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II.10  Science and Democracy: a Social Perspective


Chair: Theodore Lowi Department of Government, Cornell University, USA
Rapporteur: Rainer Eisfeld Department of Social Science, University of Osnabrück, Germany

Session co-ordinator: Leszek Kosinski Secretary-General, International Social Sciences Council, France
Local secretary:


Science in totalitarian and post-totalitarian regimes
Rainer Eisfeld
Department of Social Science, University of Osnabrück, Germany


The idea of the university in a democratic society

Piotr Sztompka
Jagiellonian University, Poland

The university is a social institution in the context of which the relationship between science and democracy can fruitfully be examined. It exemplifies well the ambivalence of the relationship, incorporating both a number of democratic principles but also some counter-democratic premises. Science is facilitated by the democratic political context, because democracy safeguards two core demands of science: academic autonomy and intellectual freedom. It is only in a democratic society that scientific community may be self-governing and self-policing, and the open expression of all contesting views coupled with uncompromising debate and critique can be fully assured. The "republic of scholars" and the "community of teachers and pupils" can flourish only within the democratic polity. But at the same time it cannot be lost from view that the university is a very particular republic and a very unusual community. Democracy may endanger science when it questions and undermines the very uniqueness of scientific enterprise: the intrinsic elitism of science as a field accessible only to the talented few, the necessary hierarchy of academic status based on meritocratic achievement, and the recognition of expertise and competence in making claims to knowledge. The abuse and misapplication of democratic, and especially liberal democratic ideas with respect to science may accordingly take three forms: the lowering of criteria of recruitment in the name of universal access, flattening of academic hierarchy in the name of egalitarianism, and uniformization of paradigms in the name of appeasing the majority. All three endanger the scientific goals of science, and destroy the special status of the university among other social institutions.

A socio-political rejoinder, from a contemporary perspective

Alberto Martinelli
Facoltà di Scienze Politiche, Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy

  1. The rules and procedures of contemporary democratic politics- defined in terms of universal suffrage, free competition for democratic representation, division of powers, rule of law, effective exercise of civil and political rights, responsiveness and accountability of power holders- provide a context favorable to the free production, dissemination, and use of scientific knowledge. The returns of scientific research for sustainable development, improvement of the quality of life, and meaningful relations among individuals and groups, are greater in the presence of democratic institutions;

  2. The fundamental values of democratic culture are to a great extent coherent with the basic principles of science (freedom of speech, equal rights, equal opportunities, etc.). There are also differences, however, in the sense that scientific communities are by definition world communities transcending rational boundaries, whether democratic policies still tend to coincide with nation states, and democratic values are applied to a very different degree in various countries. Differences exist also in the sense that scientific communities recognise and value hierarchies of prestige and achievements and tend to be elitist, whereas democracies are in principle anti-hierarchical. And scientists and political democratic leaders tend to develop different personalities and codes of behaviour.

  3. Given the complexity of scientific knowledge and its rapid pace of change, science implies a growing asymmetry of knowledge between the experts and the general public, and between scientists and policy makers. This asymmetry creates a variety of problems both in the relations between professional experts and their clients, and in setting policy making priorities with regard to major areas, such as health, environment, energy, economic growth, social development.

  4. The main cultural and institutional conditions which organise the relations between experts and the general public in democratic societies, such as role socialisation in the professional universities, continuing education to assess the social and political implications of scientific findings, generalisation practices of "informed consensus", etc.

  5. Science and public policy. The main cultural and institutional conditions which contribute to foster democratic debate while maintaining the autonomy of scientific inquiry. The social responsibility of the scientist and the public accountability of scientific research. The social consequences of scientific discoveries. The need to practice and apply science in line with appropriate ethical requirements.

  6. The role of international scientific associations in a tendentially global society. International scientific communities can contribute to combine the quest for university with the safeguard of cultural specificites.

International co-operation on climate change

James Dooge
Centre for Water Resource Research, University College Dublin, Ireland

The complex structure of science with its many varied disciplines and the complex nature of democracy operating at different levels of decision-making both combine to produce an interactive relationship that is difficult to comprehend. The developments over the past two decades in relation to the global climate problem provide an example of the evolution of structures that enable scientists and decision-makers to combine their expertise and their efforts in order to tackle a global problem of concern to society. The progress from the multidisciplinary First World Climate conference of 1979 and the Villach Conference of 1985 together with the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change of 1988 to the inclusive Second World Climate Conference of 1990 with its scientific and ministerial sessions prepared the way for the launching of the climate framework Convention in 1992 and the Kyato Protocol of 1997 as a basis for action.

