Defusing the Democracy Defense: Scientists as Epistemic Representatives


Dan Hicks


April 5, 2024

I gave a talk at the Center for Dewey Studies in Carbondale on April 4. Slides are here, the recording is here, and the abstract is below.

For decades, traditional notions of objectivity and ideals of politically neutral, “value-free” science have been challenged by the history, philosophy, and social studies of science. For most scholars in these fields, science is unavoidably “shot through with values,” and value-laden decisions appear throughout the “nooks and crannies” of everyday scientific research. But some have pushed back, arguing that accepting value-ladenness would allow scientists to undemocratically impose their values on everyone else. This is the “democracy defense” of value-free science.

One line of response to the democracy defense appeals to ideas of deliberative democracy, imagining increased public participation in science-based policymaking. But deliberative democratic approaches have difficulty reaching into the “nooks and crannies” of scientific research itself, where it would be impractical for scientists to consult with the public.

In this talk, I consider whether the theory of political representation might be useful for thinking about when and how the judgment of a select few can democratically represent the general public. In other words, can we think of scientists as epistemic representatives, more or less the way politicians serve as political representatives? I suggest that recent work in political theory, on informal representation and systems of democratic representation, are promising for such an approach.