As a scholar concerned about the value of democracy within contemporary societies, especially with respect to the challenges presented by increasingly complex (and hence risky) technoscience, a good check for my views is to read arguments by critics of democracy. I had hoped Jason Brennan's Against Democracy would force me to reconsider some of the assumptions that I had made about democracy's value and perhaps even modify my position. Hoped.
Having read through a few chapters, I am already disappointed and unsure if the rest of the book is worth the my time. Brennan's main assertion is that because some evidence shows that participation in democratic politics has a corrupting influence--that is, participants are not necessarily well informed and often end becoming more polarized and biased in the process--we would be better off limiting decision making power to those who have proven themselves sufficiently competent and rational, to epistocracy. Never mind the absurdity of the idea that a process for judging those qualities in potential voters could ever be made in an apolitical, unbiased, or just way, Brennan does not even begin with a charitable or nuanced understanding of what democracy is or could be.
One early example that exposes the simplicity of Brennan's understanding of democracy--and perhaps even the circularity of his argument--is a thought experiment about child molestation. Brennan asks the reader to consider a society that has deeply deliberated the merits of adults raping children and subjected the decision to a majority vote, with the yeas winning. Brennan claims that because the decision was made in line with proper democratic procedures, advocates of a proceduralist view of democracy must see it as a just outcome. Due to the clear absurdity and injustice of this result, we must therefore reject the view that democratic procedures (e.g., voting, deliberation) themselves are inherently just.
What makes this thought experiment so specious is that Brennan assumes that one relatively simplistic version of a proceduralist, deliberative democracy can represent the whole. Ever worse, his assumed model of deliberative democracy--ostensibly not too far from what already exists in most contemporary nations--is already questionably democratic. Not only is majoritarian decision-making and procedural democracy far from equivalent, but Brennan makes no mention of whether or not children themselves were participants in either the deliberative process or the vote, or even would have a representative say through some other mechanism. Hence, in this example Brennan actually ends up showing the deficits of a kind of epistocracy rather than democracy, insofar as the ostensibly more competent and rationally thinking adults are deliberating and voting for children. That is, political decisions about children already get made by epistocrats (i.e., adults) rather than democratically (understood as people having influence in deciding the rules by which they will be governed for the issues they have a stake in). Moreover, any defender of the value of democratic procedures would likely counter that a well functioning democracy would contain processes to amplify or protect the say of less empowered minority groups, whether through proportional representation or mechanisms to slow down policy or to force majority alliances to make concessions or compromises. It is entirely unsurprising that democratic procedures look bad when one's stand-in for democracy is winner-take-all, simple majoritarian decision-making.
His attack on democratic deliberations is equally short-sighted. Criticizing, quite rightly, that many scholars defend deliberative democracy with purely theoretical arguments, while much of the empirical evidence shows that many average people dislike deliberation and are often very bad at it, Brennan concludes that, absent promising research on how to improve the situation, there is no logical reason to defend deliberative democracy. This is where Brennan's narrow disciplinary background as a political theorist biases his viewpoint. It is not at all surprising to a social scientist that average people would fail to deliberate well nor like it when the near entirety of contemporary societies fails to prepare them for democracy. Most adults have spent 18 years or more in schools and up to several decades in workplaces that do not function as democracies but rather are authoritarian, centrally planned institutions. Empirical research on deliberation has merely uncovered the obvious: People with little practice with deliberative interactions are bad at them. Imagine if an experiment put assembly line workers in charge of managing General Motors, then justified the current hierarchical makeup of corporate firms by pointing to the resulting non-ideal outcomes. I see no reason why Brennan's reasoning about deliberative democracy is any less absurd.
