Science and society
Science, Truth, and Democracy, by Philip Kitcher. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 256 pp.
Philip Kitcher, the distinguished Columbia University philosopher, has written a book that is clear, well argued, and, under the guise of eminent sensibility, surprisingly subversive. In Part I, “The Search for Truth,” Kitcher vindicates realism and refutes constructivism. Having thus established himself as a friend of science, he goes on in Part II to assert “The Claims of Democracy.” He argues that democratic discussion should guide the scientific search for truth and that some lines of inquiry should not be pursued. His discussion of the duties of individual scientists will make some squirm.
In the first part of the book, Kitcher claims that the sciences sometimes deliver the truth about a world independent of human cognition. This conclusion would be unremarkable were it not for the “science wars” of the 1990s. During that decade, scientists and philosophers such as Paul Gross, Norman Levitt, and Noretta Koertge took it upon themselves to defend the purity and authority of science against what they viewed as an insidious band of constructivist humanists and social scientists, bent on taking science down by portraying it as a set of “narratives” whose function is to maintain the oppression of women and people of color. The science wars reached a broader audience when physicist Alan Sokal submitted a parody of postmodernist writing about science to the journal Social Text, which duly published his article, “Transforming the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” as if it were a serious contribution to scholarship. Although Kitcher defends realism against the constructivists, his version is less muscular than that of those he calls “the scientific faithful,” and he writes that his view “does not commit us to grander doctrines that are often announced on the banners of realism.”
Although Part I of the book is philosophically sophisticated and includes important discussions of a wide range of foundational issues in the philosophy of science, constructivists will not be convinced, and some of Kitcher’s fellow realists may be alarmed. For many of those who are not philosophers, the point of calling oneself a realist is to avoid the absurdities and intricacies of metaphysical argument. It is the rhetorical equivalent of Dr. Johnson’s attempt to refute Berkeley’s idealism by kicking a tree stump. Those with this motivation will be uneasy about Kitcher’s fissioning of the idea of realism and his meticulous exploration of the attendant complications. Once realism is seen as a philosophical doctrine, admitting of its own nuances and variations, it may seem just another dish on the metaphysical menu rather than the name for how things are. Constructivists are not likely to be moved by Kitcher’s arguments, because they too, at least in their clear-headed moments, are resolutely antimetaphysical. They do not deny realism so much as regard it as a thesis that is either meaningless or pointless. They avoid what philosophers think of as the deep metaphysical questions about truth and reality in favor of constructing narratives about how these concepts are used in various societies and historical epochs. It is this tendency for the parties to talk past each other that gave the science wars their absurdist feel. Philosophers, sociologists, and others who write about science are largely interested in different things, though like most academics, they tend to get carried away with their own claims and arguments. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Science’s social responsibility
It is the second part of the book that will be of greatest interest to the readers of this journal. Many scientists are in principle willing to accept the idea that science has important social responsibilities, but they couple this with a fuzzy faith that the greater good will ineluctably occur if they are provided with sufficient resources and left alone to pursue their careers. Upon reflection, it is obvious that this is just a version of the self-serving “invisible hand” arguments prevalent in most professions. For example, defense attorneys say that the greater good will prevail only if they defend their guilty and despicable clients in the most aggressive way possible, and business executives say that being left to pursue their own profits unencumbered by regulation is the only sure-fire solution to the problem of poverty. By now, most of us are not persuaded by such arguments, at least when given by people in other professions. Kitcher does an excellent job of showing that the science policy version of this argument, which can be traced back to Vannevar’s Bush’s influential 1945 report Science, the Endless Frontier, rests on “muddled and inconsistent foundations.”
Kitcher advocates what he calls “well-ordered science.” This is a complex idea, and his discussion is compressed. Simplifying greatly, the ideal inquiry that is the model for well-ordered science involves decisions about how to allocate resources among projects, what moral constraints on investigation should be observed, and how research results ought to be applied. I will focus on how Kitcher thinks the first of these decisions should be made, because he says little about the second, and he thinks the structure of the third is quite similar to that of the first. Imagine “individuals with different initial preferences” revising them in the light of new information and antecedent decisions, and motivated “by respect for the preferences of others and aim[ing] to arrive at a consensus.” Once the deliberators have identified the issues they would like to address and their relative weight, a panel of impartial experts assesses “the chances the desired outcomes will be delivered.” Next a disinterested arbitrator draws up possible agendas for inquiry, based on the information provided by the experts and the deliberators. Finally, the deliberators vote on which agenda “best reflects the wishes of the community.” For science to be well-ordered, it is not required that these cumbersome procedures actually be employed but only that science policy decisions coincide with the decisions that would result from this ideal process.
