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Why does government policy ignore scientific evidence? Experts and the public must act together

July 2023 was the hottest month ever measured in human history. Scientists have warned of the dangers of climate change for decades. And yet, the political systems in Western societies respond inadequately: public discussion has only really picked up speed when various groups of protesters, such as Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion, started organizing rallies and blocking bridges. Steps taken to reform our energy provision, our transport systems, and our agricultural practices seem painfully slow. Why is it that even the best available evidence, gathered by thousands of scientists using a broad range of methods, is not taken up by politics?

One answer is to blame citizens: maybe they are insufficiently informed or care more about their private lives than learning about political issues. If one understands the situation in this way, it may become tempting to look for non-democratic solutions: maybe we need technocratic experts to take over?

But this account is too simple, and it puts the blame in the wrong place. The relation between expert communities and society at large does not take place in a vacuum, but in a field marred by vested interest. For if policies change, this creates winners and losers—and potential losers have an interest in the status quo remaining in place. One strategy they can choose is to accept the facts and openly fight for their interests. But often, these potential losers choose another strategy: undermine the public dissemination of the facts that would suggest that change is needed.

“The relation between expert communities and society at large does not take place in a vacuum, but in a field marred by vested interest.”

The most famous instance of such a strategy has been the “tobacco strategy” that cigarette producers used when a scientific consensus built up showing the harmfulness of smoking. For decades, they threw doubt on the soundness of these studies, funded alternative lines of research, and did everything to make the science look uncertain. Similar strategies have also been used by other industries, including the oil and gas industries. With their deep pockets, these industries could support climate change denialism and thus delay political action. Instead of blaming ordinary citizens for not knowing enough about climate change, it is these activities that need to be called out and stopped.

Does this mean that distortion by private interests is the only problem in the relation between expert knowledge and citizens? Even without it, there remain challenges. Expert knowledge is, by definition, unequally distributed, whereas democracy, as a form of governance and way of life, is built on a foundation of moral equality. And yet, also among moral equals we need to recognize that a climate scientist who spent decades studying shifts in ocean temperature, or an indigenous farmer who intimately knows the changes in the biosphere caused by shifting rainfall patterns, know more about these things than many other individuals.

“Together, expert communities and the society at large need to manage the interfaces between the production of specialized knowledge and its use in wider political discourse.”

In Citizen Knowledge: Markets, Experts, and the Infrastructure of Democracy, I argue that communities of experts and the broader democratic public have a joint responsibility to deal with this tension in the best possible way. Together, they need to create conditions in which citizens can trust the expertise of others and thus benefit from the division of cognitive labor. Expert communities need to have space to explore facts according to the logic of the knowledge area in which they work—without, for example, impossible pressures to raise funding from no-matter-what source. They need to make sure that they allow for internal diversity in doing so, because this is the best bet to prevent blind spots and distorted perspectives. If they discover facts that are relevant of society, they need to make those public, but democratic societies also need to provide infrastructures, such as science journalism, that facilitate this task. Together, expert communities and the society at large need to manage the interfaces between the production of specialized knowledge and its use in wider political discourse. This concerns structural questions such as the composition of scientific advisory boards. But it also concerns ethical questions for each and every expert, for example not to “epistemically trespass” by claiming authority for utterances that do not fall into one’s own area of expertise.

By creating more awareness about the risks of knowledge being abused, democratic societies can counter the dangers that stem from private interests, but also the risk of undermining democratic values by giving experts too much authority. Ultimately, it is elected politicians that have the legitimacy to take decisions. But in a complex world of divided labor, the knowledge of very different expert communities is needed to make good policy. And while democratic politics will always have to navigate conflicts of values and interests—that’s what it is for, after all—some of the problems that concern the production and transmission of expert knowledge can and should be addressed better, through institutional design and professional ethics.

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