Finally, Brennan's argument rests on a principle of competence--and concurrently the claim that citizens have a right to governments that meet that principle. He borrows the principle from medical ethics, namely that a patient is competent if they are aware of the relevant facts, can understand them, appreciate their relevance, and can reason about them appropriately. Brennan immediately avoids the obvious objections about how any of the judgements about relevance and appropriateness could be made in non-political ways to merely claim that the principle is non-objectionable in the abstract. Certainly for the simplified thought examples that he provides of plumber's unclogging pipes and doctors treating patients with routine conditions the validity of the principle of competence is clear. However, for the most contentious issues we face: climate change, gun control, genetically modified organisms, etc., the facts themselves and the reliability of experts are themselves in dispute. What political system would best resolve such a dispute? Obviously it could not be a epistocracy, given that the relevance and appropriateness of the "relevant" expertise itself is the issue to be decided. Perhaps Brennan's suggestions have some merit, but absent a non-superficial understanding of the relationship between science and politics the foundation of his positive case for epistocracy is shaky at best. His oft repeated assertion that epistocracy would likely produce more desirable decisions is highly speculative.
I plan on continuing to examine Brennan's arguments regarding democracy, but I find it ironic that his argument against average citizens--that they suffer too much from various cognitive maladies to reason well about public issues--applies equally to Brennan. Indeed, the hubris of most experts is deeply rooted in their unfounded belief that a little learning has freed them from the mental limitations that infect the less educated. In reality, Brennan is a partisan like anyone else, not a sagely academic doling out objective advice. Whether one turns to epistocratic ideas in light of the limitations of contemporary democracies or advocate for ensuring the right preconditions for democracies to function better comes back to one's values and political commitments. So far it seems that Brennan's book demonstrates his own political biases as much as it exposes the ostensibly insurmountable problems for democracy.
Few issues stoke as much controversy, or provoke as shallow of analysis, as net neutrality. Richard Bennett’s recent piece in the MIT Technology Review is no exception. His views represent a swelling ideological tide among certain technologists that threatens not only any possibility for democratically controlling technological change but any prospect for intelligently and preemptively managing technological risks. The only thing he gets right is that “the web is not neutral” and never has been. Yet current “net neutrality” advocates avoid seriously engaging with that proposition. What explains the self-stultifying allegiance to the notion that the Internet could ever be neutral?
Bennett claims that net neutrality has no clear definition (it does), that anything good about the current Internet has nothing to do with a regulatory history of commitment to net neutrality (something he can’t prove), and that the whole debate only exists because “law professors, public interest advocates, journalists, bloggers, and the general public [know too little] about how the Internet works.”
To anyone familiar with the history of technological mistakes, the underlying presumption that we’d be better off if we just let the technical experts make the “right” decision for us—as if their technical expertise allowed them to see the world without any political bias—should be a familiar, albeit frustrating, refrain. In it one hears the echoes of early nuclear energy advocates, whose hubris led them to predict that humanity wouldn’t suffer a meltdown in hundreds of years, whose ideological commitment to an atomic vision of progress led them to pursue harebrained ideas like nuclear jets and using nuclear weapons to dig canals. One hears the echoes of those who managed America’s nuclear arsenal and tried to shake off public oversight, bringing us to the brink of nuclear oblivion on more than one occasion.
Only armed with such a poor knowledge of technological history could someone make the argument that “the genuine problems the Internet faces today…cannot be resolved by open Internet regulation. Internet engineers need the freedom to tinker.” Bennett’s argument is really just an ideological opposition to regulation per se, a view based on the premise that innovation better benefits humanity if it is done without the “permission” of those potentially negatively affected. Even though Bennett presents himself as simply a technologist whose knowledge of the cold, hard facts of the Internet leads him to his conclusions, he is really just parroting the latest discursive instantiation of technological libertarianism.
As I’ve recently argued, the idea of “permissionless innovation” is built on a (intentional?) misunderstanding of the research on how to intelligently manage technological risks as well as the problematic assumption that innovations, no matter how disruptive, have always worked out for the best for everyone. Unsurprisingly the people most often championing the view are usually affluent white guys who love their gadgets. It is easy to have such a rosy view of the history of technological change when one is, and has consistently been, on the winning side. It is a view that is only sustainable as long as one never bothers to inquire into whether technological change has been an unmitigated wonder for the poor white and Hispanic farmhands who now die at relatively younger ages of otherwise rare cancers, the Africans who have mined and continue to mine Uranium or coltan in despicable conditions, or the permanent underclass created by continuous technological upheavals in the workplace not paired with adequate social programs.
