The 2018 Holberg Symposium: "Democracy and Truth"

Can democracies arrive at truth – and if so, through which mechanisms?

In many nations, there is concern about whether democracies can arrive at truth - whether the issue involves questions of fact (the risks of immigration, climate change, tobacco, war) or policy and law (how best to address social problems, in terms of the precise relationship between means and ends).

This symposium is meant to explore a wide range of related questions:

  • Should democracies be more technocratic, that is, should they empower experts?
  • What kind of threat is posed by the rise of "tribalism," in various forms, in so many nations?
  • Is deliberative democracy feasible in the era of social media? If so, what form would it take?
  • How do behavioral findings about bounded rationality bear on our theories of democracy?
  • Is John Stuart Mill's "harm to others" principle now obsolete?
  • Should social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter) be regulated in the interest of truth, or democracy?
  • Should such social media platforms regulate themselves? How?
  • How should we think about the rise of China, in view of traditional commitments to democracy and truth?
  • Is Hayek's emphasis on the dispersed nature of knowledge in society more or less relevant today?

Symposium Programme   

Welcome by Professor Sigmund Grønmo, Chair of the Holberg Board

Introduction of Cass Sunstein by Professor Ellen Mortensen, Moderator and Academic Director of the Holberg Prize

Introduction of the symposium topic, by Holberg Laureate Cass Sunstein.

Session 1

Tali Sharot - by Michael Lionstar.pngTali SharotCognitive Obstacles to Truth

Abstract: "Classic theories assume that agents gather and integrate information in a way that will result in the most accurate representation of reality, given the constraints. In this talk I will present evidence that suggest instead that humans are active choosers in building their belief system. In particular, people are more likely to seek information about favorable than unfavorable outcomes and incorporate such information faster into their beliefs. This generates biased beliefs, which can have important societal implications including ill preparedness in the face of natural (or human-made) disasters."

Tali Sharot is Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London. Her research integrates neuroscience, behavioural economics and psychology to study how emotion influences beliefs and decisions.


Tyler Cowen - by Stephen Gosling.pngTyler CowenWhich are the true perils facing democracy?

Abstract: "Democracy works best when it is possible to judge truth. But what are the preconditions, epistemic and otherwise, for this to come about? Cass Sunstein has been one of the most profound theorists on this question. He has laid out the conditions for political polarization, how the modern world often encourages them, and how we might reverse this. How can we make our democracy more deliberative? What should be the role of constitutions in this process? His book Nudge, co-authored with Richard Thaler, provides some further microfoundations for rethinking how a better democracy might be reconstituted. Overall, Cass Sunstein is one of our leading thinkers on how democracy stands in peril and how we might save it and indeed improve it."

Tyler Cowen is Holbert L. Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Director of the Mercatus Center. He is co-author of the blog and host of the podcast series Conversations with Tyler.

Session 2

Samantha Power - UN Photo _ J.C. McIlwaine.pngSamantha PowerConfronting Challenges to Democracy

Abstract: “A club of autocratic and authoritarian leaders is coalescing, mimicking one another’s ‘best practices,’ stoking fears of the ‘other,’ and offering moral support for repressive internal practices globally. These leaders are emboldened by Donald Trump and abetted by growing divisions over basic facts. This dynamic is further compounded by established authoritarians, who take advantage of the openness, polarization, and dysfunction in democratic societies to assault truth, exacerbate division, and advance the idea that democracy does not ‘deliver’. Ambassador Power will assess these trends and discuss potential remedies for supporters of democracy worldwide.”

Samantha Power is the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations (2013-2017).

Lawrence Lessig - Unknown.pngLawrence LessigOn how the people speak

Abstract: "We must attend to the technical conditions of democratic understanding: how do the people know, and how might that knowledge be improved. In this talk, Lessig will map the ways in which the epistemologies of democratic understanding have changed, and how we might productively respond to those changes. Against a trend arguing that we should listen less to the people, Lessig describes how we could instead listen better."

Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School. Cited by The New Yorker as “the most important thinker on intellectual property in the Internet era,” Lessig has focused much of his career on law and technology, especially as it affects copyright. His current work addresses “institutional corruption”—relationships which, while legal, weaken public trust in an institution—especially as that affects democracy.

Panel discussion and Q&A.

With Holberg Laureate Cass Sunstein and Symposium speakers


to 13:00, CEST.
The University Aula, Bergen, Muséplass 3.
Practical information
Open to the public, free admission. No registration required.