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Epistemology & Philosophy of Science

Volume 56, Issue 4, 2019

Harry Collins, Robert Evans
Pages 200-218

Populism and Science

The risk of populism is ever-present in democratic societies. Here we argue that science provides one way in which this risk can be reduced. This is not because science provides a superior truth but because it (a) preserves and celebrates values that are essential for democracy and (b) contributes to the network of the checks and balances that constrain executive power. To make this argument, we draw on Wittgenstein’s idea of a form of life to characterize any social group as being composed of two opposing elements: an organic aspect that defines what the group has in common and an enumerative aspect that describes the differing ways in which the organic core can be displayed. Whilst the organic faces of science and democracy are clearly different there are significant overlaps that include values such as disinterestedness, universalism and honesty. This overlap in values is the first way in which science can prevent populism: by providing moral leadership. The second, its role in a network of checks and balances, also depends on these values. Science does not contribute to the checks and balances because it provides epistemically superior knowledge; it contributes because it provides morally superior knowledge that, alongside institutions such a free press, independent judiciary and additional tiers of government, support the democratic ecosystem. Failures of democracy occur when this ecosystem is damaged – too much science leads to technocracy, but too little creates the conditions for populism. To prevent this, we argue that citizens must (re)learn the value of democratic values. These include endorsing an independent judiciary and other state institutions, even when these hinder policies of which they might approve and, of particular concern in this context, recognizing that independent experts, of which scientists are the exemplar, are part of this network of checks and balances.

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