Kitcher is a very good critic of his own proposal, and he anticipates some of the many questions that can be asked about his conception of well-ordered science. The questions I raise are best viewed against the background of a general appreciation of his argumentative strategy.
Kitcher’s arguments often involve setting out two diametrically opposed extreme positions that are then rejected in favor of an apparently moderate alternative. This “Goldilocks strategy” allows him to avoid confronting the most plausible versions of the views he rejects and clears out a vast terrain between the extreme positions on which he can pitch his tent. Thus, the ideal of well-ordered science is meant to be the middle ground between “vulgar democracy” and “elitism.” Vulgar democracy holds that science policy should reflect the preferences of the citizenry, whatever they happen to be. Elitism holds that science policy should reflect the preferences of those who know best, either the scientific establishment or its paymasters.
Kitcher makes some substantive claims about what well-ordered science would be like. For example, he believes that well-ordered science would not further drive down the welfare of the worst off and sometimes hints that it would place some positive priority on their interests. Morally, this is an admirable view, but why should we suppose that it is a necessary consequence of well-ordered science or of the particular institutions that are supposed to constitute it? Suppose that a particular science policy would be exceptionally efficient and productive with respect to generating knowledge and would produce enormous benefits that would accrue to everyone in society except the very worst off, who would be made so little additionally worse off that they would hardly notice. Kitcher may not favor such a policy, but I do not see any non-question-begging argument that could prevent it from being adopted by his ideal deliberators. Nor intuitively does it seem inconsistent with the idea of science being well ordered.
My suspicion is that Kitcher does not distinguish clearly enough his own favored views about science policy from what might emerge from the institutions he sketches. One way to see this is to step back and consider the fact that there are two different general accounts of what makes an outcome normatively acceptable. One says that the acceptability of an outcome turns on the character of the outcome itself, and the other says that it turns on the character of the process that produces the outcome. The first account relies on a list of objectively acceptable outcomes, and it is clear that any such list will be controversial and difficult to defend. The second account implies that outcomes that the designer of the process does not prefer are in fact normatively acceptable so long as they are produced by the right process. Because embracing either of these alternatives has unpleasant consequences, there is an almost irresistible temptation to blur them and to suppose that only the outcomes that one regards as good will survive a legitimating procedure. This is the temptation to which I fear Kitcher has succumbed.
Part of Kitcher’s distaste for vulgar democracy is motivated by his desire to preserve a mix of research, some directed toward producing immediate benefits and some directed toward revealing the ultimate nature of things. But again, it is hard to see why Kitcher’s conception of well-ordered science would prevent deliberators from writing off particle physics in favor of a war on senescence–or even giving up on cosmology in favor of cosmetology.
I exaggerate of course, but the basic problem is that it is hard for us to know exactly where Kitcher has pitched his tent in that vast expanse of middle ground that he has cleared out, and why he has pitched it there rather than on some other nearby site that looks just as desirable. In order for us to understand the full import of Kitcher’s idea of well-ordered science, we are going to have to know more about how this notion works in the context of privately sponsored research, patent law, multinational corporations, hierarchically organized laboratories, and so on. Kitcher gives us some hints in his exciting chapter on the human genome project, but much more will have to be said if his vision of well-ordered science is really to come into focus.
The questions I have asked are not meant as serious criticisms. They are invitations for Kitcher and others to develop the provocative picture that he has sketched and to join the discussion that he has begun. Of all the philosophers currently writing about science, Kitcher has shown the most courage in developing a comprehensive picture that encompasses everything from views about the laws of nature to practical questions of science policy. For those who are willing to think hard and deep about the nature of science and its role in society, this is the book of the year.
Dale Jamieson ([email protected]) is Henry R. Luce Professor in Human Dimensions of Global Change at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.