Science and Democracy
- LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0095
- LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0095
The relation of science and democracy is an ancient conundrum that continues to generate public controversy. Whenever science produces an “inconvenient truth”—as Al Gore famously calls the science of climate change—democratic governments may be tempted to ignore or suppress it. And as scientists like to remind us, “You can’t vote on the laws of physics!” Natural scientists and their advocates often argue that the power of science in democracy depends on it remaining insulated from politics. Seen in this light, it is no wonder that many believe science and democracy tend to undermine each other. But another long tradition sees science and democracy as mutually reinforcing. Democracies depend on science for effectively addressing public problems, and many argue that science provides a model of rational democratic deliberation. These two conflicting interpretations each capture part of the story, but they neglect some of the most interesting questions, which concern changes in the meaning and purpose of science and democracy and how they shape each other in particular contexts. With regard to science, most scholars who study science and democracy now reject the long dominant “positivist” view of science as a formal, logical, socially insulated method for producing value-free knowledge. The ideal of value-free science remains popular in public life, but extensive research in the social sciences and humanities has shown how science is intertwined with social values, commercial pressures, and political decisions. That does not mean science merely reflects dominant interests, as caricatures of “social constructivism” assert, but it does open up difficult questions about how democratic citizens might shape the science that shapes their lives. With regard to democracy, mid-20th-century political scientists tended to conceive democracy narrowly in terms of popular elections and formal state institutions. Recent scholarship, in contrast, shows how social institutions and material practices of all kinds may become sites of democratic politics. Indeed, as democracy has increased in global popularity, its meaning has become increasingly diffuse and ambiguous; democracy offers both a rallying cry for social justice movements and a marketing slogan for global corporations. The relation of science and democracy involves a wide range of disparate phenomena, including science advice, science policy, public engagement in sociotechnical controversies, lay-expert relations, and the technical constitution of democratic citizens, not to mention the many specific concerns associated with issues like climate change, genetic engineering, or nanotechnology. Of course, “science and democracy” is not an established field of study, and nearly any piece of scholarship might be deemed relevant. This article is limited to works that directly address both science and democracy, understood as particular forms of knowledge and politics, respectively. This approach excludes many works that would fall under the headings “politics and science” or “democracy and knowledge.” Even within these limits, many important sources are missing, and readers should consult the bibliographies of the works cited here.
Any introduction to the relation of science and democracy is inevitably incomplete, but a few works offer accessible introductions to some of the key historical and conceptual issues. Guston 1993 highlights irresolvable tensions between science and democracy, thus challenging the common assumption that they inevitably either support or undermine each other. Macleod 1997 provides a concise historical account, showing that the tensions between science and democracy go back several centuries. Jasanoff 2003 surveys the past half-century of science-society relations, concluding with recommendations for improving recent participatory efforts to “democratize” science. Ezrahi 1990 draws on the history of political thought to argue that concepts and metaphors associated with modern science have supported liberal-democratic ideology, but the recent growth of public skepticism toward science has undermined this mutually supportive relationship. Brown 2009 examines conceptions of politics and expertise in several canonical and contemporary authors (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Dewey, Latour), and argues for moving beyond both technocratic and participatory approaches by exploring diverse modes of public representation. Kleinman 2000 and Bucchi 2009 provide accessible overviews of key conceptual and institutional issues, as well as empirical accounts of practical efforts to involve laypeople in decision making on sociotechnical controversies. More extensive discussion of practical proposals for democratizing science and technology appears in Sclove 1995.
Brown, Mark B. Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.
Draws on democratic theory, science studies, and the history of political thought to explore the role of science in representative democracy. Argues that political representation depends on scientific expertise, and scientific institutions may become sites of political representation. Illustrative examples include expert advisory bodies, bioethics councils, and citizen panels.
Bucchi, Massimiano. Beyond Technocracy: Science, Politics and Citizens. Translated by Adrian Belton. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2009.
Originally published in Italian in 2006, offers an engaging, well informed, critical analysis of technocratic responses to science-society controversies in the United States and Europe. Considers political implications of the shift toward application-oriented, “postacademic” science, and assesses the potential of increasing participation by both lay people and experts in public controversies.
Ezrahi, Yaron. The Descent of Icarus: Science and the Transformation of Contemporary Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Shows how liberal-democratic thought has been intertwined with the instrumental modes of thought and action associated with modern science. In both science and democracy, the focus on external effects, rather than internal motivations, allows citizen-witnesses to validate public authority.
Guston, David H. “The Essential Tension in Science and Democracy.” Social Epistemology 7.1 (1993): 3–23.
