Science and Public Reason


Rating: ★★★☆☆

Sheila Jasanoff. 2012. Science and Public Reason. Earthscan. ISBN 978 0 415 52486 5.

It is doubtful if there has ever been a time when the discourse between the public, government and science has been more strained and yet more needed. One only has to look at the recent arguments over climate change and carbon taxes to see how complex issues are being played out in the public arena. Part of the response to this has been the increase in books dealing with science and communication (e.g. one here) but ones senses that this is only part of a wider issue. If we take climate change as an exemplar then there are really two aspects that need to be addressed. The first of these is the science of climate change the studies of climatology and paleaoclimatology that allow us to make reasonable assumptions about changes in the future. The second of these is the discourse within which these debates are held. It is certain that we understand the climate science far more than the communication science. The aim of this text is to provide a framework for understanding, to show how our discussions can be constructed.

The book itself is a collection of a series of essays by the author setting out her basic ideas over her long period of work in the field. She argues that there are three major themes: a national culture of rationality, that expertise can create political as well as knowledge forms and that the law can play an active part in the debate. As such, these three can be seen as constituting a milieu within which debates are posited. This goes against earlier notions of a fixed set of actors, suggesting the debating area is both fluid and symbiotic.

The reader is led through a series of ideas and arguments, broadly playing out the development of public reason and policy. We start with the idea of reason by comparison – looking at the making of public policy on the same topic in different jurisdictions. A study of biotechnology and embryo research shows that, far from a uniform rational argument, decisions were as much based on the conditions in the society under discussion. This seems to be the case even if comparing different issues under the same conditions e.g. “crises”.  Another avenue of research is the extent to which governments have access to expertise. It is a paradox to see the growth of modern democracy alongside the development of a scientific and technological elite in government making rational discussion all the harder. Of course, when it does fail e.g. Fukishima, then the resulting debates are all the more fragmented. If we go back a little way we see the move of debate from science towards “risk”. If the science failed, so it was argued, we could rely on expert calculation of risk. So risk (risk aversion?) becomes a central part of public reason. Taken in a comparative sense, debate then centres on the quality of the expert advice (especially if this comes from “anonymous” sources i.e. un-named experts in public service). Another tack is taken when looking at the ways in which law and science interact. Examining three key US cases, the author demonstrates how “science” arguments have been taken from juries to judges and the implications of this for judgements (given that judges are not usually scientists), not least the nature and quality of evidence that can be expected.

This is a very detailed and densely packed book as one might expect from a major work spanning a person’s academic life. By reading this we become convinced that “reason” is not the hard, logical, impersonal study but one shaped by culture, norms and law. In fact, these three weave a story thorough which we are able to investigate our current responses to environmental, and other, issues. The opening paragraph noted the debates surrounding climate change. On the surface, these appear to be random with evidence appearing and being challenged to be replaced. Having read (and re-read) this text it becomes clear that we have much more to do to fully understand the debates taking place. As such, this book needs to be read not just by those studying public policy but also those interested in improving the quality in and understanding of, public debate. The issues at stake have rarely been higher and we owe it to ourselves to study, in greater detail, the actual discourses surrounding these debates. We see younger people turning away from politics – perhaps exposure to ideas such as those seen here might help.

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