When the experts are uncertain: Scientific knowledge and the ethics of democratic judgment

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Can ordinary citizens in a democracy evaluate the claims of scientific experts? While a definitive answer must be case by case, some scholars have offered sharply opposed general answers: a skeptical no (e.g. Scott Brewer) versus an optimistic yes, no problem (e.g. Elizabeth Anderson). The article addresses this basic conflict, arguing that a satisfactory answer requires a first-order engagement in judging the claims of experts which both skeptics and optimists rule out in taking the issue to be one of second-order assessments only. Having argued that such first-order judgments are necessary, it then considers how they are possible, outlining a range of practices and virtues that can inform their success and likelihood, and drawing throughout on ancient Greek insights as well as contemporary social psychology and sociology of knowledge. In conclusion the ethics of democratic judgment so developed is applied to the dramatic conviction of the members of an Italian scientific risk commission in L'Aquila.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)97-118
Number of pages22
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History and Philosophy of Science


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