Freedom and Reason as Rival Modes of Governance?

For the last two centuries or so the countries that now make up the core of the Western democratic and industrialized world have – on their good days – sought to honour two political and constitutional principles: to allow freedom of thought and belief, and to accept the role of reason in political, legal and policy-making life.

These principles tend to have contrasting “logics” in the sense that freedom of belief is liable to promote the idea that one has the “right” to believe whatever one is convinced by, while the acceptance of reason seems to suggest that people should subordinate their views to those who know better.

In one sense, the history of the last two hundred years has been about these societies working out which areas of life should be governed by the first principle and which by the second. In national politics we adopt the first principle; each of us – ideally – chooses for whom to cast our vote. In most areas of science and technology, we adopt the second. Seriously to maintain that the Earth is flat is not now seen as the earnest expression of a valid personal belief, but more likely as the sign of psychiatric disorder. Similarly, the second principle is enshrined in certain of our prized institutions: the whole notion of “expert witnesses” in court is based on the idea that some people know better than others and should be given certain privileges when it comes to offering testimony.

For most of the twentieth century it appeared that this big question was close to resolution and that we were getting better and better at working out which logic to apply where. But in the last few decades this agreement has become rather threadbare and suspect. The core idea of “Wikis” for example, is that the knowledge of the crowd may be superior to that of the credentialed expert. Aided by developments in on-line opinion-making where everyone seems free to maintain that they are experts, shaken by creationism and climate denialism where vocal communities apply enormous funds and energy to evading and undermining the second principle, and ruffled by deconstructionist critiques of science’s exceptionalism, there is a renewed and troubling complexity to the links between reason and opinion, between science, policy and knowledge.. All of which makes this a most fitting time to launch SKAPE.

Steve Yearley