PhD Research 


On the Political Costs of Misinformation About Science

Abstract:

 Some speech acts about science can result in many non-experts in a political community holding false or inaccurate empirical beliefs.

 But if people do hold false or inaccurate empirical beliefs, should we be concerned? If so, why should we be concerned? What’s wrong, morally and politically speaking, with speech acts that misrepresent scientific testimony, or that otherwise count as misinformation about science? 

 Philosophers of science have largely neglected these questions, despite them often being tied to ‘dissent’ about science. Instead, they have almost exclusively focused on the epistemological implications and benefits of dissent for knowledge production and scientific progress. Even those philosophers of science who in recent years have displayed scepticism towards dissent have focused their arguments on its negative epistemic effects within, and on, the scientific community and science itself.

 Instead, the focus of this thesis is to provide a better understanding of the nature of the non-epistemic consequences of dissent and the broader phenomenon of misinformation about science for non-experts and for society more broadly. To achieve this, I bring contemporary analytic social and political philosophy into conversation with current debates about problematic speech acts about science within philosophy of science.  

 I argue that some speech acts about science, including dissent, can interfere with and erode three core liberal democratic values: it can compromise personal autonomy; it can pre-emptively silence people, and thus constrain their freedom of speech; and it can undermine the democratic legitimacy of public policy. Moreover, I argue that these three consequences are interlinked.

 I conclude my thesis with an argument for maintaining a focus on communicative ethics, and offering a basic framework for reasoning through the highly context-dependent evaluations of, and judgements that need to be made about, scientific dissent within different parts of the public knowledge system.