Deference, Dissent, and the Non-Epistemic Consequences of Speech Acts About Science
My PhD research explores the links between epistemological issues surrounding science, and ethical issues associated with public debates about scientific issues and public policy informed by science. I look at the misrepresentation of climate science and misinformation about anthropogenic climate change within our public information system as a key case study, and argue that some examples of "dissent" about science are normatively inappropriate, by virtue of the way it interferes with and undermines citizens' personal and political agency. I identify the key policy threat that normatively inappropriate dissent poses as being to its democratic legitimacy, rather than to its rationality or soundness, as has been argued by other scholars. I use a case study of the Australian Government's (now repealed and short-lived) carbon pricing policy to make this argument.
Although providing a detailed account of what does and does not constitute normatively (in)appropriate dissent is beyond the scope of my thesis, I contribute to this goal by arguing that certain actors within the public sphere have a pro tanto justice-based reason to defer to certain scientists' factual assertions, and thus withhold from making or propagating certain kinds of dissenting speech acts about science. I sketch a framework to guide 'all-things-considered' evaluations of whether or not we should take a non-expert's non-deferral to scientific experts' factual assertions to be justified, by outlining a range of circumstances that would void, weaken, or override this reason. I also explain how my framework can be used by non-experts to assist them to identify which scientists/groups of scientists or experts merit their trust and deference.
I then apply this framework to two detailed cases where our intuitions suggest:
- Non-experts should defer to the scientific consensus --> the reality of anthropogenic climate change;
- Non-experts should not have deferred to a scientific consensus --> homosexuality being classified as a mental disorder by psychiatrists.
Finally, to conclude, I briefly look at the role of civic education and civic rhetoric in repairing and restoring our public knowledge system, and the various responsibilities to citizens different actors have within it. I note the challenges in shaping education curricula and in influencing the corporate news media in particular. I also highlight the critical roles of philosophers and science studies scholars in these endeavours.