Sept. 5, 2008

Harvard professor says U.S. administration is at fault for public's skeptical view of science

One year short of the sesquicentennial of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," which rocked many people's world view, Republican vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin denies the reality of human involvement in climate change and wants intelligent design taught in the public schools. At the same time society is experiencing an unprecedented erosion in the authority of scientific knowledge.

So said Sheila Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University, Sept. 3 in Goldwin Smith Hall's Kaufmann Auditorium, presenting her first of three Messenger lectures this week on "Enlightenment: Rethinking Science's Place in Democracy." It was a homecoming for Jasanoff, who taught Science Policy and Law at Cornell from 1978 to 1998 and founded and chaired the Department of Science and Technology Studies here.

Jasanoff made it clear that she holds the Bush administration accountable for the "radical skepticism" that many Americans have toward science and technology.

"What room is there for the meticulous dissection of scientific knowledge … when the executive branch of the world's most competent, most technologically advanced democracy publicly deconstructs, and willfully rejects dominant understandings of climate change, natural resource depletion, environmental pollution, sexuality and public health?" she asked.

But Jasanoff showed some skepticism herself, particularly in her critique of how scientific expertise is legitimized by policymakers' reliance on experts. "There is hardly a step we take in the course of an ordinary day without in some way counting on the wisdom of people we never see, whose names may remain hidden, whose judgment is never publicly tested except in times of crisis or breakdown," she said. Every time we rely on a traffic signal, get on a plane in bad weather or give a child medicine, we're relying on the judgment and virtue of anonymous experts, she said. "What have they done to deserve our trust, and what have we done to ensure their accountability?"

While scientific experts are relied upon as dependable advisers because of their specialized knowledge, impartiality and straightforwardness, that view doesn't admit to the possibility of ignorance, uncertainty, error, cognitive bias, corruption or political interest, said Jasanoff.

As members of a democracy, we trust experts because they supposedly represent our interests and are accountable to us, but we need to evaluate the basis for that trust from time to time, she said. For example, the scientific peer-review system is considered a reliable way to vet new ideas and uphold standards of scientific inquiry.

Yet, "whoever controls the review process also to a great degree controls the meaning of the available scientific knowledge," she warned. "Systemic bias against innovation or unpopular projects is well known, even in the context of relatively pure science, let alone in the high-stakes, controversial world of policy-relevant knowledge.

"Contemporary democracies depend for their robustness, not to say their very survival, on the wisdom of strangers," said Jasanoff. We need doctors, lawyers and other specially trained professionals, she said, but "the wisdom of the experts we count on is not simply a matter of superior knowledge. Experts operate within tacit frameworks of delegation which underwrite their legitimacy and whose principles we all need to understand."

The Messenger Lectures -- named for Hiram J. Messenger, Class of 1880 -- were founded in 1924 to bring the world's leading scholars on the evolution of civilization to campus. Jasanoff also spoke Sept. 4 and 5 in Kaufmann Auditorium.

Claudia Wheatley is a writer with the Office of Publications and Marketing.