A nuanced discussion of three tensions between science and democracy: populist, plutocratic, and exclusionary, the last of which poses unavoidable challenges for the role of science in democratic societies.
Jasanoff, Sheila. “Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science.” Minerva 41.3 (2003): 223–244.
Surveys developments in science-society relations since World War II, providing useful context for the recent “participatory turn.” Argues that participatory efforts need to consider questions of issue framing, differential vulnerability, the distribution of risks, and social learning. Useful for undergraduate teaching.
Kleinman, Daniel Lee, ed. Science, Technology, and Democracy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Contributors in the first section present cases of lay participation in AIDS research, telecommunications policy, sustainable agriculture, and nuclear facility siting. Contributors in the second section discuss historical, institutional, and philosophical dimensions of science policy and technical expertise. Useful introduction for scholars; excellent for undergraduates.
Macleod, Roy. “Science and Democracy: Historical Reflections on Present Discontents.” Minerva 35.4 (1997): 369–384.
A nuanced discussion of historical precedents to recent calls for public accountability and participation in science. Touches on several countries and historical periods to show how the relationship between natural science and popular government has been repeatedly debated throughout modern history. Useful historical introduction for both undergraduate and graduate students.
Sclove, Richard E. Democracy and Technology. New York: Guilford, 1995.
An accessible and thoughtful introduction to the politics of science and technology. Proposes nine criteria for “democratic design,” and discusses participatory mechanisms such as science shops and consensus conferences.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Advanced Democracies, Electoral System Reform in
- Advanced Democracies, Public Opinion and Public Policy in
- Advertising and Election Campaigns in the United States
- Africa, Comparative Politics of
- American Indian Politics
- Arab-Israel Conflict, The
- Arendt, Hannah
- Aristotle's Political Thought
- Arms Race Modeling
- Australia and New Zealand, Comparative Politics of
- Authoritarianism in Russia
- Bicameralism in Stable Democracies
- Biopolitics and State Regulation of Human Life
- Brazilian Political Development
- Business-State Relations in Europe
- Campaign Finance in the Era of Super-PACS
- Canadian Foreign Policy
- Candidate Emergence and Recruitment
- Channels of Electoral Representation in Advanced Industria...
- China's One-Child Policy
- China-Taiwan Relations
- Chinese Communist Party
- Chinese Economic Policy
- Chinese Nationalism
- Civil Society in South Asia
- Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Civil-Military Relations in Asia
- Civil-Military Relations in Latin America
- Class in American Politics
- Comparative Capitalism Theory
- Comparative Industrial Relations in Europe
- Comparative Politics of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bis...
- Comparative Politics of Chile and Uruguay
- Comparative Politics of Federalism
- Comparative Politics of the Middle East and North Africa
- Congress, Defense, and Foreign Policy
- Congressional Reassertion of Authority
- Conservative Litigation Strategies and Groups in US Judici...
- Corruption in China
- Cosmopolitan Political Thought
- Crisis of European Integration in Historical Perspective, ...
- Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School
- Cuban Political Development
- Cycles of Protest
- Democracy and Authoritarianism in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Democracy and Dictatorship in Central Asia
- Democracy in Latin America
- Democratic Citizenship
- Democratic Consolidation
- Democratic Peace Theory
- Democratic Theory
- Democratization in Africa
- Democratization in Central America
- Democratization in Mexico
- Development of Survey Research
- Direct Democracy in the United States
- East Africa, Politics of
- Economic Voting
- Election Forecasting
- Election Laws in Democracies
- Electoral and Party System Development in Sub-Saharan Afri...
- Electoral Change in Latin America
- Emotion and Racial Attitudes in Contemporary American Poli...
- Environmental Governance
- Environmental Politics among Advanced Industrial Democraci...
- Ethnic Diasporas and US Foreign Policy
- Ethnic Politics
- Eurasia, Comparative Politics of
- European Social Democracy
- European Union, Politics of the
- Failed and Weak States in Theory and Practice
- Far-Right Parties in Europe
- Federalism in the United States
- Field Experiments
- Filibuster, The
- Gender and Electoral Politics in the United States
- Gender and International Relations
- Gender, Behavior, and Representation
- Global Inequality
- Globalization and the Welfare State
- Globalization, Health Crises, and Health Care
- Governance in Africa
- Governmental Responses to Political Corruption
- Gridlock and Divided Government in the U.S.
- Historiography of Twentieth-Century American Conservatism,...
