Monday, 5 December 2011

Democracy is not a truth machine

In a democracy people are free to express their opinions and question those of others. This is an important personal freedom, and also essential to the very idea of government by discussion. But it has also been held to be instrumentally important because in open public debate true ideas will conquer false ones by their merit, and the people will see the truth for themselves. In other words, democracy has an epistemic function as a kind of truth machine. From this it follows that in a democracy there should be no dogma: no knowledge protected from public challenge and debate. Yet this whole argument is founded on embarrassing misconceptions of  the nature of truth and of the working of democracy.

The case for seeing freedom of expression as a public as well as a private good was made most eloquently and famously by J. S. Mill in On Liberty.

[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Mill's argument is a rhetorical tour de force in defence of pluralism and individual freedom. But it is only partly right. In particular Mill acknowledges no distinction between moral, religious & political opinions, and opinions about facts & rational truths. He also fails to distinguish the processes of discovery and evaluation.

Mill is quite right to defend people's freedom to form, express, and debate their own opinions about religion, politics, and morality. These are subjects on which anyone can have an opinion; on which in a free society everyone has the right to have an opinion; and on which the very legitimacy of opinions requires their formation in a particular way (through non-coercive persuasion and critical self-reflection). Liberalism itself is founded on a respect for individual autonomy on these issues, in the sense that every person is considered to develop their own 'conception of the good': a kind of personal moral idiolect governing our judgements about value (opinions) that is built up from our cumulative interpretations and re-interpretations of our own experiences.

Mill's particular contribution here is the counter-intuitive point that we can each learn from engaging with unconventional opinions even if we still conclude that they are bad and wrong, because they may be interestingly wrong. Books like Plato's Republic, Machiavelli's Prince, Hobbes' Leviathan, or Mandeville's Fable of the Bees offend nearly everyone and persuade almost none, but they act like grit in an oyster by forcing us to rethink the justifications for our conventional beliefs. Allowing such dangerous ideas to be aired thus supports rather than undermines individual intellectual autonomy, which is why many undergraduates are required to read them.

Mill's concept of an opinion also fits neatly with the public reasoning he recommends for democracy. Though held by private individuals, opinions have an inter-subjective aspect that allows them to be justified, debated, and critiqued in public. We can discuss and try to change each others' minds about what we should value and what should be done on issues as diverse as Who should win American Idol? or Should we invade Syria? In democratic politics, after talking like that for a while, we participate in a social choice exercise that transforms those individual opinions into a collective decision - we vote to decide which opinions are most agreeable to most of us.

But ethical precepts like 'torture is a crime against humanity', religious beliefs like 'Jesus loves you', literary judgements like 'Ulysses is the best book ever written', or explicitly political views like 'a republic is better than a monarchy' have the peculiar character of being fundamentally a matter of opinion. They really are up to us to decide. They are therefore quite different from objective truths, whether rational truths (as produced by rational enquiry, such as science) or facts (such as historical events).

As Hannah Arendt noted in Truth and Politics (New Yorker 25/2/1967), objective truths have quite a different epistemic character than opinions, and that makes their evaluation quite different. Unlike opinions, objective truths are depersonalised 'views from nowhere'. Not my truth, your truth, or even 'our truth', but The Truth. They are not amenable to democratic debate or discussion since whether or not people find them agreeable is quite irrelevant.

To put it in a nutshell, it is right that in a democracy the people can debate and vote to decide whether murderers should be executed, but it is misguided to think the democratic process can also decide the factual issue of whether a particular person (OJ Simpson say) is a murderer. Democracy can determine whether to teach Intelligent Design in schools, but not whether it is true.

The democratic market for ideas

If one tries to consider what a free  - democratic - marketplace for ideas in keeping with Mill's beliefs would look like one would be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than the world wide web.

Traditional media for the dissemination of ideas - like books, newspapers, or even university seminar-rooms - have space constraints and so their content must be curated by professional editors before being submitted to the public. That curation for quality and likely popularity naturally reflects the orthodoxy of the mainstream ('the tyranny of the majority' that Mill worried about) and filters out a lot of 'bad ideas' not fit for print.

On the internet, in contrast, the space constraint disappears (though we still have an attention scarcity constraint!) and hence professional curation recedes in importance. 'The people' are now free to express their opinions directly to the world (if, in some countries, only anonymously). The people can also assess each others' ideas 'democratically'. We can search and browse for what people have written on the subject we're interested in, and bring our favourite ideas to prominence by sharing and linking to them. In other words, we vote up the opinions we find most agreeable, but we do not exclude the opinions we dislike from being found and considered by others.

The web eminently satisfies the requirement for discovery - generating and disseminating heterodox claims about objective truth. It also performs an assessment of those ideas in a democratic way, i.e. weighting them according to their popular appeal. Nevertheless the web offers an object lesson of the flaws in democracy's claim to be a truth machine. Democracy, in and of itself, provides no mechanism for the evaluation of objective truth.

Rational truths

Rational truths are those established by chains of human reasoning that can in principle be replicated by others. Like Euclid's geometry. Science is an archetypal form of rational truth seeking since its authority depends on such replication: that one will always get the same result in the same experiment because the result doesn't depend on who the scientists are, but on the independently existing world. That means for example that if all the climate scientists in the world were wiped out by a freak meteor at a conference, climate science would quickly reappear and say basically the same things again (as more or less happened when the Catholic Church tried to suppress heliocentricism).

Note, however, that rational truth does not work by persuasion, as opinions do in a democracy. Instead it rudely asserts that this is how things are whether you like it or not. The standing invitation to replicate the results of an experiment is not an invitation to have your own opinion about whether they are true.

Now consider how rational truths appear in the democratic 'free market for ideas' on the internet. One can find all sorts of heterodox claims that purport to have a scientific basis. So we can find claims that vaccinations cause autism; organic food is healthier; abortions cause cancer; the world's climate isn't actually changing (or if it is, it isn't our doing; or if it is, it won't be so bad); etc. These claims are often supported by some plausible sciencey sounding arguments and mechanisms that seem a bit like what you learned in high-school.

So how is Mill's truth machine supposed to work here? Supposedly the presence of such heterodox claims benefits us because it gives us the chance to 'exchange error for truth' (or at least improve the partial truth we hold). But what actually results when people with different opinions on the science of climate change debate it in public is an increase in confusion, not enlightenment. The problem stems from an underlying confusion between the generally adequate liberal presumption of equal intellectual capacities (hence, freedom of ethical, religious, and political choice) and the faulty assumption that therefore everyone has the appropriate intellectual capabilities to assess particular truth claims.

To actually assess the truth of the matter - to learn from the debate in the Millian sense - presupposes that we have developed the capabilities to assess the truth of specific scientific claims in the first place. And that seems to require that we be scientists, and in fact specialists on the topics concerned, rather than ordinary citizens.

Take global warming. Suppose someone comes along and claims that there is a systematic problem in the interpolation models (that transform raw data from various sources such as tree-rings, satellite readings, and ice-cores into a standardised climate history that can serve as the input for global climate models). How are you as a non-scientist supposed to assess the scientific truth and significance of that claim? Or of the mainstream scientific consensus? If you do have an opinion on the matter, in what sense do you think it counts as knowledge? If you don't believe what the climate scientists say, what makes you think you know better? If you do believe them, do you consider that your belief in climate change is as well justified by an understanding of the relevant evidence as theirs?

