasonable since those who are in the business of providing it are generally qualified to do so. However, it is a societal structural task to ensure that the individual providers and consumers of public scientific testimony are able to meet the normative requirements that accrue to them. This division of normative labor may be illustrated by the following Testimonial Obligation Pyramid (TOP):

From Scientific Testimony by Mikkel Gerken

According to the TOP structure, selective science skepticism should be treated as a structural problem that requires societal interventions. That is, the pyramid structure illustrates two things: First, the noted distribution of normative labor. Second, the idea that the individual norms that apply to public scientific testifiers and their recipients must rest on a structural foundation that society is obliged to secure. For example, even impeccable public scientific testimony from scientists and journalists will be severely compromised in an informational environment that is polluted with pseudo-scientific testimony that is indiscernible to laypersons.      

 In consequence, the foundational societal obligations involve curating the information environment, advancing scientific literacy, and training public scientific testifiers in communicating science about polarizing issues. The TOP illustration, then, provides a warning of individualizing structural problems. More generally, Scientific Testimony is a book that exemplifies how empirically informed philosophy may contribute to diagnosing and addressing science skepticism and similar threats to the pursuit of deliberative democracy.

Featured image by Hansjörg Keller, via Unsplash (public domain)

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