Pluralism about problematic situations


Dan Hicks


April 7, 2023


Matt Brown has some commentary here.

I’ve been invited to give a keynote on Matt Brown’s work at the UT Dallas conference in May. Brown (2013) fits with my current project (as seen in the recent blog posts), so this post is maybe the first of a sub-series of posts on his paper. All headless citations are to Brown (2013).

Brown first argues that there is a tension between the autonomy (lack of accountability) of science and its social and political authority in a democratic society. He quotes Douglas:

[A]n autonomous and authoritative science is intolerable …. A fully autonomous and authoritative science is too powerful, with no attendant responsibility (Douglas 2009, 7–8, as quoted by Brown, 481)

Scholars and activists who have been sensitive to this tension — he names Feyerabend and STS scholars; we could include many feminists, anti-racists, and Marxists — “have tended to challenge the … authority of science …. weakening or denying the existence of expertise in politics” (481). This is objectionable because it amounts to “giv[ing] up tools in policy-making that we cannot do without, … given the remarkable success of science” (481-2).

Here, and elsewhere in the paper, Brown links the epistemic credibility or reliability of science to its political authority. Science should have authority in policymaking because it is an especially (the most?) reliable way of producing knowledge. But the kind or degree of political authority that Brown has in mind is vague. It’s one thing to say that scientific findings or methods can be useful in many policymaking situations, and so typically there should be a deliberate effort to solicit advice from scientists; it’s another to say that science should have some kind of priority or greater standing over other considerations.

I argue that Brown’s own account of inquiry should lead us towards the former formulation, of science as frequently useful rather than science taking priority. On Brown’s account, inquiry (scientific or otherwise) is a systematic response to a problematic situation, a situation in which we (we’ll come back to this “we”) realize that our established habits fail to realize their aims. Inquiry is considered successful insofar as it establishes a better fit between habits and aims; this might involve developing completely new habits, tweaking old habits, and/or reconstituting the aims.

A number of different kinds of controversies can emerge from this simple framework. In aim controversies, parties disagree over the aims that our habits are supposed to be realizing. Diagnostic controversies concern the explanation for why the habits are failing to realize their aims. We can even have problem controversies, in which parties disagree over whether we are in a problematic situation at all. Brown gives the example of US policy debates surrounding health care reform in 2009-2010 (483-4), which featured each of these kinds of controversies.

When parties disagree with each other in these kinds of ways, they will disagree with each other about whether a line of inquiry should be considered relevant to a policy problem, and thus whether it should be counted as successful with respect to the problematic situation at hand. For example, consider an economic analysis that finds that a combination of employer and individual health insurance mandates and a means-tested subsidy for private insurance will tend to increase health insurance coverage. This line of inquiry might be considered successful by someone whose diagnosis of the problem with the US health care system is that private insurance is too expensive, but not by people who think the problem is a profit-driven healthcare industry or creeping government overreach. For the latter two groups of people, even if the economic analysis is highly reliable it is not relevant to developing a solution to the problem (Cartwright and Hardie 2012; Hicks 2015).

In other words, the “we” who find ourselves in a problematic situation can often be diverse in ways that lead “us” to different ways of understanding the nature of the problem. Giving “science” priority or greater standing over other considerations amounts to giving one group or perspective priority over the others (Feyerabend 1975; Longino 1987; Lacey 2014; Hicks 2017).

This analysis might seem to threaten to degenerate into anything-goes relativism, with partisans cherry-picking the science that fits their preferred account of the problem (Sarewitz 2004). But I think we can avoid relativism by viewing a policy controversy as itself a problematic situation prompting inquiry. In other words, we can use scientific inquiry as a way to understand and thereby navigate political conflict, not as a cudgel that one side gets to use against the others.

Consider climate change. Climate scientists have raised concerns in public about the impacts of carbon dioxide emissions for over 35 years, but policy responses have been faltering at best and public attitudes seem deeply divided. Why is this, and what could be done to get a better match between the apparent problem and a policy solution? Scholars in several fields of the social sciences and humanities have tackled this question for at least 20 years, working to understand the roles of fossil fuel companies (Oreskes and Conway 2011; Supran and Oreskes 2017); uncertainties in climate science, both real and manufactured (Lloyd 2015); public perceptions of and attitudes towards climate change (Lewandowsky, Cook, and Lloyd 2016; Leiserowitz et al. 2021); and how well political representatives understand the views and preferences of their constituents (Bolsen, Druckman, and Cook 2015; Hertel-Fernandez, Mildenberger, and Stokes 2019). Taken together, this body of work supports a model on which there is strong public support for climate policy, even among Republican/conservative voters, but that the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda efforts have succeeded in creating the misleading appearance of scientific and public controversy, what Sparkman, Geiger, and Weber (2022) call a “false social reality: a near universal perception of public opinion that is the opposite of true public sentiment.”

Much like using physical climate models to model future flood risks (Parker and Lusk 2019; Lusk 2020), this body of social scientific-humanistic climate research is useful without claiming priority over other concerns. By understanding key actors and constituencies in the climate controversy, policymakers can design policies that are more likely to gather the support of broad coalitions. For example, a distinct feature of Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s 2019 Green New Deal resolution was its call for a “just transition,” enabling fossil fuel workers to gradually move into other industries or take early retirement. These ideas played a significant role in the 2021 American Jobs Plan (Sicotte 2021), and thereby influenced the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.


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