Mill also argued that the exercise of refuting even false claims provides the valuable benefit of improving our own understanding of the truth, by having to think it through for ourselves. Thus, in refuting false claims about climate science, you would presumably come to better understand the scientific credibility of proper climate science.

Is this plausible? Climate science goes back over a century and integrates the refined expertise of dozens of distinct scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines, from meteorology to physics to biochemistry to computer modelling to statistics, as well as specialised techniques such as for analysing pre-historic temperature records from ice-cores or preserved pine-cones. Just how much of this are we required to master in order to claim to be 'thinking for ourselves' in rejecting heterodoxy? Bear in mind that the proponents of these ideas may dedicate their lives to coming up with detailed and complex arguments and defences for their positions, and a truly open minded engagement with them would be extraordinarily demanding. And don't we have other things to do with our lives, including other heterodox claims to refute?

Just treating claims about the truth as contributions to the democratic market for ideas in the first place distorts their character and assessment. It suggests that we should treat such claims as opinions, and engage in constructive mutually respectful debate about them, as if they were of the same kind as other people's opinions about immigration reform or the Republican presidential nomination. But unlike those subjects, the claims of climate science do not depend on how agreeable they seem to us. Thinking that is so allows an invasion of truth status by political status.

The first consequence is that the people believe the truth status of climate science is a matter of opinion; that they have a right to their own opinion on it; and that they have a democratic right to have their opinion counted equally with anyone else's. But counting votes, though it may respect the equal dignity of every citizen, is irrelevant to the truth of scientific claims. Even if everyone based their vote on thorough internet research, a majority view that global warming is true has no more epistemic credibility than a majority view that it is false.

Second, eliding matters of truth with matters of opinion politicises the assessment: the properly political aspect of evaluating the meaning and implications of truths is carried over into the assessment of the truths themselves. If the global warming thesis is true, uncomfortable political deliberations about its implications for our way of life would follow. It seems to some that one can win that debate by denying the truth of the starting point (e.g.).

Third, since most people are manifestly unable to evaluate the science, we reach for non-science related grounds for judgement that we do feel proficient at. In the classical analysis of rhetoric Aristotle divided efforts at persuading an audience into three main components: logosethos; and pathos (respectively, argument; the speaker's personal credibility; and emotional appeal). Since assessing the logos of climate science debates is mostly beyond us, we are considerably swayed in our assessments of it by the other two components.

So it really matters how trustworthy we think the speakers are. We may not understand what they're saying, but if we think they're not being honest, we don't have to. Hence the recent furore over the 'Climategate emails', and the general scrutiny of funding for both climate change proponents and deniers. We are also swayed by the emotional framing of the issue. In terms of saving a beautiful but fragile world for our grandchildren for example. Or in terms of defending individual liberty from the depredations of Big Government and protecting the American way of life. Framing has a directly political character because it resonates with strongly held opinions about the good life and the good society about which we already know how to disagree.

Finally, in a democracy minority opinions deserve equal respect (reflecting Mill's concerns about majoritarian tyranny). Democratic debates are limited to deciding what we should do as a society, not what individual members of a society should think. Thus, unlike in actual scientific debate, losing a political argument does not mean accepting that you are wrong, only that you haven't (yet) managed to persuade enough people to your view.


The second kind of objective truth are facts, those stubborn bits of the objective world that also refuse democracy's authority. Unfortunately these are somewhat weaker even than rational truths, since they can't be replicated. They are one time concurrences of situational factors - like Barack Obama being born in Hawaii - not timeless laws we can access at our will. Our knowledge of them depends on the frailties of witnesses and faded documents, which are easily suppressed and anyway drift apart over time. So although on the one hand the truth of facts exceeds democracy's capacities of assessment, on the other hand the fragile character of their evidence makes knowledge of them all too vulnerable to political fiat (democratic or not).

The problems I noted above apply here too, and I won't belabour the point by repeating them. However an example will illustrate the significance of the issue. Consider a fact like the holocaust that bends history all out of shape and leaves its mark everywhere. Sure we may disagree about whether that traffic light was red or green, or what the Iran-Contra affair was all about so many years later. But a fact like the holocaust is surely on a different level?

Again, look at the internet. Explore the wonderful diversity of opinions, the revisionist histories, conspiracy theories, and photographs 'they don't want you to see'. This can involve elaborate analysis of such obscure details as whether the concrete remains of 'alleged' gas chambers contained sufficient rebar to have fulfilled such a purpose. And then ask yourself how to decide truth from falsity, if you didn't already know, thanks to your upbringing under the hegemony of mainstream orthodoxy (which might well have been different if you had been brought up in Iran or Russia). It isn't possible.

Our ability as individuals to get to true facts merely by considering different arguments is distinctly limited. If we only know of one account of the holocaust - what we were taught in school - we are likely to accept it. But whether it is true or false is a matter of luck rather than our intellectual capacities. Now it is reasonable to suppose that if we were exposed to a diversity of claims about the holocaust then our opinions on the subject would become more clearly our own, and our own responsibility. They would be the product of our own intellectual capacities and character instead of simply reflecting which society we happened to be born into. But so what? Holding sincere opinions about whether the holocaust happened is all very well and Millian, but it has no necessary relation to their truth. As Harry Frankfurt notes in his philosophical essay On Bullshit, sincerity is concerned with being true to oneself, not to the nature of the world: from the perspective of truth seeking, sincerity is bullshit.

Knowing this, we can have no faith that the popularity of certain factual claims among people as ordinary as ourselves is any guide to their truth. Democracy is no more equipped to evaluate facts than rational truths. We can all, of course, hold opinions about the civilisational significance of the holocaust and its status as a justification for the state of Israel, and debate them with others in democratic ways. Yet, when it comes to the facts, neither the sincerity with which individuals believe that 'the holocaust' is a myth nor the popularity of such beliefs can make them epistemically respectable. 90% of the population denying the holocaust is irrelevant to its truth status. And vice versa.

Reconciling truth and democracy

Truth and democracy are in tension, but nevertheless truth and democracy do belong together. Good public deliberation, whether about foreign policy towards Iran or reforming education, requires a foundation of trustworthy true knowledge upon which we the people can construct sensible opinions of our own. Democracies thus require common knowledge (such as about the equal mental faculties of black people and white people, women and men) and on-demand access to trustworthy specific knowledge about how the world works (for example, climate science). This stands in contrast to the binary view of knowledge held by totalitarian regimes, as either propaganda or secrets of state.

It is for this reason that successful democracy requires setting up and protecting independent and non-democratic spaces and institutions - specialised epistemic communities with the authority to investigate truth. As Arendt noted, these trusted institutions include universities and law-courts with their explicitly non-political, non-democratic ethos. These are the real truth machines that are supposed to burrow after the truth wherever it may take them, and then report their findings back to the rest of us, who get to decide what to make of it.

In other words, on matters of truth we have to take the specialists' evaluation on trust. Fortunately, since we are talking about truths here and not opinions it doesn't matter that we do not come to such beliefs by our own personal experience and reflection. Therefore we can make use of another characteristic of efficient markets besides freedom: specialisation.

