The presence-absence model and epistemic representation


Dan Hicks


January 26, 2023

In 2015-16 I was working for1 the US Environmental Protection Agency. My work colleagues were technocratic managers, most of whom had PhDs and were professionalized as scientists (even when they were on the policymaking, risk management side of things). Because the concept of “legitimacy” in questions about “the legitimate roles for values in science” comes from political legitimacy — at least, it does for me — I started to ruminate on the idea of scientists as representatives, in close analogy to elected political representatives. Manuela Fernández-Pinto and I included a few of these ideas in Fernández Pinto and Hicks (2019). But I haven’t taken the time to develop the analogy further.

Among political theorists, a key work on political representation is Hanna Pitkin’s The Concept of Representation (Pitkin 1967). While I haven’t read it myself, my understanding is that Pitkin developed an account of representation in terms of presence and absence. As Mark Warren puts it, “representatives stand in, speak, or act for the represented in their absence: they are represented in the spaces and activities where they cannot be” (Warren 2018, 39, Warren’s emphasis). This way of thinking about representation goes back at least to Hobbes, where the relationship between the people and the sovereign is literally a principal-agent contract (Brown 2009 ch. 5). In this line of political thought, the represented are absent primarily for logistical reasons: it’s impractical to have thousands (or millions) of people in one place all talking to each other and coming to agreement.

This model is simplistic, and in later posts I’ll start to explore its limits and follow the intellectual trails constructed by political theorists. But, just as this is a useful first model for political representation, I want to argue that it’s a useful first model for scientists as epistemic representatives. Namely: scientists stand in, speak, or act epistemically for the general public in their absence. Scientists are often epistemic agents on behalf of the public, who are generally absent from the space of technocratic decisionmaking.2

The public are typically absent from these spaces for the same logistical reasons that they are typically absent from spaces of political decisionmaking. But also for two other, more interesting reasons. First, the public lacks the credentials of scientists, the diplomas and work history that are taken as evidence that someone has relevant knowledge and skill. And second, the public often lack relevant knowledge and skill.

When I talk about expertise in my undergraduate Critical Reasoning course, I like to illustrate the difference between credentials and actual expertise with the examples of ACT UP and the environmental justice movement (Epstein 1996; Pauli 2019). [Say more here in the actual paper]

However, on any given topic, most people have only very limited knowledge and skill. We are radically epistemically interdependent beings, relying on others with actual expertise to develop knowledge that promotes our epistemic interests (Wilholt 2022). I suggest that this point corresponds to political theorists’ distinction between preferences and interests (Warren 2018, 41). A good political representative acts to promote the considered interests of the constituency — the things they would want if they had the time and resources to engage in thoughtful deliberation — even if those interests don’t align with what they prefer in the moment. Similarly, scientists as epistemic representatives are responsible for producing the knowledge that we would produce if we had the time and resources to do so.

Following Warren’s discussion, we run into a problem:

without more analysis, the formulation can tacitly legitimize paternalistic claims by representatives to know what is best for their constituents’ interests, often despite their preferences. At some limit, this formulation merges with Burke’s conception of elected representatives as trustees who substitute their (better) judgment for those of their relatively uninformed constituents. (Warren 2018, 42, Warren’s emphasis)

The use of “paternalism” here is notable, because feminist philosophy of science was born out of feminist critics of paternalistic, patriarchal science, especially (but not only) biomedical science. It’s therefore tempting to say that this same paternalism is a key problem for the legitimacy of the technocratic state today. Consider the backlash to lockdown approaches to Covid-19 (Harvard et al. 2021; Harvard and Winsberg 2021; Lee et al. 2021).

But let’s follow the political theorists for one more dialectical step. Warren fends off the spectre of Burke by offering “two loci of judgment [that] must be robust for democratic representation to occur:”

  • The representative must be responsive to the represented, which involves judgments about their interests as affected by a relevant collectivity.
  • The represented must judge in what ways and how well they are represented by a representative, especially insofar as their interests are affected by a relevant collectivity. (Warren 2018, 43)

In other words, democratic representation requires continuous, reciprocal exchange between representatives and their constituents. Representatives might make decisions that contradict the constituents’ preferences. But they will need to be able to justify those decisions in terms that the constituents recognize as their interests. And the constituents will need to engage in quasi-public deliberation and remonstration, and ultimately decide whether or not to accept the claimed interests as theirs (Warren 2018, 45).

On this analysis, the problem with the technocratic management state is that it lacks institutions — or even informal effective processes — for the necessary continuous reciprocal exchange.3 And, per my last blog post, this reflects the value-free ideal.

A responsive, reciprocal relationship between scientists as representatives and their constituents can also help to address the gap between credentials and actual expertise. In environmental justice contexts, one important role of credentialed expert allies is to translate the expertise of community members and activists into the idiom of the technocratic management state (Ottinger and Cohen 2011, 7–8). Activists might also be included more directly in policymaking, as with ACT-UP (Epstein 1996).