In any case, I agree with Bennett’s argument in a later comment to the article: “the web is not neutral, has never been neutral, and wouldn't be any good if it were neutral.” Although advocates for net neutrality are obviously demanding a very specific kind of neutrality: that ISPs do not treat packets differently based on where they originate or where they’re going, the idea of net neutrality has taken on a much broader symbolic meaning, one that I think constrains people’s thinking about Internet freedoms rather than enhances it.
The idea of neutrality carries so much rhetorical weight in Western societies because their cultures are steeped in a tradition of philosophical liberalism. Liberalism is a philosophical tradition based in the belief that the freedom of individuals to choose is the greatest good. Even American political conservatives really just embrace a particular flavor of philosophical liberalism, one that privileges the freedoms enjoyed by supposedly individualized actors unencumbered by social conventions or government interference to make market decisions. Politics in nations like the US proceeds with the assumption that society, or at least parts of it, can be composed in such a way to allow individuals to decide wholly for themselves. Hence, it is unsurprising that changes in Internet regulations provoke so much ire: The Internet appears to offer that neutral space, both in terms of the forms of individual self-expression valued by left-liberals and the purportedly disruptive market environment that gives Steve Jobs wannabes wet dreams.
Neutrality is, however, impossible. As I argue in my recent book, even an idealized liberal society would have to put constraints on choice: People would have to be prevented from making their relationship or communal commitments too strong. As loathe as some leftists would be to hear it, a society that maximizes citizens’ abilities for individual self-expression would have to be even more extreme than even Margaret Thatcher imagined it: composed of atomized individuals. Even the maintenance of family structures would have to be limited in an idealized liberal world.
On a practical level it is easy to see the cultivation of a liberal personhood in children as imposed rather than freely chosen, with one Toronto family going so far as to not assign their child a gender. On plus side for freedom, the child now has a new choice they didn’t have before. On the negative side, they didn’t get to choose whether or not they’d be forced to make that choice. All freedoms come with obligations, and often some people get to enjoy the freedoms while others must shoulder the obligations.
So it is with the Internet as well. Currently ISPs are obliged to treat packets equally so that content providers like Google and Netflix can enjoy enormous freedoms in connecting with customers. That is clearly not a neutral arrangement, even though it is one that many people (including Google) prefer.
However, the more important non-neutrality of the Internet, one that I think should take center stage in debates, is that it is dominated by corporate interests. Content providers are no more accountable to the public than large Internet service providers. At least since it was privatized in the mid-90s, the Internet has been biased toward fulfilling the needs of business. Other aspirations like improving democracy or cultivating communities, if the Internet has even really delivered all that much in those regards, have been incidental. Facebook wants you to connect with childhood friends so it can show you an ad for a 90s nostalgia t-shirt design. Google wants to make sure neo-nazis can find the Stormfront website so they can advertise the right survival gear to them.
I don’t want a neutral net. I want one biased toward supporting well-functioning democracies and vibrant local communities. It might be possible for an Internet to do so while providing the wide latitude for innovative tinkering that Bennett wants, but I doubt it. Indeed, ditching the pretense of neutrality would enable the broader recognition of the partisan divisions about what the Internet should do, the acknowledgement that the Internet is and will always be a political technology. Whose interests do you want it to serve?
Andrew Potter’s recent Maclean’s article claiming that Quebec is suffering from a pathological degree of social malaise has certainly raised eyebrows. Indeed, he has recently resigned from one of his posts at McGill University in response to public outcry—and no doubt the Quebec University’s administrations view of the matter. I won’t delve into the question regarding perceived damage to academic freedom that this resignation may or may not represent; rather, I take issue with the way in which Potter charts Quebec’s purported social decline—seeing it as reflective of a widespread failure to grasp the diverse character of social community.
On the one hand, some of the statistics Potter cites to support his case are alarming, especially those regarding the relatively small size of social networks and volunteering rates in Quebec. On the other hand, Quebec is noteworthy in terms of having one of the highest rates of happiness/social well-being in Canada. At a minimum, this apparent discrepancy is something that needs explained. One would, of course, scarcely imagine that a province suffering from widespread social malaise would be simultaneously happy.
