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The problem of expertise in a liberal democracy

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Stephen Turner’s book, Liberal Democracy 3.0, provides a useful background to the problem of expertise — especially scientific expertise — in a modern liberal democracy.

What is a liberal democracy?

First, of course, it’s important to define what a “liberal democracy” is. The term liberal, unfortunately, has acquired a negative connotation for many today, especially amongst conservatives in the United States.

But “liberal” in this sense is not the opposite of “conservative”; liberal instead is aligned with governance through public decision-making and public discussion. “Liberal democracies” are thus democracies where the majority of people are eligible to vote and where, generally, the “rule of law” is established through some form of constitution.

It is, in Stephen Turner’s definition, “government by discussion.” There is one exception: religion, because of lessons learned after centuries of religious warfare, is generally removed from the discussion as being incompatible with civil debate. This has been done either through explicit state neutrality (the First Amendment) or through the establishment of a single, state religion along with tolerance for other faiths. The United States is a liberal democracy; Saudi Arabia is not.

An illiberal democracy might be a society in which citizens vote, but the terms of the debate are constrained through propaganda, censorship, or theology. Thus, many illiberal states, like North Korea, claim to be “democratic,” but most citizens of liberal democracies would disagree.

The problem of expertise

If free discussion and debate is core to liberalism — as Turner, backed by old-school liberal theorists like John Stuart Mill, argue — then anything that interferes with public debate and decision-making also moves a society away from liberalism (note, once again, that this is not the opposite of conservatism in the modern sense).

In a classic liberal democracy, public opinion — influenced through civil discourse and debate — is the basis of political action. But how can one have an effective political discourse when only experts understand the terms of the debate? We can all understand and participate in — at least in Turner’s view — debates over, for example, the extent of the voting franchise (“votes for women!”), but how can the lay public effectively decide if tobacco ought to be classified as a drug? Or if the MMR vaccine causes autism or not? Or whether global climate change is real?

These kinds of questions require scientific evidence to fully answer, but that evidence is difficult for non-experts to fully assess. Without the subject-area knowledge, lay participants frequently over- or under-value key evidence, confuse correlation with causation, or simply fail to follow the science.

However, turning such decisions over to experts in the subject conflicts with a core ideal of a liberal democracy: that a public debate ought to determine public policy.

Trust

If we simply trusted experts, then practically, at least, this conflict would largely disappear. We could simply establish commissions or groups of experts to evaluate problems and then provide solutions — much as the European Union does it (though not without criticism).

But a number of factors have combined to create a sense of distrust of experts by the American public. DDT, Three Mile Island, and Bhopal damaged the trust in science of progressives; a rise in religiosity, growing dislike of government regulation, and an increasing perception that scientists are “liberal” (in the contemporary sense) correspondingly degraded conservatives’ trust in science.

As a result, it has become untenable to leave decisions on issues like global climate change in the hands of experts — but as a result, rational, logic-based discussion and debate by educated and informed participants — another core value of a liberal democracy — has become rare.

Solutions

Turner suggests that creating pseudo-juridical, adversarial debates by experts might increase trust in the results. After all, we trust a similar approach to administer the death penalty — but we certainly don’t trust the lawyers who control the process! It’s an interesting, if impractical, concept, partly implemented already through the tort system, but unlikely to be extended elsewhere.

Alternatively, Turner suggests we adopt European-style commissions, but that we make them accountable to the public for their decisions in some fashion. This is effectively the path that has been adopted domestically and internationally, although it is not without its controversies — and does little to resolve the tension inherent in experts making decisions instead of the lay public.

To re-include the public in expert decision-making — or at least to create a public capable of effectively reviewing and scrutinizing expert commissions — the only real solution I see is education. While this may be inadequate to turn average citizen into domain experts, it would at least help make citizens capable of evaluating and assessing experts themselves, along with the logical reasoning of their decisions, more effectively.

Conclusions

Although it feels like this conflict is new the tension between experts and public decision-makers is not unique to today’s liberal democracies. But I think Turner might be correct that the incredible complexity of today’s science and evidence has compounded the tension into a crisis.

Additionally, the long-standing exclusion of religion from anything but moral decision-making — or, alternatively, the extension of science into the realm of theology — has created a new level of crisis. Free discussion in the Millean mode is simply impossible when faith and theology fully determine the outcome for a sizable percentage of participants.

There is no simple solution for any of this. Education is helpful, but not decisive; transparent mechanisms of science and government also help, but are not determinative; and letters to the editor from distinguished scientists can only go so far in re-establishing scientific authority.