Specialisation is a context-specific role, not a kind of person. Scientists, mathematicians, historians, investigative journalists, jurists, statisticians, and so forth have political opinions like other people (and may also be found expressing embarrassing beliefs in conspiracy theories, and making uninformed judgements on subjects they think they understand, but don't). Nevertheless when they are working in their day jobs, within properly functioning epistemic communities, the judgements they come to deserve to be taken seriously in a way that general discussions in society do not. When the system works, we are able to deal with whacky claims about Obama's birthplace or genetically modified killer tomatoes by simply checking whether or not they came from respectable mainstream institutions (i.e. ethos lines up with logos).

The central problem for these truth machines is that they will always be in tension with the democratic values and politics of the society that set them up. Institutions like universities and courts are deeply anti-democratic and anti-individualistic. And that is how they are supposed to be. They try by various institutionalised organisational structures, values, and discipline-specific methodologies to assess ideas on the basis of their objective truth without regard to how agreeable they are to few or many people. They represent both a massive contradiction to and a necessary foundation for our shared liberal commitments about the pre-eminence of individual judgement, respect for the opinions of all, and a co-operatively determined political rule. Not surprisingly they are in fact extremely vulnerable to political pressure because "the truth" has no intrinsic power to triumph in a democracy. Quite the reverse. Setting them up and maintaining them requires a self-binding political commitment from society, a collective agreement to place them outside the sphere of political contestation.

All of this means that democratic polities are in the uncomfortable position of voluntarily giving up their authority to decide what truth is, of setting up and actively supporting somewhat unaccountable truth machines that then proceed to tell us all sorts of things about ourselves and the world that we would rather not believe.

Summing up

Mill argued that there are positive externalities to other people's freedom of expression: the chance for us to improve our own beliefs and to better understand them. I have argued that this cannot be assumed for objective truths in the way that it may be for opinions about ethics or politics. Proponents of pluralism are wrong when they argue for 'letting a thousand flowers bloom' - that the presence of vaccine-autism or holocaust-denial claims in public discourse enhances a society's quality of debate and hence understanding on these topics. Democratic debate is exactly the wrong way to treat claims about rational truths and facts. At the least, there is no good reason to encourage such pluralism.

In fact there may be negative externalities if false claims are publicised and individuals are unable to evaluate their truth. There may be direct harm, as when children die of measles because their parents read in newspapers that there really is a debate among doctors about whether MMR vaccines cause autism. There may be indirect harm if people come to believe that because they can't evaluate truth claims themselves the truth itself must be a matter of opinion (e.g. the politicisation of climate science).

I believe that the case for pluralism is actually an ethical argument masquerading as an epistemic one. It promotes two important liberal ethical commitments: people should have the right to express themselves and to think for themselves. But once we start with ethical argument there is no need to restrict ourselves to these essential components of individual moral autonomy. One should also pay some attention to the harm that pluralism about the truth can do to both vulnerable individuals and society as a whole.

This brings us to what we should do about such 'illegitimate' uses of free speech. Most interventions focus on the supply side of the market for truth claims through institution building and censorship.

First, governments seek to improve the political conversation by building up the independence, credibility and effectiveness of the real truth machines. For example, if the national bureau of statistics acquires a reputation for independence and accuracy, it can provide a standard reference point for political debate and more politicised sources of socio-economic statistics (like think tanks or Fox News) will be sidelined.

Second, and much more controversially, democracies sometimes curtail the supply of falsity into the market when the risk of significant harm to individual welfare or to the truth is judged high enough to justify insulting the rational autonomy of their citizens. For example, we may privilege the judgements of relevant scientific experts over public opinion about the medical effects or safety of certain products (e.g. by banning pharmaceutical companies from making claims for their products that the FDA disagrees with). Sometimes it may be that a truth itself is considered politically significant enough to protect from disputation by banning its denial (as is the fact of the holocaust in 15 European democracies). But of course any such censorship must be a democratic political decision, to be made in the usual way on the basis of opinion - our values, principles, and collective judgements - and not by the unaccountable bureaucracies that decide what the truth is.

This essay suggests a different and much less controversial approach focused on the demand-side of the market for truth claims. It is set in train simply by reminding people of the central argument of this essay: that democracy is not a truth machine because the truth is not a matter of opinion and the popularity of truth claims is no guide to whether we should believe them. In general, the truth is something one looks up, not something one has to decide on for oneself. If this argument works, it may create a savvier public that distinguishes between opinions and matters of truth, and is less flattered by the appeals to our reason that people flogging heterodox truth claims are so keen to make. If making such arguments no longer pays so well, we will hear them less often. Public deliberation will then focus less on debating what is true or false and more on what we should make of inconvenient truths, and will be much the better.

Prize details

This essay was published in Think, 2013, Volume 12: pp 75-88


  1. This is an excellent blog entry in that it veritably forces consideration about a wide range of interrelated issues, far too many issues than can be dealt with properly in so short an essay or in any response of polite length. This response is not excessively polite; it is actually split into two separate parts owing to its overall length.

    One key issue regards the nature - and the status or importance - of objective truth. In his book, The Faces of Existence, John F. Post cites objectivity as one of his seven prerequisites for truth:

    ... our truth-concept ... is of truth period, not truth-for-me, truth-for-you, truth-from-some-perspective. One way to capture this invariance is to think of the truth-bearers as ... sentences ... The truth-value of [a] ... sentence cannot vary with person [or] place ... Objectivity is a consequence of this invariance; indeed it is another name for it.

    An oil drum has a round top. Most of the time the top appears elliptical, since we see it from an angle. See edge-on, it appears straight as a board. Only when viewed from a point on the perpendicular to its center does the top appear circular. And only because we already know the top is circular do we know to view it from some such point if we wish appearance to coincide with reality.  How, then, did we first learn that the top is round? Roughly, by realizing that a round thing would project exactly the sequence of shapes we observe, the ellipses that vary from thin to fat, from a minimum (straight as a board) to a maximum (circular). We accord objective existence [or truth] to the shape that would most simply account for all these varying projections. Such a property is said to be an invariant. ... Strictly, we should speak only of an invariant under or with respect to certain transformations. For brevity, I omit this phrase, letting the context indicate what transformations are intended. [p. 67]

    It could be said that the oil drum top being round is a fact, and the objective truth resides in the accounting for the transformations across perspectives. One matter to note is that facts tend to be far less interesting than truths - especially objective truths. To illustrate much the same point, Hannah Arendt, in Truth and Politics, tells the story:

    During the twenties, so a story goes, Clemenceau, shortly before his death, found himself engaged in a friendly talk with a representative of the Weimar Republic on the question of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War. "What, in your opinion," Clemenceau was asked, "will future historians think of this troublesome and controversial issue?" He replied, "This I don't know. But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany." [Between Past and Future, p. 234]

    While some may find themselves inclined to view this tale as indicating that there are only opinions and (virtually) never any objective truth when it comes to political or moral judgments and the like, such a distinction between opinions and objective truths depends upon thinking about objectivity as essentially devoid of subjectivity. However, objective truth might be most appropriately thought of as arrived at only via subjectivity. Continued in the next comment …

  2. (Part 2)

    For instance, Arendt also says in Truth and Politics:

    The more people's standpoints [the more perspectives] I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue ... the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion. (It is this capacity for an "enlarged mentality" that enables men to judge ...). [Between Past and Future, p. 237]

    The thing to note is how closely Arendt's multi-perspectival approach matches Post's own multi-perspectival depiction of objectivity, an objectivity attained only via transformations of partial subjective views or abstracted from a collection of subjective perspectives. The point here is that humans do not -- indeed cannot -- attain invariant perspectives or even apodictically approach objective truth without judgment. This is the case in science every bit as much as it is in any other arena of human thought and opinion. This is why scientific research is every bit as susceptible to framing biases as is any other sort of human thought.

