Knowledge and the Public Good–Some Suggested Reading

Haim Watzman

The dissemination of knowledge—high-quality knowledge—is essential to a democratic society. So I’d like to point out an interesting juxtaposition of articles from my Shabbat reading that, taken together, have something important to say about the importance of getting good knowledge to the public.

Danielle Allen’s review of Josiah Ober’s book Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens in The New Republic concludes:

Josiah Ober shows us that Athens knew what the Athenians knew, because the city as a whole had devised institutions that made sure the useful knowledge of the widest possible range of individuals flowed to where it was needed. Have we fully tapped into the resources of participatory democracy to supplement our own representative structures with a citizenry within which all the sluices of knowledge are open and have been set a-flowing? Does America know what Americans know?

In the March 5 issue of Nature, Harry Collins, a social scientist who studies science, concludes an essay entitled “We Cannot Live By Skepticism Alone” with these words:

Science, then, can provide us with a set of values—not findings—for how to run our lives, and that includes our social and political lives. But it can do this only if we accept that assessing scientific findings is a far more difficult task than was once believed, and that those findings do not lead straight to political conclusions. Scientists can guide us only by admitting their weaknesses, and, concomitantly, when we outsiders judge scientists, we must do it not to the standard of truth, but to the much softer standard of expertise.

In her review, Allen accepts and praises Ober’s argument that what made Athenian society both successful and truly democratic (in the terms of its times) was that high-quality knowledge was freely available and that mechanisms existed to get that knowledge to where society needed it. In his essay, Collins seeks to strike a balance between the idolization of science and the recent tendency among social scientists to see the knowledge produced by the natural sciences as being just as subjective and open to interpretation as any other belief system.

The current state of the Western world, with its nosediving economy, disastrous wars, and tottering natural environment, is in large measure a product of a misuse of information. The administration of George W. Bush deliberately blocked the flow of necessary information, whether from the stock market and banks to regulators, from ecologists to policy makers, or from defense policy dissenters to Congress and the American people. The result was disaster.

At the same time, social scientists and writers, correctly critical of flaws in scientific method and of the all too human biases of science’s practitioners, were so excited by the discovery that science is not perfect that they went to the opposite extreme of telling the public that scientific knowledge should not be privileged in any way. Oddly, these scholars, most of them of the left, played straight into the hands of the deniers of global warming and evolution on the right.

Allen asserts that

a transparent, fair, open-access, easily understandable, and non-arbitrary legal system for dispute resolution is a bedrock of republican and democratic flourishing. Second, they would learn that, even in a representative democracy, the structure and the quality of a polity’s conversations, considered in relation to the citizenry as a whole, determine both the quality of its collective political decisions and their relative legitimacy as political actions. By “structure,” I mean the patterns by which opinions form and ideas move both through and across informal and formal citizen networks. Informal networks are neighborhoods, communities, and other social groupings without durable form. Formal networks are institutions and organized media. One discerns the “structure” of the public sphere by mapping conversational relationships, by analyzing where and how groups or institutions or conversational communities have formed, and by tracing conversational relations among them. Are all of a polity’s social groups somehow linked to each other through conversational structures? What percentage of the citizenry is so linked? Who is left out or unconnected, and why? Are there any effectively impermeable barriers to the movement of ideas from one group to another? How often are we finding expertise in unexpected quarters? How often are new ideas finding their way into conversations, or are we always hearing the same old thing? These are questions to ask in order to determine the “structure” of the public sphere.

And there are more questions that need asking. Do these conversations support the learning and the routinization of norms of fair play? Do they support the development of genuine knowledge, providing an opportunity to sort true from false, useful from useless, expert from non-expert? Do these conversations allow for the development of critical reason and dissent, and so innovation? As democratic citizens, we also need to ask whether our public conversations are inclusive, egalitarian, autonomy-respecting, transparent with respect to interest, and maximally actualizing of individuals.

And Collins advises:

We must choose, or ‘elect’, to put the values that underpin scientific thinking back in the centre of our world; we must replace post-modernism with ‘elective modernism’. To support this, social scientists must work out what is right about science, not just what is wrong — we cannot live by skepticism alone. Natural scientists, too, have a part to play: they must reflect on and recognize the limits of their practice and their understanding. Together, we must choose to live in a society that recognizes the value of experience and expertise.

Until recently, the daily newspaper was the major instrument for the dissemination of high-quality knowledge in democracies. They were always highly imperfect instruments, though. In an age where knowledge is more complex, whatever ends up replacing the newspapers will have to do the job better. I don’t have a plan to offer, but these two articles together show how essential it is to devise one.

1 thought on “Knowledge and the Public Good–Some Suggested Reading

  1. In a simplified way, the dichotomy Collins writes about is as old as ancient Athens itself: the bean counter Aristotle vs. the high-flying generaliser Plato. Allen’s piece harks back even further to Plato’s teacher Socrates, emphasizing dialogue as essential method of truth-searching.
    I don’t have a plan to offer either, but I fully agree about the importance of synthesis, between Aristotle and Plato, science and spirituality, the sum of parts and the whole.

    You left out the other major traditional instrument for the dissemination of knowledge, less volatile than that from newspapers, which are, obviously enough, schools and universities.

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