I have long been interested in the parallels and tensions between democracy and the public engagement with science. Back in the 1980s with all the huff and puff about the public understanding of science there were occasional noises off that science needed to be democratised rather than popularised. More recently those offstage mutterings have moved towards discussion about open access and open science.
There is (I hope) general agreement that science is a “good thing” and equally that democracy is a “good thing”. It would seem obvious, therefore, that the two should go together easily. Certainly it has been argued that science itself is a form of democracy (eg as part of an “open society”); and much of the justification for the Public Understanding of Science or Public Engagement with Science is based on the importance of science in democracy.
But a recent post from Simon Denegri prompts us to consider how far have we come with regards to public engagement. He suggests that if we draw a comparison with the development of democracy then “public engagement” is still stuck in 1832, the Great Reform Act and extending the franchise only as far as the urban middle class.
So, if we are to take our commitments to science, democracy and public engagement seriously would it be possible to develop a conceptual democracy?
Rather than try to see science as an essential part of a democratic society that attempts to share power, could we not see science as an essential part of a “demosophic” society that attempts to share knowledge? As democracy is a system to manage power, balancing individual interests through collective rule: so demosophy would be a system to manage knowledge, balancing individual experiences through collective wisdom.
NOTE when I used the term “demosophic” for my book a few years ago I did not realise that the term already had associations with other terms such collective wisdom, collective intelligence, wisdom of the crowd or what might be called wiki-knowledge. There is also a Demosophy website and Demosophic movement against the new world order. How close any of this might be to my own ideas I don’t know, don’t push me on it, though some of it might be worth exploring.
Democracy was developed in the Greek agora and this is the same term that Nowotny, Scott and Gibbons (2001) use in their “rethinking” of science. More particularly it is the site for “Mode-2 science” – contextualised science that arises from the closer interaction of science and society, and the emergence of socially distributed expertise. The agora is the public space in which ‘science meets the public’, and in which the public ‘speaks back’ to science.
The “agora” was the city centre in ancient Greece. Often translated as “marketplace” it was more than simply a site for commercial transactions. It was a meeting place; a cultural centre; a social hub; a place of gossip, news and intrigue; a place filled with hustle, bustle and noise. This is where, metaphorically speaking, science has to survive.
In the clamour and confusion of the agora where knowledge is contextualised, uncertain, contested we would certainly need formal and informal institutional machinery to bring some degree of epistemological order, much as democracy has formal and informal institutional machinery to bring some degree of political order. Indeed, when we say that democracy does or does not work most often we are passing judgement on the machinery of democracy rather than democracy itself. Rarely is the democratic principle itself questioned.
Can the same be said for the sharing of knowledge as it is for the sharing of power? Can there be a similar acceptance of the demosophic principle at the same time as there is a rigorous examination of the machinery that puts that principle into practice? But is this not a pernicious form of relativism with all its attendant dangers? Maybe not.
A fully functional demosophic society is no more likely to fragment into epistemological anarchy than a fully functional democratic society will break down into political anarchy. Each is based on a collective individualism. As we maintain legal institutions to deliver “justice”, so we need epistemological institutions to deliver the “truth”, even though justice and truth may not ultimately be obtainable. We need, therefore, to hold to our ideals of justice and truth while recognising the imperfections of our systems to deliver them. We must not confuse what ought to be with what is.
It has taken centuries of cultural, social, economic and political struggle to develop the mechanisms and institutions that enable the sharing of power in a democratic society (nor should we see that struggle as complete or current institutions as any more than work in progress). We should, perhaps, expect an equally long struggle to develop the cultural, social, economic and political machinery for the sharing of knowledge in a demosophic society.
Much of this is edited from Understanding Popular Science