    In a sense, what this all suggests is that judgment is never any less important than truth. Indeed, when truth, even objective or invariant truth, is recognized as an expression - a human expression - the focus of our concerns and interests can never be on the end-product expression, the truth; rather, our focus needs to be on the judgments by which the truth comes to be expressed.

    There is a great danger in "setting up and even actively supporting unaccountable truth machines". If it is insisted that judgment is irrelevant to truth, then these "truth machines" are effectively de-humanizing machines. On the other hand, if it is admitted that the truths produced by these machines are the result of judgment, then, even if judgment is reserved only for experts, these machines are still de-humanizing because of the unaccountability. The unaccountability aspect cannot avoid resulting in enslavement. As Arendt noted:

    ... the terms used since Greek antiquity to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man [are] - of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy. Today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion: bureaucracy or the rule of an intricate system of bureaus in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called rule by Nobody. (If, in accord with traditional political thought, we identify tyranny as government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all [...]). ... In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted. [On Violence, p. 38, p. 81]

    We may for any number of reasons - even in our own individual lives - defer to experts, but we do so without thinking of them as unaccountable, and, when we so defer, we should do so without imagining that we have alleviated ourselves of responsibility.

  3. Thanks, Michael for this sophisticated response. I have tried to clarify some issues in the original post to allay your concerns (e.g. about the tyranny of unaccountable bureaucracy).

    I do however want to insist - as Arendt did - that opinions and truth have an essential difference. In respecting the former, we respect each other's moral autonomy - our ability to come to judgements of value. In respecting the latter, we rather respect the nature of the world as something independent from human values and human talk. This is apparent in how we as a society (should) assess judgements in each domain: respectively, by whether they are agreeable to us (e.g. through discussion, voting, etc), or whether they are agreeable to the objective truth (as best our specialised truth-machines can understand it).

  4. Interesting points. If the layperson doesn't have the skills to evaluate the evidence appropriately, then false information that appeals to current tastes and emotions will likely reign. For awhile, I've been concerned about how economists, scientists, etc. have started to bypass peer-review and academic publishing for popular media.

    1. As in Reinhard and Rogoff's 'Growth in a Time of Debt' Working Paper

  5. There are some facts which depend not on our senses but on logic and theory- such as truths of economics or advanced physics. People typically rely on common sense eg. we're in a recession so let's cut government spending or my niece developed autism after being vaccinated, ergo there must be a connection. People resist facts when they have to do a bunch of arcane mental operations to ascertain these facts, and these facts contradict what is obvious to common sense or their senses.
    Also, this is a modern problem, because life is more complicated and science is so complex.
    Take the example of seeing a doctor, should I really trust the diagnosis? Should I get a second opinion? The article on Web Md said something altogether different. But I feel a pain there.
    Finally, the case of the owner of a house supervising contractors might be an example of how to judge facts via common sense while dealing with an expert with a possible conflict of interest or perhaps the case of an auto mechanic

  6. @Philosopher: excellent post! Just added your blog to my RSS feed :)

  7. While I certainly agree that our political system is not the proper forum for scholarship or scientific evaluation, I think that the dichotomy you establish between democracy and the experts is not quite right. I think that the experts ought to be thought of as a specialized sub-democracy, or collectively as something like the Roman Senate in the early republic before it asserted most of the political power. After all, Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" persuasively showed that the process of changing scientific ideas was identical to the process of how ideas changed in the wider society. The key difference, rather than between a democratic or bureaucratic process, is simply that of quality. Scientists and scholars tend to be smarter, more engaged and consistent in their beliefs than the general public which in turn improves (usually) scientific and scholarly discourse. Science (and wider intellectual activity) is best understood as refined common sense, as Hannah Arendt said of science in "The Life of the Mind". I understand the difference as analogous to the gap in quality between the first US Congress and a mock congress of high school students.

  8. LC, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    First, the dichotomy I describe is between types of institutions rather than persons. I cannot agree that scientists are, by nature of being scientists, generally smarter or more consistent etc than other people. But even if they were smarter than the average, unless they have an expert understanding of the relevant subject that is irrelevant to the contribution they can make. (I’m not going to take a biologist seriously on the causes of the financial crisis. I’m not even going to take an economist seriously unless she’s a macro-economist.) It is their participation in specialist institutions (scientific research institutes, university history departments, courts of law, etc) that allows them to ‘refine common sense’ and produce better quality truth claims, not a higher IQ.

    Second, these specialist institutions are not democratic because they are oriented towards discovering how the world really works, not generating socially agreeable decisions. It's not that they do what democracy does, but with better quality ingredients (an upper chamber of parliament staffed by wise elders). They are trying to do something altogether different, and even though they are flawed by human fallibilities (cf Kuhn) they are still the best the human condition allows.

  9. Your project here is based on some rather bold premises. In particular, you seem to suggest that Truth names a property of the universe which swings free of human inquiry, but which is translatable into (in this case) English. Thus you must divide true statements into two divisions: statements which are “matters of opinion all the way down”, and “rational truths”, which derive their authority from the world. Therefore, it makes no sense to submit the latter category to the democratic process; facts cannot be changed, so debate is pointless.

    Of course it would be foolish to let voters or bloggers duke it out to determine the validity of climate change trends, as it would be ridiculous to let them debate over the presence of the Higgs boson. You can produce as many obvious examples you like but I doubt the reason these are obvious to us is because of the epistemic status of the truths in question. You use these examples to back into this binary model of truth – we have authority over the (seemingly lesser) division of statements (via democracy), while the division of Rational Truth has authority over us. Once this distinction is clear, then the exercise you propose seems reasonable. It is the exercise of properly classifying knowledge claims and routing them to the appropriate institutions – send the synthetic truths to the masses for deliberation, and charge the academic institutions with discovering and translating Rational Truth.

    Can you provide any proof of this cleavage that separates these two epistemic regimes? On what foundation rest those claims which are not “opinions all the way down?” What is the test to determine whether what we say in English correctly corresponds to the Truth out there? What is the additional test to determine which knowledge claims should be subjected to such a test, and which simply have no correspondence relation?

    I think you are making a fine point about jurisdiction, but you are needlessly basing it on articles of metaphysical faith. Scientists of course speak a very specialized vocabulary that takes years of training to master, but there is no reason to think that the universe is endowed with semantic properties with which they can interface (and therefore submit to authority); scientists ultimately duke it out like the rest of us; they aren’t any closer to something called Truth than are the priests close to something called God. If one takes naturalism seriously, then it should seem silly (or very, very lucky) that the evolved behavior of speaking might be wielded to correspond to the world such that what we say captures “how the world really works.” This seems dogmatic, human-centric, and unnatural. If you are going to posit these preexisting translatable facts that comprise the realm of Rational Truth, can you show how correspondence to these facts works?

