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Identifying Difference, Engaging Dissent: What is at Stake in Democratizing Knowledge?


Several prominent voices have called for a democratization of science through deliberative processes that include a diverse range of perspectives and values. We bring these scholars into conversation with extant research on democratic deliberation in political theory and the social sciences. In doing so, we identify systematic barriers to the effectiveness of inclusive deliberation in both scientific and political settings. We are particularly interested in what we call misidentified dissent, where deliberations are starkly framed at the outset in terms of dissenting positions without properly distinguishing the kinds of difference and disagreement motivating dissent.

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  1. 1.

    For an elaboration of these rationales see King (2003); also, see Cohen (1996). On epistemic features of deliberation and deliberative democracy, see, e.g., Peter (2009, ch. 3), and Estlund (2009, esp. 18ff). More generally, see Dryzek (2000).

  2. 2.

    The ‘pluralism’ we take from Kitcher and Longino is methodological, rather than substantive: for our purposes here we are agnostic on the further question of whether vigorous inclusion as a methodological commitment in science will result in a thoroughgoing pluralism of irreducible theoretical frameworks. Longino is certainly friendlier to that possibility than Kitcher, but even here we find support for our methodological emphasis and agnostic stance: see, e.g., Longino (2002, 140–142) and Kellert et al. (2006).

  3. 3.

    We accept Longino’s characterization here for the sake of argument, but we doubt that the epistemic standard of equality is so easily disentangled from moral and political dimensions of equality. Such disentanglement is certainly difficult in practice, since failures of mutual respect grounded in legacies of socioeconomic inequality and unequal political standing can have epistemic consequences that Longino and others readily acknowledge. There is a comparable difficulty separating these dimensions in theory also: moral and political philosophers have, after all, spilt much ink on the question: ‘equality of what?’ Their varied answers—welfare, resources, capabilities, life chances, respect, standing as citizens—go far beyond the intuition that moral and political equality is exhausted by the condition that all have an equal chance at inclusion.

  4. 4.

    By singling out constructive dialogue, we have in mind the following distinction: the kinds of encounters both Longino and Kitcher have in mind may have desirable consequences even if they fail to move parties from their favoured positions—if, for instance, deliberation clarifies the sources of disagreement, or introduces new sources of evidence and directions of inquiry. So even if dialogue doesn’t change peoples’ beliefs or attitudes, it may still be constructive.

  5. 5.

    An example of wrongheaded rule would be one in which observational practices in an inquiry are restricted to reading tea leaves.

  6. 6.

    In our judgement, the creationist community typically forfeits on the status of their claims, owing to their failure to take up the views of other approaches in the ongoing critical discourse. Sometimes this failure of uptake is subtle, in the form of selective uptake for rhetorical purposes, while still grounding alleged scientific efforts in unchallengeable core beliefs that are immune from evidentiary or theoretical challenge. We cannot argue the point here, but our sense is that recent efforts to engage this community (by, for example, Fuller 2008; Nagel 2008) fail to take seriously this deeply problematic feature of allegedly scientific challenges to evolutionary theory by intelligent design advocates. Neither Fuller nor Nagel ask the obvious question: why don’t intelligent design researchers actually try to study conjectured intelligent design, using the methods available and widely used in the social and historical sciences? (Economists and historians routinely ask, for example, whether or not some consequence of a given legislated policy or military engagement was the result of design, or merely accidental).

  7. 7.

    In an earlier work, Longino notes that her proposed pluralist account faces a dilemma: “If objectivity requires pluralism in the community, then scientific knowledge becomes elusive, but if consensus is pursued, it will be at the cost of silencing critical oppositional positions” (Longino 1993, 114). The strategy she adopts to avoid the dilemma is to “detach scientific knowledge from consensus, if consensus means agreement of the entire scientific community regarding the truth or acceptability of a given theory” (ibid., italics added).

  8. 8.

    We note here the difference, well-explained by Chambers (2009), between democratic deliberation and deliberative democracy. We do not sustain the distinction in our discussion, however, since the underlying theoretical work we draw on is common to both strands of theory. That said, some of the empirical findings on deliberation that we cite are precisely what motivates the move from deliberative democracy to democratic deliberation that concerns Chambers: she draws the distinction to emphasize, analyse, and redress a move away from concerns about the mass public character of democracy in deliberative theory. In recognition of the difficulties of reconciling deliberative aspirations with well-known problems of spatial and organizational scale in democratic politics, advocates of deliberation have begun to focus far more attention on the question of how to democratize various tractable forms of group deliberation, and worried correspondingly less about how a democracy en toto might be made more deliberative. In general we think it fair to say that the democratic turn in philosophy of science is concerned with democratic deliberation—rendering deliberative processes democratic—and not deliberative democracy. (For instance, one might wonder about the status of scientific knowledge production within a theory of deliberative democracy, but that is not our concern here, nor of the philosophers we are engaging. However, it is certainly a question worth asking).

  9. 9.

