Should the Public Have a Say in Science? A Philosophy Of Science View

Traditionally, philosophy of science has not shown much interest in the social side of science. What Is This Thing Called Science?, a popular philosophy of science textbook also used at the University of Tartu, is an example. It discusses the relationship between evidence and theory, the development of scientific knowledge, and the relation of theories to reality; it does not discuss social aspects of science much and the place of science in society at all.

This situation, however, has been changing. Philip Kitcher is one of the most important philosophers in the turn towards analysing social dimensions of science.

Jaana Eigi, the author of the article, suggests that the public representatives may sometimes have local knowledge and experience that will enrich or even correct experts’ knowledge. Photo from a personal archive.

Kitcher’s first arguments focused on the division of labour in the scientific community. If researchers were only interested in having a problem solved, they would all choose the same most promising approach. However, such unanimity is not the most beneficial for community — a more secure way would be to divide efforts between different approaches. Kitcher argued that such a division of effort is in fact common because researchers are also interested in priority. If an alternative approach is less popular, a researcher may choose it because the chances of being the first to succeed are higher there. Kitcher thus showed that it is important to pay attention to what happens on the community level in science.

Initially, Kitcher treated scientific problems to be solved as given. Later, he started to argue that this is not so. Kitcher pointed out that science aims to discover significant truths and the notion of significance reflects human interests and values — behind what is considered scientifically significant is a history of what humans have valued, needed, and found curious.

In order to make decisions about significance in a fairer and more systematic manner, Kitcher envisaged a conversation between public representatives. Before making research planning decisions, they would be thoroughly informed about the state of science, think seriously about their needs, and learn about the needs of others. In Kitcher’s “well-ordered science” the ethical dimension is important — in his latest book Kitcher proposes to think about science in terms of the ethical project whose aim is to provide all humans with equal chances to live a worthwhile life. The advancement of knowledge, however, is also important—science policy decisions should be well informed about achievements and the promises of science.

In my doctoral thesis I suggest that Kitcher touches some important issues in science-society relations but I also develop several criticisms. One of the most important among them concerns the relation between researchers and public representatives. In well-ordered science, the role of representatives consists of identifying needs to be satisfied by science — it is researchers who possess and develop relevant knowledge. I bring into discussion analyses that explore what is called “lay” or “local” knowledge — knowledge of the local environment or experience that lay persons may sometimes have and that may enrich or even correct experts’ knowledge.

Jason Corburn’s case study provides an example of the successful use of such local knowledge. In the 1990s, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ran a community-based Cumulative Exposure Project in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area, which is among the most polluted areas in New York. The aim of the project was to study multiple hazards and exposure pathways — including food — and to do so in cooperation with the local community organisations.

India St., near East River pier. Photo credit: Dan Nguyen / Flickr Creative Commons, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

During one of the meetings, the representatives of the EPA explained that in the absence of local data they were going to assume the “average urban diet” in their analysis. The community members argued that this approach did not capture different diets in the area.  Among other considerations, they pointed out that a significant number of people in community subsisted on fish caught in the East River. After initial scepticism from the EPA, this question was included in the project. In order to deal with the language barrier and trust issues, it was local volunteers who interviewed anglers (the EPA helped to develop the protocol and train the volunteers). The EPA then used the interview data to calculate subsistence anglers’ cancer risks, which turned out to be significant — and which could not have been discovered if the community had not challenged experts’ assumptions. The readiness of the EPA to listen and the existence of local environmental organisations that could speak for the community were also important.

With the help of similar cases, I argue in my thesis that an approach to science that aims to make it better at addressing human needs, such as Kitcher’s, should take the possibility of relevant local knowledge seriously and find ways to use it.

Thus, drawing on philosophical arguments about science such as Kitcher’s and on analyses of local knowledge it is possible to argue that the public should indeed be involved in science. However, it is important to stress that these arguments do not mean that the public should vote over scientific facts, that everyone has their own facts, or that “anything goes” when it comes to expertise. Getting things right about the world is important and science has a crucial role to play in that. What I have argued is that in specific local cases involving the public in research planning and research may help.

Jaana Eigi is a research fellow in philosophy of science at the UT Department of Philosophy/Centre for Ethics.

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