  10. Ian. I don't see that we need to bring metaphysics into it. When people make claims about rational or factual truths they implicitly sign up to a view of the world in which these are not a matter of opinion. All I'm trying to do is make that commitment explicit.

    Holocaust deniers make specific claims about facts (camp layouts, railway timetables, etc); global warming deniers make specific claims about statistical methodology and the significance of sunspots. They do not question whether facts exist or knowledge is possible, and so they don't present any great epistemic challenge. We already have the resources to evaluate such claims' epistemic status according to the very standards those making them implicitly accept. It's just that democracy is not the place or way to do it.

  11. What a good article! And what interesting comments! I’m fascinated from start to finish. But such high caliber philosophizing is a little beyond me; heck, I didn’t know exactly what “epistemic” meant without looking it up. But I’m left with some questions related to terminology. Isn’t “factual truth” and “the truth of facts” redundant? Are there any non-factual truths, or untruthful facts? But more thought makes me realize that facts and truth are not identical. I imagine that facts are isolated bits of something beyond my comprehension called truth. “Jimmy hit a double.” There’s a fact. Innumerable other facts combined to add truth. Was the sun in the shortstop’s eyes? Did the ball bounce badly because the field wasn’t well tended – and why not? There is truth there, but it’s bigger than the facts, and it grows and grows until, possibly it includes everything. “How did I meet my wife?” Where should I begin; with Hitler invading Poland, or with Clemenceau bullying his allies? Without those facts her wonderful children wouldn’t exist; others possibly would, and to that extent the world would be a little (or a lot) different.

    Also, what about “objective truth?” Is there such a thing as subjective truth? Then there is “rational truth” to consider. If The Truth is too large to grasp it must be rationalized from known facts, a dangerous game because all facts can’t be known. Wouldn’t it best be called Hypothetical Truth? As for the central theme of the essay: every political system appears to generate truth or lies according to the perceived needs of the powerful. It is for the rest of us to believe or disbelieve according to our own intelligence.

  12. To be fair to Mill, there were not specialists as we now think of them when he was writing. It was perfectly reasonable for him to think that a well educated person could comment on the developments of the day, whether they were in medicine, politics, or physics. I also happen to think that a reasonably educated person can still validly comment. You are right that I, and most people, cannot recreate climate simulations to check them. But, anyone who graduated from high school and watches ESPN regularly knows about sample sizes and confirmation bias. And we can easily check to see if a study was published in a peer reviewed journal or on some guy's blog. We may not understand the full content of the study, but we can say that study A is probably more trustworthy than study B. And if that's not enough, we can check to see if the results were recreated by other specialists. Just because most people don't do it doesn't mean that they can't do it.

  13. Anon. I'm arguing for the opposite. Democracy needs truth, but democracy can't produce truths (by itself)

    Kermittheband. That's just what I said - we can't work these things out for ourselves with a BA and a broadband connection. We have to trust the specialists with real resources and training. The market for ideas economises on knowledge and time, but depends on trust.

  14. Great article! However, I feel that there is something amiss in this article. Sure there are, how should I say this, truer things or statements about the world, but I don't know if relegating to objectivity is the way to go. After all, human beings have been good in understanding our world in order to adapt to its hostile environment. Yet, we didn't always relied on objective or rational truth to survive. The Mayans did not really have a sophisticated method in studying time or the cosmos like scientists do today, but in their time they were really hitting on something that other human civilizations were not hitting on at the time. Therefore, how do we know what really is objectively true or what is independent of human experience? What might be true today could be false later on. Anybody who has taken or who study Philosophy of Science can attest to this. If anything, Physics has really changed how we think what is objectively true about the world and the universe (or multiverse, possibly).

    Otherwise, you still make great points about democracy, and how it's not necessarily a truth teller.

  15. Thanks for commenting, Ed. Many cultures have not had the same concept of truth as we do. e.g. the Mayans, pre-Socratic Greeks, etc. But that seems by the by, since modernity is partly defined by its particular attitude to truth as objective and independent of our wishes, and that orientation is shared by all sides in contemporary political debates about the truth.

    Part of our concept of truth, unlike previous versions, is its fallibility. So when scientists disprove something we thought we knew, that isn't anything we have to be embarassed about. Our beliefs about what is true are supposed to be correctible by counter-evidence produced in the right way. It just happens that amateurs can't distinguish proper from improper evidence, and democracy is a society of amateurs.

  16. I won't comment on the substance, since I agree with most of it. I think it is missing the special role of mathematics as the lever to move the world. It is at the same time the closest thing to objective truth there is and our tool for uncovering it. I think it is amazing how we could have extracted such a wonderful tool out of our feeble minds, and how we have kept collectively polishing it and how we were even able to turn it on itself.

    But I will have to take a stand on behalf of (at least some of) the organic food, whose health benefits have been used here as an example of irrational belief. Maybe it's just a slip, or just a way of showing how balanced and unmoved by both right wingers' (climate skeptics) and left wingers' (organic and anti-gmo believers) irrationality you are.

    Mind you, I did not personally conduct any scientific studies, I just tried to apply some common sense. For example, almost all developed countries (except the US, of course) have let their specialists inform and guide their policies so they banned milk from cows treated with growth hormone. Studies have shown that it has feminizing effects on boys. I happen to also remember how there was a scandal in Canada, where political pressure was put on their scientists in order to lift said ban (this, in turn, as a result of US pressure).
    AFAIK there is plenty of peer-reviewed, scientific information about this, and as a parent of a young boy, I would never have considered ignoring it, so we always bought organic milk. Of course, with the pressure from the industry, the organic label does not always mean much, especially since, if I remember correctly, the big boys were initially given exemptions concerning the percentage of organic milk needed in order to be allowed to put the certified organic label on their products.

    In similar fashion, although arsenic-based feed additives had been banned in Europe for more than 15 years, our industry-friendly FDA only recently succumbed to pressure to finally test to check if there was any arsenic in chicken. Surprise, surprise, there was! Even after finding that, they have still not banned said additives. Luckily, some producers have felt the heat after the finding and have voluntarily stopped using them. But hey, you can still try your luck and feed your kids some chicken liver from the ones who did not. After all, they are showing spine and they still have the approval of our institutional scientists. They most certainly also don't subscribe to that organic quackery.

    As for GM foods, why is it irrational to be conservative about it and demand long-term studies about their effects before allowing them to enter the food chain (or to demand that at least we know about it through labels)? Just from memory, DDT, azbestos, PCBs were all considered harmless when they were introduced (and approved without any long-term studies)

  17. I understand where you're coming from, but no, organic food isn't healthier than conventional food as far as I know, and, I have to guess, as far as you know too (though, obviously, non-poisoned food would be healthier than poisoned food).

    The argument of my post is quite theoretical. You raise the important problem of how it works in practice. Is it irrational to worry about food safety and not believe the GM scientists? Perhaps not.