Potter, moreover, draws heavily on Robert Putnam’s concept of social capital, which posits that certain social and political activities help build the civic foundation for well-functioning democratic societies. Being familiar with Putnam's work—it has inspired my own research into the character of contemporary community life--I think that Andrew Potter has taken some liberties with it. Sure volunteering may be low, but Quebecers are known for being politically active, which is another contributor to and reflection of social capital. At the same time, Potter seems to conflate social capital with level of conformance to a non-Quebecer's idea of law and order. He argues that the colorful pants worn by police as a sign of corrosion of “social cohesion and trust in institutions.” While I am not an expert on Quebecois culture, it is hard not to see this as reflecting an English-Canadians cultural bias. Indeed, the impulse to denigrate protest and collective bargaining disproportionately afflicts Anglophones. For those less afflicted, the camo pants might evoke a feeling of solidarity. Left-wing Americans, for the sake of comparison, rarely decry the blocking of streets and highways during protests as the demise of social cohesion.
That is not the only place where Potter could have been more sensitive to how cultural differences make social issues much more complex than one might initially think. He cites, for instance, the fact that far fewer Quebecers express the belief that “most people can be trusted.” As a social scientist Potter should be able to readily acknowledge that cultural differences can have a big impact on survey data. It is often claimed—on the basis of survey research--that Asian countries are much less happy than those in the West. However, once one recognizes the fact that readily labeling oneself as happy conflicts with Asian expectations for modesty, such interpretations of the survey data soon seem dubious. Given that Quebec’s rates of happiness and high marks in other dimensions of social capital, one wonders if individually low levels of trust simply reflects a cultural hesitancy to seem too trusting or gullible.
Some of the confusion in Potter’s piece may be the result of not explicitly acknowledging different scales of analysis. Quebec is unique compared to other provinces in terms of its social policy (i.e., L'economie sociale): heavily subsidized daycare, generous support of cooperatives, high labor participation, etc. In many ways its citizens are more communitarian than people elsewhere, but more at the level of the province than locality or nation, more via official politics than through non-governmental volunteering. Maybe they don't quite have the ideal mixture by some accounts, but it seems hyperbolic to argue that the whole society is in a state of alienated malaise.
In any case, both the controversy over Potter’s article and its analytical limitations are suggestive of the need for far better understandings of what community is. The term often evokes a fuzzy, warm feeling in some people, and worries about suppression of individuality in others. At the same time, few people seem aware of what exactly what they mean by the word: using it to describe racial groups (e.g., the black community), and online forum, and physical places—even though none of these things seem to be communal in even slightly the same way. Community is a multi-scalar, multi-dimensional, and highly diversified phenomenon. The sooner people recognize that, the sooner we can start to have more productive public conversation about what might be missing in contemporary forms of togetherness and how we might collectively realize more fulfilling alternatives.
The belief that science and religion (and science and politics for that matter) are exact opposites is one of the most tenacious and misguided viewpoints held by Americans today, one that is unfortunately reinforced by many science journalists. Science is not at all faith-based, claims Forbes contributor Ethan Siegel in his rebuke of Matt Emerson’s suggestion otherwise. In arguing against the role of faith in science, however, Siegel ironically embraces a faith-based view of science. His perspective is faith-based not because it has ties to organized religion, obviously, but rather because it is rooted in an idealization of science disconnected from the actual evidence on scientific practice. Siegel mythologizes scientists, seeing them as impersonal and unbiased arbiters of truth. Similar to any other thought-impairing fundamentalism, the faith-based view of science, if too widespread, is antithetical to the practice of democracy.
Individual scientists, being human, fall prey to innumerable biases, conflicts of interest, motivated reasoning and other forms of impaired inquiry. It sanctifies them to expect otherwise. Drug research, for instance, is a tangled thicket of financial conflicts of interest, wherein some scientists go to bat for pharmaceutical companies in order to prevent generics from coming to market and put their names on articles ghost-written by corporations. Some have wondered if scientific medical studies can be trusted, given that many, if not most, are so poorly designed.
