Democracy and the Structure of Scientific Knowledge

Democracy should not be confused with liberty. Liberty, as opposed to anarchy, encompasses the rule of law, freedom of speech, the right to be given a hearing, a culture of discussion, civil society, and at least some elements of a property-owning market economy. It is indeed only when all these are substantially in place that the task of establishing democracy proper can begin.

Democracy is a particular form of governance, and is to be contrasted with rule by the rich or big business, rule by technocrats or the media or else with paternalistic administration.

Democracy properly speaking is no more rule by party functionaries than the rule of law is the same as the rule of lawyers. A democracy may be defined as a polity where, in a formal sense, everyone can have a say. How that say is registered, weighted, and aligned with the standpoints of others is a complex matter, since it concerns how those who are well-informed and passionate about an issue are to have their voices weighted against those who are ignorant or indifferent.

There is also a perennial conflict between those who look to the immediate future, and those whose perspective is long-term or inter-generational, this conflict being at the root of much contention about the natue of social & economic justice.

These tensions do not mean that we have to abandon the ideal of democracy. Other forms of governance are likely to be more arbitrary, unjust by any score, and so ultimately lacking in moral authority or legitimacy. The de facto inequality of voices, i.e. the fact that people are not all equally qualified to give a considered opinion, does mean that there is a fundamental problem with democracy.

The answer is to look to our concept of knowledge, and in particular to the most uncontroversial and successful body of knowledge we have, namely science or, more precisely, the natural sciences of physics, chemistry and biology.

In essence, over time, all scientists are given an informal voice in the formation or confirmation of scientific findings, although their voice is weaker or stronger depending on the extent of their expertise, this in turn being measured by consensual methods of formal recognition and reputation. Sometimes successful technology provides strong evidence (i.e. for most observers, persuasive proof) that a theory or conjecture is correct. But science does not always get things right. It does, however, have self-correcting mechanisms. It does not seek consensus for the sake of a quiet time or to pacify the vanities (or commercial ambitions) of one faction or another; that is, it does not seek compromise without regard to the truth.

There is of course a whole academic discipline, the philosophy of science, that addresses these issues, and there is no need to concern ourselves with the subtleties and controversies here. The general structure of what counts as scientific knowledge is well-known and not seriously in dispute. It is this general structure that can guide us in determining what democratic decision-making should ideally look like, and indeed assist us in designing a democratic constitution.

This said, there is a crucial difference in that the formation and validation of scientific knowledge is much less formal than a system of government can be. In particular, the role of process is very dissimilar.

A democracy may be said, roughly. to be a form of collective decision-making where a hearing is given to considered opinions, and where the evaluation of those opinions is in the hands of well-informed persons who are representative of the strength of feeling and strategic judgement of all those affected.

The greatest weakness of the principle of democracy is that electoral success alone is unlikely to reflect accurately, or even remotely, the inconsistency of strength of feeling of voters and the extent to which they are adequately informed. This weakness is most evident in “winner takes all”systems, which produce artificial majorities quite unrepresentative of the electorate. It is in part to correct this weakness that civil rights must be anchored in constitutional law such that minorities are not oppressed.

The underlying problem is everywhere that of filtering opinion so that only those considerations count that are held sincerely and are well supported by evidence and argument. In the past, this was one of the tasks of political parties, alongside their function of vetting candidates. It is a task which, today, they mostly fulfill poorly, irrespective of how well they did in earlier times. Electoral calculations tend to trump rational discourse. © 2013 - 2020 Paul Charles Gregory