In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Science and Democracy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Science Policy
  • Politicization of Science
  • Globalization

Political Science Science and Democracy
Mark B. Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • 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.

General Overviews

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.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-89522-2

    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.

    DOI: 10.1080/02691729308578676

    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.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1025557512320

    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.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1004362816974

    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.

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