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The place of science in liberal democracy



According to John Rawls’s canonical formulation, the noncontroversial methods and conclusions of science are public reasons. This means that they do not stand for a sectarian view, but they reflect a common epistemology that all citizens can draw upon to justify political norms. However, the status of science in contemporary liberal democracies has been called into question. Some argue that the complexity and elaborateness of scientific theories drives them away from the liberal ideal of public reason, which is supposed to be the product of commonsensical reasoning and general beliefs. Others point to the fact that scientific reasons are simply the reasons offered by the community of scientists, thus paradigmatically non-public associational reasons. Others have claimed that, in a pluralistic and postmodern world, there’s no shared knowledge-generator able to produce universally valid truth-propositions. Finally, to the extent that a relevant portion of the citizens in some countries disagree with the scientific consensus (as it appears to be the case regarding climate change, evolutionary theory or compulsory vaccination), the non-controversiality requirement may prove impossible to meet. Recently, populists have challenged the idea of science as public reason by arguing that scientists are members of a conspirational elite in cahoots with foreign interests, rejected mainstream scientific advice as mere technocracy and asserted their democratic right to rule on the basis of factual beliefs held by the (real) people.

This workshop aims to gather scholars who have thought about this ample range of challenges, either to argue that liberals should forget about science as public reason, or to defend science’s status as a preferred epistemology for the purposes of public justification.