    Firstly, scientists often aren't interested in the questions we are asking (e.g. with regard to the precautionary principle): even if they have the best tools they may not have bothered to employ them for this. In that case their statements on the subject are assertions of orthodoxy rather than real expert judgements (Like pre-crisis economists asserting the stability of the system.) The problem here is how do *you* tell which is which?

    Secondly, and more pertinently, while we cannot assess the quality of a scientific argument directly (its "logos", in the terminology of classical rhetoric), we can assess the character of the people making it (their "ethos"). Thus, you don't trust the GM scientists because they are employed by Big Agriculture which has a vested interest; and you worry about the USDA regulators having been politicised and thereby also put in the pocket of Big Ag. This is not an unreasonable concern. (On the other hand, I could equally well point out that the organic food industry 'science' is also serving a business interest: "Be afraid, pay more".) What we have here is a crisis of trust, not science, with significant consequences for the sensibleness of democratic debate. The best way to deal with it is not to try to work out for ourselves who's doing good or bad science, but to make a political commitment to increasing the political and commercial independence and thus the credibility of the institutions that serve as truth machines (on the model of university science).

    1. I would agree in theory, but in practice, I (like Keynes before me :)) have a limited life-span, much shorter than the time necessary for society to evolve all those good habits. We are, in reality, forced to work out for ourselves some of these good or bad science issues, since they have immediate and direct consequences on our lives.

    2. While it is true that I do not care so much about the organic aspect per se (or, for that matter, about the humane treatment of an animal that i am going to eat), if they incidentally fix some problems that are real and that we cannot solve through democratic means, there is also the economic argument for buying organic: if enough people are scared into it, organic products will become cheaper and they will become the standard, working around the unsolvable regulatory issues. Already organic chicken is cheap enough that I am willing to pay the extra charge even if only to help the process along. Plus it probably already justifies itself in terms of price per real unit of meat (by getting rid of the salted water injected into regular chicken meat)

    3. On your first comment, Florin. I suppose there are 2 aspects to the practical problem of living in the real (non-ideal) world under unreliable information

      1. How should we make personal decisions? This concerns practical reasoning, which I've tried to write about previously

      2. How should we make democratic decisions? My point is that democracies can make legitimate decisions about collective values and actions, but not truth. Of course, we should incorporate our best personal judgements about the truth in our political views and voting [e.g. our understanding of Iran's nuclear weapons programme and the threat it poses]. What else could we do? But we shouldn't believe that the democratic process itself evaluates the truth of the opinions it aggregates.

    4. 1. I will check out your previous post

      2. I was trying to point out that democracies, imperfect as they are, sometimes are stuck and cannot make legitimate decisions, not even about their collective values, let alone truth. In that light, it might be interesting to explore other, non-democratic (obviously, preferably not anti-democratic) options. We live in the real world not just when it comes to personal decisions, but when it comes to democracy as well. We cannot simply assume an ideal democracy. "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler". The ideal model is just too simple.

      Another tangential point I was trying to make is that your original examples of irrational (going against the objective, factual truth) belief/behavior, might not be so irrational after all, plus, on closer analysis, they may actually not be opposed to the objective truth (so the problem of deciding what is the objective truth is still a problem, even if we ignore the metaphysical angle). This is not even only about the organic/gm example, it applies to climate skeptics as well. If we assume that they take the cynical view (and it is quite obvious that at least some of them consciously do, most likely many more less consciously) that they themselves will, in the long term, also be dead, therefore they can continue to chase short-term profits, or at least not pay the price now, leaving the problems to be solved by the following generations, then denying the fact that something needs to be done now is rational, even true (for some values of "needs to be done now" - who exactly needs it, and by when?)

  18. You seem to ignore an important category: the category of things we know we do not know. The long-term impact of GM foods is one example. Biology is not advanced enough to compute the impact of modified proteins on other animal and plant life which depend on our organism, nor can we safely control the implantation of our unknown mutant into the world.

    1. In cases where our truth machines fail - e.g. scientists say their methods really can't tell them much - democracies are still capable of making decisions.

      Whether we should act on the precautionary principle or take a more optimistic 'Promothean' approach to the possibilities of GM tech is an eminently suitable issue for democratic style deliberation.

  19. Good essay. Good discussion. Not a philosopher, but I wrote a rebuttal of sorts, more snark and dark humor than reason or constructive criticism. If interested, you may get a laugh, or you may be deeply offended. If the latter, I will remove immediately. It can be found at the link in the "Links to this post" section. replication factor Z.

    Thanks for getting my rusty old gears turning.

    1. I'd like to read it - but the link doesn't work

    2. My apologies. Trust me, it was horrible and not worthy of your time. Here are the most coherent bits:

      Hello believer. I am not a philosopher, nor a student of it, but I have a beard which crawls slowly across my face. Being constantly immersed in a cloud of chaos, I have absolutely no interest in Mill's politics nor yours. I am here to arbitrarily pick apart your well-argued thesis because I am mean-spirited, manic, and generally not a good person to be around. Now that we have ethos off the table, here's my response to your essay on Mill:

      Since no political system could, in and of itself, be an objective truth machine, you take on the assumption that Mill claims Democracy is unique in its ability to produce objective truths. You never mention the most common reality, which is that objective truths are found, disseminated, and verified again again despite Democracy, or for that matter, any other political system.

      "But what actually results when people with different opinions on the science of climate change debate it in public is an increase in confusion, not enlightenment."

      Confusion, e.g. anxious uncertainty increases the likelihood of a sense of "enlightenment," as it encourages a person inclined to do so to dig deeper. Do you think the newspapers and broadcasters in a world without internet would be trumpeting the warnings of global warming against the wills of their advertisers? Has the internet suddenly caused corruption in the mass media, or has it merely revealed a better idea of its scope? In the same way, do you think that the Democracy of the internet and the messy debates which emerge from it increases confusion, or merely reveals it more clearly. Public opinion is messy. Now everyone can see how messy it is, how obstinate the dogmatically entrenched are. Based on the hateful and desperate tone of the champions of the global-warming-is-a-hoax camp, it appears possible that the Democracy of the internet, though certainly not a machine which produces objective truths, may prove to be less of an impediment to them than other systems.

      Seekers will seek, believers will seek to believe, and then believe. Saying "Be skeptical, do the research," is preaching to the choir. The Democracy of the internet may surprise you in that, over successive generations, the Santa Claus drug will fall from fashion and be replaced with the critical-thinking drug. Then, maybe, someone with "the appropriate intellectual capabilities," and the will to humble himself to do so, may come along and give a proper argument for Democracy, because Democracy deserves better than the dull eloquence of Mill.

    3. "do you think that the Democracy of the internet and the messy debates which emerge from it increases confusion, or merely reveals it more clearly"

      The human condition all the way down?

  20. I wasn't going to do it but why not.

    The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change

    "The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: the individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication."

    I won't say much about the last sentence. There will be no "science" of communication. We're stuck with ambiguities and art.

    There are no truth machines. You may want to mock the idea of the rule of law, but you'd never want to live under the rule of reason.

  21. Wonderful post and something I've been thinking about for a long time, particularly as the bad analogy of the "web as perfectly competitive info-market" relates to various strains of web utopianism still prevalent in the media. Alvin Goldman has hit on similar ideas related to the marketplace of ideas and its supposedly structural "epistemic virtue", He even considers blogs and objectivity in one of his Episteme articles.