- Hobbes’s Political Thought
- Hume’s Political Thought
- Hybrid Regimes
- Identity and Political Behavior
- Ideological Reasoning in Politics
- Immigrant Incorporation in Canada
- Immigrant Incorporation in Western Europe
- Immigration and International Relations
- Immigration Politics and Policy in the United States
- Impact of Campaign Contributions on Congressional Behavior...
- Implicit Attitudes in Public Opinion
- Income Dynamics and Politics in North America and Europe
- Income Inequality and Advanced Democracies
- Income Inequality in the United States, The Politics of
- Indian Democracy
- Indigenous Rights and Governance in Canada, Australia, and...
- Informal Practices of Accountability in Urban Africa
- Institutional Change in Advanced Democracies
- Intellectual Property in International Relations
- Interest Groups and Inequality in the United States
- Interest Groups in American Politics
- International Conflict Management
- International Criminal Justice
- International Law
- International NGOs
- International Political Economy of Illegal Drugs
- Internet and Politics, The
- Iran, Political Development of
- Israeli Politics
- Judicial Supremacy and National Judicial Review
- Judiciaries and Politics in East Asia
- Kant's Political Thought
- Labor Politics in East Asia
- Land Reform in Latin America
- Latin America, Democratic Transitions in
- Latin America, Environmental Policy and Politics in
- Latin America, Guerrilla Insurgencies in
- Latin America, Social Movements in
- Legal Mobilization
- LGBT Politics in the United States
- Liberal Pluralism
- Local Governments in the United States
- Machiavelli’s Political Thought
- Marx's Political Thought
- Mass Incarceration and US Politics
- Mechanisms of Representation
- Media Effects in Politics
- Media Politics in South Asia
- Minority Political Engagement and Representation in the Un...
- Modern Dynastic Rule
- Modern Elections and Voting Behavior in Europe
- National Interbranch Politics in the United States
- NATO, Politics of
- Negative Campaigning
- Neoclassical Realism
- New Institutionalism Revisited, The
- North America, Comparative Politics of
- Oil, Politics of
- Origins and Impact of Proportional Representation, The
- Outcomes of Social Movements and Protest Activities
- Partisan and Nonpartisan Theories of Organization in the U...
- Partisan Polarization in the US Congress
- Partisan Polarization in the US Electorate
- Party Networks
- Peace Operations
- Personality and Politics
- Plato's Political Thought
- Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion
- Political Economy of Financial Regulation in Advanced Ind...
- Political Economy of India
- Political Economy of Taxation, The
- Political Geography in American Politics
- Political Obligation
- Political Parties and Electoral Politics of Japan
- Political Thought, Hegel's
- Political Thought of the American Founders, The
- Politics and Policy in Contemporary Argentina
- Politics of Anti-Americanism
- Politics of Class Formation
- Politics of Disaster Prevention and Management
- Politics of Financial Crises
- Politics of Foreign Direct Investment in South Asia
- Politics of Higher Education in the U.S.
- Politics of Internal Conquest in the United States and Can...
- Politics of Japan
- Politics of Natural Disasters, The
- Politics of North Korea
- Politics of Science and Technology
- Politics of South Africa
- Politics of Southern Africa
- Postcolonialism and International Relations
- Post-Communist Democratization
- Preferential Trade Agreements, Politics of
- Presidential Persuasion and Public Opinion
- Presidential Primaries and Caucuses
- Private Governance
- Public Opinion in Advanced Industrial Democracies
- Public Opinion in New Democracies and Developing Nations
- Public Presidency, US Elections, and the Permanent Campaig...
- Qualitative Methods, The Renewal of
- Race in American Political Thought
- Racial and Ethnic Descriptive Representation in the United...
- Regime Transitions and Variation in Post-Communist Europe
- Regional Integration in Latin America
- Regional Security
- Regulating Food Production
- Religion in American Political Thought
- Religion in Contemporary Political Thought
- Religion, Politics, and Civic Engagement in the United Sta...
- Rousseau's Political Thought
- Rule of Law
- Russia and the West
- Science and Democracy
- Social Policy and Immigrant Integration
- South Korea, Politics of
- Spectacle, The
- State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa
- State Formation
- State, The Nature of the
- Supreme Court of the United States, The
- Systemic Theories of International Politics
- Taiwan, Politics of
- Tea Party, The
- The New Right in American Political Thought
- Transitional Justice
- Transnational Private Regulation
- Turkey, Political Development of
- US Military Bases Abroad
- US Presidency, The
- Voter Turnout
- Welfare State Development
- Welfare State Development in Latin America
- Welfare State Development in Western Europe
- West Africa, Politics of
- Worker Politics in China
- Youth and Generational Differences in US Politics