All together, while it is oversimplified, this first model of representation supports an argument for incorporating more substantive opportunities for direct interaction between publics and experts in technocratic policymaking. For decades, science policy scholars and political scientists have examined a variety of institutional forms for such interactions (Warren and Gastil 2015; Steel et al. 2020; Kaplan et al. 2021). However, it’s worth noting that some European studies have found that deliberative minipublics do not improve legitimacy (Jacobs and Kaufmann 2021; Goldberg and Bächtiger 2022).


Brown, Mark B. 2009. Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Costa, Mia, Bruce A. Desmarais, and John A. Hird. 2019. “Public Comments’ Influence on Science Use in U.S. Rulemaking: The Case of EPA’s National Emission Standards.” The American Review of Public Administration 49 (1): 36–50.
Epstein, Steven. 1996. Impure Science. AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford: University of California Press.
Fernández Pinto, Manuela, and Daniel J. Hicks. 2019. “Legitimizing Values in Regulatory Science.” Environmental Health Perspectives 127 (3): 035001.
Gillam, Carey. 2017. “Questions about EPA-Monsanto Collusion Raised in Cancer Lawsuits.” HuffPost. February 13, 2017.
Goldberg, Saskia, and André Bächtiger. 2022. “Catching the ‘Deliberative Wave’? How (Disaffected) Citizens Assess Deliberative Citizen Forums.” British Journal of Political Science, March, 1–9.
Haeder, Simon F., and Susan Webb Yackee. 2015. “Influence and the Administrative Process: Lobbying the U.S. President’s Office of Management and Budget.” American Political Science Review 109 (3): 507–22.
Haeder, Simon F, and Susan Webb Yackee. 2018. “Presidentially Directed Policy Change: The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs as Partisan or Moderator?” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 28 (4): 475–88.
Harvard, Stephanie, and Eric Winsberg. 2021. “Causal Inference, Moral Intuition, and Modeling in a Pandemic.” Philosophy of Medicine 2 (2).
Harvard, Stephanie, Eric Winsberg, John Symons, and Amin Adibi. 2021. “Value Judgments in a COVID-19 Vaccination Model: A Case Study in the Need for Public Involvement in Health-Oriented Modelling.” Social Science & Medicine 286 (October): 114323.
Jacobs, Daan, and Wesley Kaufmann. 2021. “The Right Kind of Participation? The Effect of a Deliberative Mini-Public on the Perceived Legitimacy of Public Decision-Making.” Public Management Review 23 (1): 91–111.
Kaplan, Leah R., Mahmud Farooque, Daniel Sarewitz, and David Tomblin. 2021. “Designing Participatory Technology Assessments: A Reflexive Method for Advancing the Public Role in Science Policy Decision-Making.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 171 (October): 120974.
Lee, Crystal, Tanya Yang, Gabrielle Inchoco, Graham M. Jones, and Arvind Satyanarayan. 2021. “Viral Visualizations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use Orthodox Data Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online.” Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, May, 1–18.
Ottinger, Gwen, and Benjamin R. Cohen, eds. 2011. Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement. Urban and Industrial Environments. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Pauli, Benjamin J. 2019. Flint Fights Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis. MIT Press.
Pitkin, Hanna F. 1967. The Concept of Representation. University of California Press.
Richardson, Henry. 1999. “Administrative Policy-Making: Rule of Law or Bureaucracy?” In Recrafting the Rule of Law: The Limits of Legal Order, edited by David Dyzenhaus, 309–30. Oxford and Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishing.
Steel, Daniel, Naseeb Bolduc, Kristina Jenei, and Michael Burgess. 2020. “Rethinking Representation and Diversity in Deliberative Minipublics.” Journal of Deliberative Democracy 16 (1): 46–57.
Warren, Mark E. 2018. “How Representation Enables Democratic Citizenship.” In Creating Political Presence: The New Politics of Democratic Representation, edited by Dario Castiglione and Johannes Pollak, 39–60. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Warren, Mark E., and John Gastil. 2015. “Can Deliberative Minipublics Address the Cognitive Challenges of Democratic Citizenship?” The Journal of Politics 77 (2): 562–74.
Wilholt, Torsten. 2022. “Epistemic Interests and the Objectivity of Inquiry.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 91 (February): 86–93.


  1. Technically, I was working for AAAS, as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow, and “hosted by” EPA.↩︎

  2. Note that I intend to use “epistemic agent” in exactly the same way as feminist social epistemologists.↩︎

  3. This is incorrect as stated. Agencies like EPA have at least two such processes. However, one is formal and ineffective, while the other is effective but fails criteria of democratic inclusion and justice. First, the formal notice-and-comment system solicits feedback from the general public on proposed regulation. But agency staff merely have to provide pro forma responses to these comments, giving the public very little effective political agency in this process (Richardson 1999; Simon F. Haeder and Yackee 2015; Simon F. Haeder and Yackee 2018; Costa, Desmarais, and Hird 2019). Second, regulatory agency staff often have informal interactions with various “stakeholders,” providing opportunities for much more effective reciprocal exchange. But typically the only stakeholders included in these interactions are regulated industries (eg, Gillam 2017). Environmental justice communities, for example, are unlikely to be included in these interactions, making these interactions both exclusionary and injust.↩︎