    Invoking Rousseau, we allow that our deliberations together may lead us to discover and freely affirm a general will that is not simply the will of all, or of some. In the literature on deliberative democracy the openness condition is most often discussed in the same breath as toleration, although the condition of openness is typically framed as civility and mutual respect: “In deliberative settings, citizens manifest their equality with each other not only by refraining from interference with their acts of expression; they also do so by sustaining the conditions for communication. How do they do this? They do so reflexively, in their communication with each other in public deliberation and in their attitudes towards others as participants in a public process ... Toleration in this sense is at minimum discursive openness” (Bohman 2003, 763). Scanlon (1996) sees that toleration commits us to the perhaps uncomfortable possibility of a changed social environment.

  10. 10.

    These distortions and perverse incentives are central, for instance, to Pincione and Téson (2006) on the persistence of what they call “discourse failure” and their associated critique of deliberative democratic proposals.

  11. 11.

    Our meaning is consonant with Rawls (2005, 175), who gives us the idea of a comprehensive doctrine as including “conceptions of what is of value in human life, as well as ideals of personal virtue and character that are to inform much of our nonpolitical conduct”. As is clear from this passage, however, Rawls is primarily concerned with distinguishing political conceptions of justice and legitimacy from those derived from more comprehensive religious-spiritual and moral-philosophical systems of thought. Our usage is more capacious, including especially core ontological and epistemic commitments that condition knowledge claims and define valid inferences. An example: some religious-spiritual worldviews commit adherents to accepting private subjective mental states as convincing evidence, that in turn justifies faith in the existing of supernatural realms and beings. These are the kinds of deep and settled commitments that are of particular interest to us here.

  12. 12.

    Recall here the importance, for Longino, of widely shared and reasonably settled public standards in the generation of valid knowledge through inclusive critical interactions.

  13. 13.

    We simply note this as a plausible example of how dissent can eventually challenge status quo understandings in science; for our purposes here we take no sides in the dispute over convergent realism where this example is often invoked, e.g. Laudan (1981) and Lewis (2001).

  14. 14.

    We draw here on what Rawls (2001, 33–37) calls the burdens of judgement: on the most profound and important questions of morality and politics, evidence is complex and uncertain, and even when we can provisionally agree on what evidence is relevant, reliable, and how we ought to reason about those facts, factual questions almost never settle the matter of how to weigh competing considerations, and how best to interpret available evidence. Thus, while we may be firmly convinced of the truth of our views, we allow that other intelligent, informed, sincere interlocutors may reasonably disagree on these kinds of questions. These burdens are central to Rawls’s idea of reasonable disagreement, (see esp. 2005, 36ff and 134ff), but we do not claim that such disagreement is synonymous with the kind of potentially fruitful dissent that especially interests us here. We simply cite acceptance of these burdens of judgement as an obvious way that sincere and informed disagreement could persist on complex and contentious issues.

  15. 15.

    For Mouffe (2005, 228), this is a consensus on “the ‘ethico-political’ principles of the liberal democratic regime, that is, liberty and equality for all,” but where “there should always exist the possibility of serious dissent about their interpretation”. We thank an anonymous reviewer for pushing us to clarify this contrast with Mouffe’s position.

  16. 16.

    More pointedly, we suspect that personal conversions—however difficult and unlikely—will sometimes have rational or at least reasonable grounds. Or, if these transformations really are as mysterious as Mouffe seems to suggest, we suspect that those conversions are at least occasionally the result of exposure to different (but rational) assumptions, evidence, interpretations, and arguments.

  17. 17.

    There is, of course, considerable debate among theorists about whether such worries are warranted or ill-advised. Charles Taylor, for example, has an optimistic take on this question, insisting that the driving problem in democratic communication is not incommensurability, but the fact that we face “‘the jackals and vultures of partial and (we hope) surmountable noncommunication’ (2002, 291).

  18. 18.

    The National Assembly unanimously passed the motion in early 2011, inciting a national debate (see, e.g., “Kirpan Banned at Quebec National Assembly” (accessed 10.1.2011), and “Kirpan Ban Puts Canada on Brink of Multiculturalism Debate No One Wants” (accessed 10.1.2011).

  19. 19.

    For insight into how controversy can be manufactured in scientific debates, see, e.g., Ceccarelli (2011).

  20. 20.

    Thanks to Burke Hendrix for pointing us towards this specific example.

  21. 21.

    “ even engage in the process of negotiating a land claim agreement, First Nation people must translate their complex reciprocal relationship with the land into the equally complex but very different language of ‘property”’ (Nadasdy 2002, 248).

  22. 22.

    Nancy Williams (1986, ch. 8) argues that, historically, the legal notion of “property rights” were defined explicitly in contradistinction to aboriginal conceptualizations, in order to stack the debate in favor of the courts.

  23. 23.

    For an example of harsh criticism, see Friel (2010).


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Correspondence to L. King.

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King, L., Morgan-Olsen, B. & Wong, J. Identifying Difference, Engaging Dissent: What is at Stake in Democratizing Knowledge?. Found Sci 21, 69–88 (2016).

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  • Social epistemology
  • Deliberative democracy
  • Mouffe
  • Longino
  • Kitcher