    Great stuff.

    If interested you can take a look at an old post critiquing market analogies and ultimatum game research as touted by web utopianists..

    Or pity me as I take on a prominent web utopianist with a marked Heideggerian strain...

    Anyway, keep it up.

  22. There is a distinction that I think needs to be made in this sort of argument: A democracy is one where rule ultimately rests in the people, a liberal society is one that respects personal freedoms. There are illiberal democracies and even liberal non-democracies.

    So with this distinction in mind, I would agree that scientific communities are non-democracies and should be for the reasons you give, I think the claim they are/should be illiberal is problematic.

    Scientific communities do not suppress speech through state legal force, violent means or the threat of violence.
    Certainly when we are talking about Mill's On Liberty that means they are liberal in the relevant sense. Mill's argument is against the suppression of speech, not an argument that everyone must listen to everyone else's speech. I think again most people understand liberty in that sense as well, an obligation not to suppress, not an obligation to listen. There are social pressures and financial ones to conform (or if you prefer not to be incompetent or fraudulent) in scientific communities, but this is true of all communities in all liberal societies (a restaurant serves me bad food, I'm not obligated to go back in order to respect the restaurant staff's liberty to serve bad food).

    In fact scientific communities that have operated under illiberal conditions have been criticized not just by Mill but by any number of others as being non-conducive to truth, whether it be Soviet Russia (the Lysenko affair) or seventeenth century Catholic states (suppressing Heliocentrism that you mention). And it is the ability to suppress (by violence/legal force) dissenting views that is usually used as a key element in what is antithetical to truth seeking about the environment. Given fallibility illiberally enforcing conclusions in science would ensure locking in ever more false conclusions, given that errors in science can be cumulative, it seems reasonable to predict that such illiberal practices are prone to going off the rails of truth seeking.

    Of course, this does not mean that on its own liberty would be conducive to truth. If some people think free discussion on its own is the only sufficient or necessary condition for a truth machine then they are wrong and what is more do not (as far as I can see) agree with Mill. I can't tell whether you are accusing Mill of holding such a simplistic view but just to be clear I'm going to give some reason to reject such an interpretation of Mill (in another post as I've gone over the character limit sorry).

    1. Mill's epistemic argument is central in On Liberty, but that does not mean that Mill thought on its own it was sufficient to the pursuit of truth. He wrote his 1000 page Logic to describe what reliable truth obtaining inference was, I'm not sure he even mentions the value of disputation or the need for liberty to pursue truth in his Logic (it concerns itself mostly with technical issues not social, political context or even ones of the character of individual reasoners). However, he is clear that fallacious inference is widespread and difficult to avoid.

      Anyway, just looking at On Liberty I think I detect a distinction between opinion and fact that is at least functionally similar to the one you raise. Discussing mandatory public education (which he would administer through private schooling with public exams and subsidies for the poor) he notes: "To prevent the State from exercising, through these arrangements, an improper influence over opinion, the knowledge required for passing an examination (beyond the merely instrumental parts of knowledge, such as languages and their use) should, even in the higher classes of examinations, be confined to facts and positive science exclusively. The examinations on religion, politics, or other disputed topics, should not turn on the truth or falsehood of opinions, but on the matter of fact that such and such an opinion is held, on such grounds, by such authors, or schools, or churches. Under this system, the rising generation would be no worse off in regard to all disputed truths, than they are at present..." (On Liberty, Section V: long quote to try and give context)

      It seems unlikely that Mill holds facts and positive science would become disputed truths just because there are some unqualified dissenters, since it seems likely he knows they are disputed especially by the ignorant who are large in number (given the lack of mass education in the 1860s). So Mill hardly acts as if the government should act as if everything is up for dispute and allows for the delineation of expert knowledge rather than everything being a popularity contest.

      In a vein I find similar, Mill argues near the end of On Liberty that in principle power should be as diffuse as possible, but that information should be centralized (but efficiently diffused), ie that there should be high-level repositories of authoritative expertise informing and overseeing local decision making. So I think his considered opinion and yours about the need for specialized/elite truth seeking communities within a liberal democratic community are not that far apart.

    2. Thanks, Allen for this very well informed and challenging comment.

      First, as to the character of epistemic communities like climate modellers. You agree that these communities are non-democratic, yet argue that they are still liberal because they are exempt from state legal coercion and violence. Yet this is not sufficient to be liberal in Mill's sense. Recall that 'On Liberty' is centrally concerned with social tyranny as well as state tyranny. The primary allegiance of the members of an epistemic community, in their day job, is to its collaboratively developed consensus methodology for truth seeking. To count as a contribution - to be taken seriously - knowledge claims must respect that methodology. (Hence, truth 'machines'.) There is much more to be said about how these epistemic communities work, and may fail to work. But, at least when they are working properly, they represent the best way humans have found for seeking the truth in that area. While any particular person has the capacity to work out the truth for themselves, without training themselves in the relevant methodology they are not likely to get very far, anymore than those who refused to look through Galileo's telescope.

      Thus, it seems to me that those in an epistemic community do not really have the right to express an opinion simply because it is theirs (what liberalism entails). Even if they have life tenure as jurists or professors, they will still be stigmatised and ostracised by their research community as a whole if their opinions lack methodological justification, like those propounding biological racial theories in sociology, Lysenkoism in biology, or supply-side economics. These are not matters discussed within the relevant academic disciplines - if one finds a scientist talking about them in public, it is usually because they are trying to dispel the myth that there is a real scientific debate on the issue.

      Second, as to my misunderstanding of Mill. Let me note first that the education example includes disputed topics generally, and might thus be held to include topics like evolution and climate change (implying a 'teach the controversy' approach). Education is also a space in which liberalism accepts a role (actually, a duty) for paternalism in the best interests of the child, which makes it a possibly inapt perspective from which to view the issue as a whole. Second, Mill does seem to include positive science in the relevant section of 'On Liberty': "Even in natural philosophy, there is always some other explanation possible of the same facts; some geocentric theory instead of heliocentric, some phlogiston instead of oxygen; and it has to be shown why that other theory cannot be the true one: and until this is shown, and until we know how it is shown, we do not understand the grounds of our opinion."

      As to whether Mill and I are not really so very far apart - I would hope so! However, Whether or not Mill intended it, I believe that his epistemic argument for liberalism in section II of 'On Liberty' is generally understood in the way I describe. It is that understanding that I am mainly concerned with. If I am guilty of over-simplifying Mill's position on truth seeking, I hope that this scholarly sin is minor, and merely on a par with Mill's own simplified representation of Christ and Socrates as martyrs to free expression.

  23. Thanks for this post, as the subject of democracy has been of interest to me as of late, in particular your idea that "we shouldn't believe that the democratic process itself evaluates the truth of the opinions it aggregates." My question, which you sort of touch, is why democracy if democracy can't yield truth, whether that truth is legislation or a so-called leader?

    To elaborate, to some degree you've stated qualms hinted at by public choice theory/positive political theory, mainly that public interest may conflict with the interests of elected officials as humans are self-interested actors. Even scientists are not immune to this bias. Although I admit there is peer review, there are scientific cliques, and some paradigms die hard (e.g. the uselessness of introns). But in the end I do have what amounts more to “faith” than “belief” in the method that yields the truths being discovered by science.

