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Epistemic democracy and the role of experts

Abstract

Epistemic democrats are rightly concerned with the quality of outcomes and judge democratic procedures in terms of their ability to ‘track the truth’. However, their impetus to assess ‘rule by experts’ and ‘rule by the people’ as mutually exclusive has led to a meagre treatment of the role of expert knowledge in democracy. Expertise is often presented as a threat to democracy but is also crucial for enlightened political processes. Contemporary political philosophy has so far paid little attention to our reliance on experts and has not sufficiently addressed the question of how expertise can be used to improve the epistemic quality of democratic decision making. We believe this lack of interest is spurred by a too hasty acceptance of arguments dismissive of the political role of experts. The article examines a series of often-cited epistemic objections and concludes that several of them are overstated or misconceived, yet they all reflect real difficulties that need to be addressed. On this background, we tentatively outline a set of mechanisms that can contribute to alleviating the irreducible problem of epistemic asymmetries and ensuring that experts really are experts and use their expertise in the right way.

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Correspondence to Cathrine Holst.

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We thank two anonymous reviewers and Bo Rothstein, Raino Malnes, Jakob Elster and Jason Brennan for valuable comments as well as participants at the following workshops: Was Plato Right? Should the Experts Rule? (Nordic Political Association Conference, Gothenburg August 2014), Justification and feasibility: Unpacking the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory (Centre Universitaire de Norvège à Paris, November 2017) and Expertise, Democracy and Non-Majoritarian Institutions (ARENA. Center for European Studies, University of Oslo, November 2017).

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Holst, C., Molander, A. Epistemic democracy and the role of experts. Contemp Polit Theory 18, 541–561 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-018-00299-4

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Keywords

  • expertise
  • epistocracy
  • democracy
  • epistemic asymmetry
  • biases