Siegel, of course, would likely respond that the above cases are simply pathological cases science, which will hopefully be eventually excised from the institution of science as if they were a malignant growths. He consistently tempers his assertions with an appeal to what a “good scientist” would do: “There [is no] such a thing as a good scientist who won’t revise their beliefs in the face of new evidence” claims Siegel. Rather go the easy route and simply charge him with committing a No True Scotsman fallacy, given that many otherwise good scientists often appear to hold onto their beliefs despite new evidence, it is better to question whether his understanding of “good” science stands up to close scrutiny.
The image of scientists as disinterested and impersonal arbiters of truth, immediately at the ready to adjust their beliefs in response to new evidence, is not only at odds with the last fifty years of the philosophy and social study of science, it also conflicts with what scientists themselves will say about “good science.” In Ian Mitroff’s classic study of Apollo program scientists investigating the moon and its origins, one interviewed scientist derided what Siegel presents as good science as a “fairy tale,” noting that most of his colleagues did not impersonally sift through evidence but looked explicitly for what would support their views. Far from seeing it as pathological, however, one interviewee stated “bias has a role in science and serves it well.” Mitroff’s scientists argued that ideally disinterested scientists would fail to have the commitment to see their theories through difficult periods. Individual scientists need to have faith that they will persevere in the face of seemingly contrary evidence in order to do the work necessary to defend their theories. Without this bias-laden commitment, good theories would be thrown away prematurely.
Further grasping why scientists, in contrast to their cheerleaders in popular media, would defend bias as often good for science requires recognizing that the faith-based understanding of science is founded upon a mistaken view of objectivity. Far too many people see objectivity as inhering within scientists when it really exists between scientists. As political scientist Aaron Wildavsky noted, “What is wanted is not scientific neuters but scientists with differing points of view and similar scientific standards…science depends on institutions that maintain competition among scientists and scientific groups who are numerous, dispersed and independent.” Science does not progress because individual scientists are more angelic human beings who can somehow enter a laboratory and no longer see the world with biased eyes. Rather, science progresses to the extent that scientists with diverse and opposing biases meet in disagreement. Observations and theories become facts not because they appear obviously true to unbiased scientists but because they have been met with scrutiny from scientists with differing biases and the arguments for them found to be widely persuasive.
Different areas of science have varied in terms of how well they support vibrant and progressive levels of disagreement. Indeed, part of the reason why so many studies are later found to be false is the fact that scientists are not incentivized to repeat studies done by their colleagues; such studies are generally not publishable. Moreover, entire fields have suffered from cultural biases at one time or another. The image of the human egg as a passive “damsel in distress” waiting for a sperm to penetrate her persisted in spite of contrary evidence partly because of a traditional male bias within the biological sciences. Similar biases were discovered in primatology and elsewhere as scientific institutions became more diverse. Without enterprising scientists asking seemingly heretical questions of what appears to be “sound science” on the basis of sometimes meager evidence, entrenched cultural biases masquerading as scientific facts might persist indefinitely.
The recognition that scientists often exhibit flawed and motivated reasoning, bias, personal commitments and the exercise of faith nearly as much as anyone else is important not merely because it is a more scientific understanding of science, but also because it is politically consequential. If citizens see scientists as impersonal arbiters of truth, they are likely to eschew subjecting science to public scrutiny. Political interference in science might seem undesirable, of course, when it involves creationists getting their religious views placed alongside evolution in high school science books. Nevertheless, as science and technology studies scholars Edward Woodhouse and Jeff Howard have pointed out, the belief that science is value-neutral and therefore best left up to scientists has enabled chemists (along with their corporate sponsors) to churn out more and more toxic chemicals and consumer products. Americans’ homes and environments are increasingly toxic because citizens leave the decision over the chemistry behind consumer products up to industrial chemists (and their managers). Less toxic consumer products are unlikely to ever exist in significant numbers so long as chemical scientists are considered beyond reproach.
Science is far too important to be left up to an autonomous scientific clergy. Dispensing with the faith-based understanding proffered by Siegel is the first step toward a more publically accountable and more broadly beneficial scientific enterprise.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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