March 7, 2012

Science in Democracy review

Mark Brown’s Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation is a political philosopher’s take on science policy. Brown begins with two assertions: 1) that involving lay people in science policy debates doesn't make it any less politicized, and 2) when science is used as a proxy battle for politics, this brings up the question of representation. Exploring the history of how scientific and political thinkers, such as Machievelli, Locke, Boyle, Newton, and Latour, Brown draws connections between the arguments of political philosophers and their applications to modern science. Mainly, the question of representation in science.

By now a familiar argument to me, Brown starts off writing about the politicization of science and the scientization of politics; how science is a proxy battle for politics, or values. He writes, “Both modern science and modern liberalism connect elite reason with popular consent, while ensuring that the former retains power over the latter. The tension between the rationalism and voluntarism of liberal representative government thus parallels the tension between the exclusivity and publicity between democracy and political representation” (Brown, p. 91). Thus, Brown argues that science policy debates cannot be opened up to the entire population, for the same reasons that we do not have a direct democracy.

Brown’s arguments sharply counter Steve Hilgartner’s Science on Stage, which I discussed a few weeks ago. Let’s take two examples: birth control and food politics. Brown begins and closes his book with a discussion of the scientization of the debate over Plan B birth control around 2005-2006, and whether Plan B should be allowed without a prescription. Again, not a new argument to me, conservatives argued that more evidence was needed to prove the safety of Plan B. Just recently, the Obama administration was challenged by feminist groups because they denied approval to sell Plan B over-the-counter to minors. Obama made a similar argument, that there is not enough information on Plan B’s effect on minors to authorize it.

Another example of Brown’s case against science policy free-for-alls is in setting nutritional standards. For example, how do children’s cereals get away with advertising their products as healthy? The answer is a convergence of a scientized definition of nutrition combined with the strong influence of food lobby groups. To Brown, this is an example of the failure of representation (companies are represented, consumers are not), but also a closer examination of the values that go into science policy processes. He writes, “public deliberation and representation is required, not only in cases of obvious technical failure or public controversy, but also at the front end of technical development… political representation not only requires technical expertise but also occurs within technical expertise” (Brown, p. 89).

An interesting aspect of Brown’s argument is that “scientific representations that ‘stand for’ nature–especially when institutionalized as expert advice–play a key role in political representation” (Brown, p. 4). He compares this with Hobbes’s analysis that “the authority to represent nature’s interests, from this [Hobbes’s] perspective, does not directly rest on knowledge about nature, but rather on the formal authorization by those with legal control over it” (Brown, p. 130). Obviously we might find this problematic when dealing with environmental issues like climate change and ecosystem services.

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