Why Democracies Need Science by Harry Collins & Robert Evans

The Blurb On The Back:

We live in times of increasing public distrust of the main institutions of modern society.  Experts, including scientists, are suspected of working to hidden agendas or serving vested interests.  The solution is usually seen as more public scrutiny and more control by democratic institutions – experts must be subservient to social and political life.

In this book, Harry Collins and Robert Evans take a radically different view.  They argue that, rather than democracies needing to be protected from science, democratic societies need to learn how to value science in this new age of uncertainty.  By emphasising that science is a moral enterprise, guided by values that should matter to all, they show how science can support democracy without destroying it and propose a new institution – The Owls – that can mediate between science and society and improve technological decision-making for the benefit of all.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Harry Collins is a Research Professor in Social Sciences and Robert Evans a Professor in Sociology, both at Cardiff University and this book is a defence of what they call Wave Three of Science Studies, which aims to preserve the expertise of science and find a better way of managing the trade off with democratic accountability most notably though establishing a new institution called The Owls who can mediate between the two groups as some kind of honest broker in a highly theoretical read with noble intentions but which never really convinced me.

The book is divided into three parts.  In Part I Collins and Evans set out science as involving a moral choice and describe what’s meant by the Three Waves of Science Studies to support their premise that science is a moral institution.  Although this is quite heavy on theory, as a newcomer to the subject I was able to follow the arguments and descriptions made but I think that it does help if you have some familiarity with the area because the authors refer to sociology writers and their positions without recounting them here.

In Part II the authors set out the principles underlying what they call elective modernism and explores how that impacts on the ways scientific advice should be used in making public policy.  Most notably they argue for a new institution termed The Owls whose job is to examine the content and certainty of the scientific evidence in order to ensure the best position is reflected in policy.  The problem that I had with this is that there are already quasi-independent boards in UK public life (such as the Office for National Statistics) performing this function but which don’t have the impact that they should do in public life.  Neither author addresses this within the piece and it’s difficult to see how their theoretical institution could perform any better without an exploration of why existing bodies aren’t able to perform that role.

This problem is particularly highlighted in Part III where the authors seek to show how there’s an element of revolutionary thinking to their idea when it comes to the links between science and democracy and is made worse when you consider examples such as the MMR vaccine scandal where even the colossal weight of evidence from the medical profession as a body hasn’t been sufficient to persuade all parents to vaccinate their children.

Part IV then seeks to sum up the authors’ arguments to form a manifesto for the future of science and the choices to be made.

I did find this an interesting read and the authors make some pertinent points about science and its role in public policy and I was particularly drawn by their arguments about science having a moral basis.  However the lack of practical examples affected my ability to believe in the arguments being advanced and some of their claims about such approaches being extended to social science (which seems to me to be far more open to individual interpretation) undermined the central planks of this book.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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