Africa and the Third World

L. Adele Jinadu
Lagos State University, Nigeria

The interface between democracy and social sciences in Africa, as indeed in the Third World generally, has always been a complex and problematic one which, to be properly understood, must be situated within the gobalising/universalsing thrust of democracy and the social sciences as westerning projects.

 Viewd from this perspective, democracy continues to pose a problem of relevance to the social sciences as policy sciences in Africa, challenging them to reconceptualise and redesign democracy as a cultural or nationalist project of "autochthonous" institution-building and development in Africa and the Third World.

 But if the social sciences have sought to provide the intellectual and theoretical roadmaps for democracy as a policy-oriented design project, they have themselves been subject to the push and pull of the social forces unleashed by the democratising process, seeking in the process not only to estalish and defend their autonomy but also to act as the conscience of society.

 THe nature of this complex relationship between democracy and the social sciences will be explored through the analysis of the role of the social sciences in the current democratic transitions in Africa.

Reason, discernment and democracy

Lourdes Arizpe
Centro Regional de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias, UNAM, Mexico

Science provides the forms of reasoning that make democracy work. Such reasoning allows individuals to assess data, weigh options and take decisions as to the best option offered in political choice. If this fundamental form of reasoning is absent, choices may be made purely on the basis of media images or personality traits rather than the quality, integrity and coherence of political programs. This banalization of public issues, in my view, is one of the major threats to democracy in terms of achieving a peaceful global civil society. Thus, a basic education with a solid science training, and a scientific perspective in public life seems to me a conditio sine qua non of democracy.

The second danger for democracy is the misrepresentation of the "other" in societies or between societies, which may lead to violence and conflicts. Such discord may arise out of lack of knowledge or tolerance of other ways of life or may be fostered by unscrupulous manipulation of ethnic or national differences. This is where the major challenge for the social sciences lies. To counter such distortions, the social sciences must be able to provide the practical, embodied knowledge that is needed to promote effective and realistic choices. Only with a constant flow of updated, reliable data and competing interpretations will people have the instruments to act with fairness, justice and recognition as practices of democracy. This is why repressive regimes have always attempted to control the social sciences. Thus, the social sciences are also a conditio sine qua non of democracy. Furthermore, in an Information Age which floods people with data they can no longer make sense of, discernment is the quality of thinking that social science must assist in developing for the new century.

Science and democracy: public attitudes to science and scientists

Robert Worcester
Director, MORI Organization, UK

The British public tend to judge the value of scientific advances by their end purpose. If no end purpose is made clear to them, many tend to implicitly assume that it has no useful purpose or even that its purpose will be detrimental rather than beneficial. The intensity of ethical objections to particular work, for example the use of animals in experimentation, is similarly significantly affected by understanding of what it is hoped will be achieved.

Scientific developments aimed directly at achieving improvements in human health care are the most valued by the public. However, the public is often ill-informed about the purpose of scientific experimentation, and public opinion is less supportive than it otherwise might be because not enough people instinctively make the connection between means and ends. Research for its own sake, and particularly research seen primarily as having a commercial motive, is unpopular.

The majority of the public say they trust "scientists" but whenever a scientist’s employer or sponsor is mentioned, the veracity of the source becomes highly relevant: the scientists trusted by the highest proportion of people are those working for environmental NGOs. It is clear that many of the public assume (perhaps not consciously) that scientists cannot maintain their independence, integrity or objectivity when working for an interested party. Furthermore, in most fields of public controversy, the government is regarded as an interested party, and neither it nor scientists seen to be working for it are trusted by a majority of the public.

Ignorance about the way in which science is regulated and restricted leads many of the public to assume that the regulation is insufficient, and this in turn makes them more likely to be hostile to science. Yet they are eager to receive such information and show intelligent interest when they do so. Regulatory bodies whose work was well publicised and which were seen to be free of control by government or other vested interests might significantly improve the climate of public opinion.

Significant numbers of the public are prepared to use their power as consumers to put pressure on those involved when they object to a scientific procedure or principle.



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