    My faith, not to mention belief, in democracy however, is weak because of its many weaknesses. The one weakness you point to is "rational ignorance," aka uninformed voters. There is also the possibility of misinformed and incompletely informed voters as even the "truth machines" are not immune to mistakes. In addition, there's Bryan Caplan's idea of "rational irrationality" where voters buy low-cost beliefs instead of rationalism as result of intellectual apathy, self-interested bias, coherence bias, and/or social bonding bias, which leads to the potential for systemic bias, or a systemic shift in an outcome where 'feel good' and 'actually good' are at odds. There is also the risk of the 'voter's paradox,' where majority desires can be in conflict. Another weakness is groupthink. In addition, the best collective outcome might conflict with the best individual outcome, i.e. Prisoner's Dilemma. Sometimes there's even 'expressive voting' where people vote to express (sometimes systemic) beliefs, regardless of any truth. And sometimes like science, affluence can correlate to political influence (see Martin Gilens). Who's got the best lab equipment, and chances of making it into The Journal 'Science' versus some obscure little journal?

    I suppose what I am getting at is that there is more than one type of "democracy," and I still have some faith. I don’t believe in the “representative” democracy I live under because separating the will from the power to act is not just nor efficient in my mind. It will often ignore my truth. I'd prefer direct democracy, participatory democracy, or the option to skip democracy altogether for outright consensus when possible. Yes it can be messy hard work, but it’s much more democratic and at the same time scientific because it’s like a lab: there's participation, experimentation, inquiry, and peer review in discovering and acknowledging the true desires of the machine rather than being a subject to the will of representatives driving the 'truth machine' of the Leviathan. Thanks for helping me continue to reframe and mold my irreverent ideology and democratic misgivings. I'm for democracy in some instances, but Proudhon said it well: "democracy...exists fully only at the moment of elections and for the formation of legislative power. This moment once past, democracy retreats; it withdraws into itself again, and begins its anti-democratic work. It becomes AUTHORITY." The internet and our pods may be the revolution, the glue that helps us bind logos, ethos, and pathos as we decide in our own little web, our own little lab of interaction, what experiments we want to participate in, what is right and true for the I and the we (on a smaller scale as to reduce the ills of being lost in the fray).

    1. Thanks for your provocative comment. But I think you go rather beyond the issues my post discusses. 3 comments.

      1. Truth seeking and practical decision-making are two different kinds of activity, of theoretical reason and practical reason respectively. That's why they have different requirements. My argument goes against the idea that democracy can in itself perform theoretical reasoning, but not against its capacity for collective practical reasoning.

      2. Though democracy is in tension with truth, it is not in outright conflict (as in totalitarian or autocratic regimes) for the reasons I tried to outline. The fraught relationship can be reasonably well managed (as evidenced in successful liberal democracies by more or less independent and well-functioning courts; academia; statutory institutions like the CBO, FDA; etc)

      3. I disagree that direct democracy is necessarily more democratic than representative democracy (not sure what you mean by 'consensus' - a real market?). Too much discussion about democracy focuses on the institutional form of the truly democratic society. I think it is more productive to think about what function democracy essentially consists in - government by discussion - and then see how our present democratic institutions support that or could be improved. With regard to your specific Proudhonian point about representative democracy: yes, the people only exercise power at the moment of an election, but a democratic society buzzes constantly with political conversation, a genuinely political debate about issues from gay rights to the structure of the welfare state that changes citizens' minds and then, via elections, governments and laws.

    2. Thank you. I sort of agree, but think we're in totally different fields. Which is OK; I just want mine outside of yours. Maybe that's why I went beyond your post. I see the fields and your main point as neighbors to a degree.

      1. I agree. I suppose I see the potential for issues if that collective practical reasoning turns into conflict against the will of others. I think it’s less likely to occur on smaller local scales.

      2. It's the management and managed that can be in conflict; and sometimes the act of voting itself has problems as noted. There are four options to play with to address the "tension" in your mind, "conflict" in mine: A. submit to the will of others (slave), B. subject others to your will (authority), C. socialize (associate), D. mix and match A, B, C (vote). A and B are obviously related. Representative democracy is D, B, A, with little C other than casting a ballot. Direct democracy is D and C, and less B, A. Consensus (non-majoritarianism) is C (not immune to A, B). Contract is C (not immune to A, B). As far as courts go, I'd prefer to see polycentric not monocentic order/law (

      3. The field. I suppose I'm for minimal to really no State at all, and the right to succession as well ( I see politics and voting as rooting for a team, but not actually playing in the game. David Ellerman states it as so: "Democratic government is in theory based on a social contract of delegation, not a contract of alienation, but this is typically so compromised in practice that the “delegation” often seems unreal. Much of the anarchist literature seems unsure or confused if they are criticizing the “government” in theory or just in practice. When it comes to practical alternatives, serious anarchists look to much smaller governmental units where the in-theory delegation has a better chance of meaning something in reality. One example that comes to mind is the work of the bioregionalist Leopold Kohr. But my arguments are almost always in-theory arguments, e.g., the employer is not even a delegate or representative of the employees in theory...there have been historical examples of firms that are democratic in theory, but fall short in practice, and the same has typically been true of democratic(-in-theory) governments." While I admire Ellerman's work, I see representative democracy as separating the will from the power to act, or renting out your will for others to spend as they desire, and therefore alienation. There will have to be democracy in some situations where consensus and contract are impractical. I think small is the way to go. I want to play in the game, but I don't want to go to Washington either, and in the end a tie is what I'm looking for. Not here though, I don’t have a beard yet.

  24. Very interesting Tom (this is José Larco here, cheers).

    I agree with you in this post, very well argued (in my opinion;).

    However, I would like to point out that certain concensus schemes such as the Delphi method for making forecasts that intend to function as a truth machine, albeit in a faulty way. The idea is that for complex phenomena such as global warming, it is unlikely to have a comprehensive view of the facts by one individual, and that incorporating diversity into the debate may
    help complementing views be integrated and certain misconceptions disproven. However, politics, and human issues, may distort this type of truth machines and make them arrive to wrong or misguided conclusions. Even if they are not at play, wrong conclusions may be arrived by the limitations of the members of such discussion schemes. For these "machines" to make sense it is essential that the members have a different pool of knowledge and that concensus is reached through arguments rather than simply votes. This, however, is no guarantee of truth, but may be preffered to other monolithic type of approaches.


    1. Thanks, Jose!

      But isn't the Delphi method designed for building consensus among experts, not the general public, i.e. for improving what I called non-democratic truth machines?

    2. democracy is driven by conflicts through different oppinions by different people, democracy divides and conquers, it is an inteligently engineered epistome of war tactics brought upon the human race, through a will to dominate others, presented as the best possible choice of governance from the many choices of governance. democracy claims to have full respect of the free will, and yet it practically removes the freedom to have a free will. as humans we are destroyers and we are creators, we destroy what we dislike and create what we like

  25. really deep argument. Democracy is not perfect and mat never be perfect. But at this stage of societal evolution that we are in it seems to be most convinient.