Saturday, October 27, 2018

Nationalism 013: Informed Voters

Is it possible, in a democracy, for voters to cast informed votes on scientific matters when the voters do not have the scientific competence to assess these matters?

Elizabeth Anderson says yes. This is because voters, even though they lack scientific competence, have relevant competencies in identifying scientific experts. They do not use this competence as much as they should, but everything they need is available to them.

This comes from: Anderson, Elizabeth (2011), "Democracy, Public Policy, and Lay Assessments of Scientific Testimony", Epistome Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 144-164.

In her argument that voters have all they need to cast informed votes on scientific matters, Anderson argues that what voters need is not scientific competence, but the competence to assess scientists. Specifically, voters need easy access to information that will tell them a scientist's level of expertise, honesty, and integrity.

In the area of expertise, voters need easy access to information that will tell them the scientist's rank in the profession, their relevant area of expertise, and whether they are currently publishing in the field.

In the area of honesty, voters need to be able to determine whether the scientist has any conflicts of interest and whether there is evidence that the scientist has misrepresented findings or made misleading statements.

In the area of intellectual integrity, the voter would be looking for evidence that the scientist responds appropriate to reasonable objections and whether the scientist elsewhere supports crackpot ideas.

Anderson argues that, with a reasonable amount of effort, a voter can determine what the consensus is among respected experts in the relevant scientific fields on matters such as climate change and other scientific concerns.

Let's grant this.

Let us assume that I follow Anderson’s advice and I go through her formula to discover that competent scientists believe that global warming is taking place, it will be destructive overall (though some people will benefit), and that there are things that humans can do to prevent it.

(Note: At this point, one would normally talk about whether climate change is caused by human activity - but I hold that to be politically irrelevant. If a meteor were heading towards Earth or a new outbreak of Ebola emerged in Africa, the fact that these threats were not "man-made" would not be used to argue against taking action against them. The "man made" debate in the realm of climate change is used by those who profit from activities that produce greenhouse gasses to cloud the public discussion and, thus, hinder effective political action. What matters is not that climate change is man-made, but that there is something we can do to prevent it.)

After I do my research, I then write a blog post where I present my findings to my reader.

Should my readers pay any attention to what I write?

One interpretation of Anderson's article says that they should not. After all, I have the lowest possible ranking in the category of "expertise", that of "layman". If we accept this answer, this means that each voter has an obligation to make this assessment themselves and to ignore anything said to them by those friends and family members who do not have the relevant expertise, honesty, and integrity. It means that all public discussion of political matters among non-experts is . . . probably . . . illegitimate.

At this point, we can grant Anderson's claim that a voter could find out the scientific consensus on climate change. But, can they also find out the scientific consensus on gun control, universal basic income, tariffs, monetary policy, minimum wage laws, drug laws, asbestos, ozone, pre-school education, class size, spanking, racial injustice, drone strikes, immigration, etc., etc., etc. This list is quite long.

I would argue that it is impossible to become an informed voter on more than a few issues.

Actually, Anderson allows that responsible voters may go to sources other than the scientists themselves. She devotes a large portion of her discussion to responsible media. This at least assumes that a voter can get her information from the media, where the media, in turn, gets its information from the scientists in the manner she described. This would allow me to produce my blog posting on climate change.

However, what voters would then need is not a set of criteria for determining reliable scientific testimony, but criteria for determining what counts as reliable media. Her thesis that democracy is not threatened, “provided citizens can make reliable second-order assessments of the consensus of trustworthy scientific experts” needs to be replaced by, or supplemented by, a thesis that citizens can make reliable second-order assessments about the expertise, honesty, and responsibility of public media, such as my blog.

Without the ability to (and the willingness to) assess responsible media, we still confront the problem that voters may be casting votes without understanding the issues relevant in any given election.

No comments: