The 2022 Holberg Lecture, by Sheila Jasanoff


2022 Laureate Sheila Jasanoff's Holberg Lecture, "Democracy in an Unknowable World", is published here in full.

Democracy in an Unknowable World

It is hard to do justice to this magnificent and wholly unexpected gift from the Government of Norway. Since the middle of March, when the news of the 2022 Holberg Prize was publicly announced, I have received hundreds of congratulatory messages from friends, and sometimes strangers, from around the world, all saying the award was richly deserved. Those messages were heartwarming but also fundamentally wrong. How could anyone deserve to be set apart in this way from one’s many equally deserving peers? These messages also ratcheted up the stakes of saying something worthy of the occasion here in Bergen. This is a moment that calls for humility, and yet one also feels the need to say something memorable enough to mark the moment—to offer, if you will, a statement of faith that scholarship lives, and crossing disciplines matters, in ways that the questing mind of Ludwig Holberg would have approved had he lived to see our day.

I would like to share with you some of the experiences that made me the kind of scholar I am, as well as some of the ways I have learned to read the things that happen in our world—always in hope that work such as ours can light the way to a better future. Science and Technology Studies (or STS as we abbreviate it) remains for me a grand intellectual adventure. It is a field that prompts us to rethink the meaning and purpose of life even as we are busy remaking and reordering life’s possibilities. I invite you to join me for the next hour so you can see a little of what I see when I look at the world outside. It is not always an encouraging picture, but even in its worst aspects, it holds out the prospect of imagining how things could be otherwise. That promise of using critical reflection to renew the world is what I cherish most about STS. Something of that promise is what I would like you to take from me today.

The Elusive Public Good

Let us begin with the dysfunctional present. May 2022 came to a scorching Earth. In normally cool Montreal, people spoke wonderingly of three straight days of above 30°C weather. Countries to the south experienced a more punishing heat. In Spain’s provinces of Andalusia and Extremadura, hot air blowing up from North Africa raised temperatures to 15°C above average for May. The thermometer registered still higher extremes in New Delhi, up to 45°C, prompting comparisons with the grim opening scene of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, in which 20 million anonymous Indians die in a catastrophic heat wave.

The future threatens to become a lot worse. The last five years have seen record heat sweeping across the planet, but action by governments has not kept pace, prompting charges that politics is lagging behind the science. In the United States, where Democrats weakly control the presidency and both houses of Congress, a single Senator, the “Democrat in Name Only” Joe Manchin, has blocked President Biden’s climate agenda on the ground that it would hurt his political constituency. Manchin’s home state, West Virginia, ranks 47th out of 50 in the US News “best states” index, and its economy is heavily tied to coal mining. Despite much hand-wringing about climate denial, the stalemate in the US is not because members of Congress don’t know how to “follow the science.” After all, on May 17 of this very year Congress held its first hearing on unidentified flying objects in 50 years, asking the Pentagon to report on unexplained UFO sightings. “It was also an opportunity,” the New York Times told its readers, “for government officials to clarify why explanations were not forthcoming and outline their plans for improving data collection.”

A Congress ready to hold the Pentagon to account for poor data on unverified threats of unknown origin from outside the bounds of our solar system cannot unite in the face of a scientifically well-established, existential threat to humanity, caused by our heedless ways of living on the planet. American legislators, it seems, are perfectly willing to turn to science for guidance, but only selectively, and in defiance of priorities set by the nation’s leading scientists. With ever-increasing knowledge, have we lost sight of how to govern ourselves? Has the Enlightenment failed us?

This was not the way power and knowledge were supposed to collaborate in modern times. In enlightened democracies, so the theory went, freedom to inquire would lead to more and better knowledge. And with greater understanding of nature and human affairs, elected leaders would become better positioned to rule in wisdom, for the people’s good. By the mid-twentieth century, this ideal of science leading politics toward beneficial ends had hardened into dogma. Science was entrusted with a public duty: “speaking truth to power.” As for the correlative obligation of power, no pithy statement captures it, but the norm that states must use power with reason, and in proportion, emerged as a guiding principle of constitutional government throughout the world.

Fast forward to the present, and that concordat no longer holds. On the side of science, there is a great and growing sense of betrayal, heightened during the pandemic years. People and their political leaders are increasingly seen as anti-science, backing away from or even turning their backs on data, evidence, reason, and all the benefits that science has brought into human lives. Vaccines are perhaps the paradigmatic example of the moment. Scientists and public health professionals see the quick rollout of the anti-Covid vaccines in 2021 as a miracle wrought by science. Indeed, I’ve heard that word used many times in conversations with esteemed academic colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic. It is shattering to these scientists’ image of their enterprise that people don’t see and applaud the miracle for what it is, a human achievement akin to god’s own hand intervening to save us from bottomless misery.

On the side of politics, the picture is less clearcut. How one perceives the relationship between knowledge and action depends on one’s political and cultural vantage point. In the United States, the Democratic Party has positioned itself since the turn of the century as the party of science. A high water mark of sorts was a 2012 book called The Republican Brain, provocatively subtitled The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, authored by a young, Yale-educated science journalist named Chris Mooney. Building on the popular success of his 2005 best-seller, The Republican War on Science, Mooney marshaled data from psychology and neuroscience to argue that liberal and conservative brains are configured to see the world differently. Mooney has since remade himself as a sober climate specialist writing for the Washington Post, but the partisanship around science outlasted his polemics. Joseph Biden’s victory in 2020 was widely celebrated by his party as a victory for science.

That self-identification of party with rationality only hardened Republican suspicions that science is no longer a neutral institution but is hard-wired to generate support for the “big government” policies that Democrats love. Once such suspicion is aroused, it is easy to find evidence that science is not living up to its own high ideals. The scandal known as Climategate, based on leaked e-mails from a major British research center at the University of East Anglia in 2009, was one prominent example. It led to a parliamentary hearing that was devastating for the individual scientists involved and to derailing that year’s climate conference of the parties. More immediately, those reluctant to be vaccinated have pointed to a host of problems in claims made by the developers—from the histories of biomedical research exploiting Black patients to unjust enrichment by Covid vaccine manufacturers to the capacity of new variants to break through shields of immunization that were at first confidently presented as failsafe.

Controversies Without End

But the troubled relationship between science and politics, or knowledge and power, reaches beyond particular cases of skepticism or denial such as vaccine hesitancy. Nor is the malaise limited to America, though the fractures have been especially politicized there. Britain’s mad cow crisis of the 1990s was a prominent example of experts failing the public, as were the unforeseen shock of the 2008 financial meltdown, the failure of earthquake prediction in L’Aquila in Italy, the magnitude of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, and the mistakes of polling before Brexit and the 2116 US presidential election. Even the most highly placed lay persons have trouble understanding why experts often get things so wrong. Queen Elizabeth, whose platinum jubilee Britain celebrated this past weekend, famously asked on a visit to LSE in November 2008 why nobody had seen the financial crisis coming.

At risk in these controversies that keep erupting around science and technology is a founding principle of democratic government: collectively accepted facts are indispensable for informed self-rule. Without shared facts we could not discern problems, identify alternatives, or reach consensus on how to behave. Indeed, our moral judgments depend on there being universally recognized truths. Jane Austen said it most pithily: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The US Declaration of Independence implies it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Hannah Arendt, who deeply concerned herself with truth in politics, insisted that some facts have to be seen as indestructible by everybody, or in her words as “brutally elementary.” She quoted George Clemenceau on the question of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War: “He replied (Arendt says) ‘This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany’.”

Yet the Russia-Ukraine war, lurching from tragedy to tragedy, offers both an instantiation of and a counterpoint to Arendt’s assertion at the global level. If it is “Putin’s war,” or a “crime of aggression,”  then it is what the international lawyer Philippe Sands has called a “slam dunk” for law, because (as Sands says) “The indictment writes itself. There’s no difficulty of proof. There’s no great difficulty in evidence”? But is it instead, as Mr. Putin’s own rhetoric would have it, a legitimate attack to “demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine,” to ensure its political neutrality, and thus to defang an existential threat to Russia and its future place in the world? This time around there is no Clemenceau or Arendt—let alone an authorized international tribunal—to assure us which are the brutally elementary, indestructible facts of the invasion. And, judging by countries’ unequal willingness to officially condemn or impose economic sanctions on Russia, there is a big gap between what Western nations see as a “slam dunk” case for aggression, based on solid evidence and proof, and what the rest of the world makes of the same acts of military confrontation.

My object today is absolutely not to take sides between victim and aggressor in this latest unhappy European war, though I note a recent Washington Post article suggesting that Wikipedia is our best judge of the truth of Putin’s claims about the invasion. “In the big picture, however [the article says], Wikipedia offers a compelling counternarrative to Putin.” The implication is that the energetic private investigators who write and edit Wikipedia articles are better custodians of the truth than governments are. This is a sad verdict on the waning of trust in the state.

Nor am I in a position to resolve a dispute about the crime of aggression in international law, one that we already foresee will not soon be put to bed. It is to make the case for why my chosen field of Science and Technology Studies, or STS, has become essential to our understanding of legal and political order in a world where no fact seems any longer indestructible from all points of view. If the world has become un-knowable in this very basic sense—so that even in situations of apparently dire collective need we cannot reach agreement on the facts of the matter—then how can we build democracies that will be sustainable and will in turn sustain our well-being? Siloed into warring, non-communicating camps of belief, how can members of any political community hope to find common ground or forge the compromises that are essential for democracy to work? And will the consequences not be still more dire when so many of our most intransigent problems are of global scale, demanding cooperation from nations around the world?

Drawing on my work on science, technology, law and policy over several decades, I want to show why I came to believe that STS thinking is especially germane at a time when the very constitution of a demos, or polity, depends on the scientific and technological means by which we know and actualize ourselves—as individuals and in groups, and as members of functioning political societies. I want to lay out how the questions that have preoccupied me and my students and colleagues in STS can contribute to a regeneration of political thought precisely at this moment of gloom about the trajectory of the human future. And I want to suggest how the insights from this work can help address the breakdowns in truth and trust that are plaguing our present, and thereby, one hopes, to build a more optimistic outlook for democracy in an unknowable world.

The Ignorance of the Demos

Let’s begin with two questions that are central to any meaningful discussion of democracy: what is the demos, and how is it able to rule itself? Who exactly constitutes a democracy’s demos, and who can speak for that body, were never straightforward questions. Membership in the demos has always been partial, selective, and somewhat arbitrary. Even within the bounded territory of the small city state that cradled Athenian democracy, only adult male citizens enjoyed political rights, in particular the right to speak and vote on laws.  The Preamble to the US Constitution begins with the confident words “We the People,” but it took a civil war and three Reconstruction Amendments to abolish slavery and grant Black males the right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified only in 1920, established women’s suffrage, and the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, ratified in 1971, further widened the aperture of voting rights by lowering the voting age to 18. But these liberalizing moves have not meant a corresponding increase in people’s desire for political agency.

We know from unhappy experience that having the right of self-rule and exercising that right in elections are two different things. This was true even in ancient Greece, where by some calculations only about 5000 men out of an eligible population of up to ten times that number showed up to assemblies. In America, voter turnout has been a perennial focus of concern, with turnout even in presidential elections varying between about 55-62 percent in the last four elections. Disparities in age, education, income, and gender all affect who shows up to vote. The young are often disaffected, as are those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. And, as we know, today in Republican-controlled states a push is on to weaken the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 by introducing requirements that make it even less easy and appealing for culturally disenfranchised people to participate as members of the demos. Placing restrictions on giving food and water to voters waiting in line, as done in a recent Georgia law, displays the creative frenzy of an antidemocratic imagination run amok.

Low turnout is troubling for democracy for obvious reasons. It can lead at the extreme to rule by rich and well-connected elites or by anti-progressive minorities energized by single issues. Political activism such as that by Stacey Abrams in Georgia before the 2020 US presidential election demonstrated the power of mobilization targeting particular alienated groups, but electoral passion led to very different results in 2016, and could again in this year’s US midterm elections. Where STS scholarship can help, however, is by exploring why so many people stay home. This, after all, is in part a question of knowledge, more specifically one of self-knowledge, and hence a domain where STS has insights to offer. What is it that makes people feel enough a part of a community to want to participate in self-governance? By the same token, why do so many opt out, especially in United States, one of the modern world’s oldest and most celebrated democracies?

One not very comforting answer that we could derive from the provocative work of Benedict Anderson is that it takes a kind of top-down coercion to make communities cohere. The imagination of belonging to a nation, in particular, was achieved in Anderson’s view by the alliance of state and media to subjugate people to the propaganda of nationhood. Indeed, the technologies of calling forth a sense of mass belonging have been the mainstay of authoritarian regimes everywhere:  the flags, the rallies, the music, the marches, and today the flash mobs and rumor mills of social media. If this is our vision of what it takes to mobilize the demos, better perhaps to have a demos that simply stays home and refuses to be called together!

Sadly, the liberal critique of democracy feels no more empowering of democracy. It has been tempting, especially on the part of quantitative scientists, to attribute people’s electoral apathy to ignorance. The demos just does not understand, it is said, how bad the climate crisis really is, or the risks of not adhering to mask mandates in a pandemic, because they do not know how to process information couched in mathematical language. Laypeople, on this view, do not think in terms of statistics and probabilities. Worse yet, their brains are evolutionarily adapted to living in non-modern pre-industrial societies, where reaction on instinct perhaps saved the day, but those instincts of “thinking fast” do not help with today’s problems. When you have to weigh the risks of nuclear accidents against those from extreme weather events, reflexes that may have guarded us against lions and bears no longer serve. If we take complex evidence from the neuro- and behavioral sciences into account, we must recognize the need to push back against our unruly brains. Daniel Kahnemann, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein are the right prophets for this world of wicked and urgent problems that call for complex solutions. We need to be nudged toward making more reasonable choices by superior experts who will configure the field of possibilities for us all. It is the people who can no longer be trusted. The ungoverned minds of the masses do not a demos make.

It is striking how closely these notions of brains behaving badly and nudging being the answer parallel the idea of “democratic elitism” developed by the journalist and political analyst Walter Lippmann almost exactly a century ago. It is interesting, too, how the critical reflection on Lippmann’s position aligns with the key ideas of his long-ago interlocutor, John Dewey. In his 1922 book Public Opinion, and again in The Phantom Public, Lippmann presented a picture of “we the people” as an essentially passive mass, given to forming its opinions on the basis of visual evidence, easily misled by propaganda, and incapable of conceptualizing or rationally intervening in the problems of the day. As a philosopher and educator, Dewey agreed with Lippmann’s pessimistic assessment of the condition of American democracy, but not with his prescription for a centralized system of expert management. For Dewey, democracy was more a matter of process than outcomes, and its fundamental end—giving people freedom to shape their own futures—could not be achieved without their active, intelligent participation in deliberating on the issues of the day. It is an appealing vision, but are the preconditions for such participation any longer achievable in societies as big and complex as America, let alone on the scale of worlds?

Complexity, Irresponsibility, Alienation

Many things have changed since the Dewey-Lippmann debates, and any attempts to reconstitute viable democracies must meet these changes head on. At first glance, it is Lippmann’s vision that seems to have gained the upper hand at the expense of Dewey’s. As technologies develop, converge and combine, it seems that we, as individual citizens and consumers, are doomed to know less and less about more and more. Today’s food, medical, transport, financial, communication, manufacturing, and distribution systems are all more networked, interdependent and opaque than they were a hundred years ago. While more aspects of our lives depend on being able to predict future outcomes, it becomes ever less clear whose job it is to make these predictions or how anyone should be held to account when predictions fail and people are harmed.

Ulrich Beck memorably called this state of affairs “organized irresponsibility.” It was a troubling feature of the modern risk society, in which we are continually exposed to threats we cannot perceive with our senses, and no authority exists to manage our exposure. The Covid-19 pandemic is but the latest example in a series of breakdowns in the chain of responsibility that include international terrorism, climate change, the financial crisis, the Ukraine war, and the Yahoo data breach that compromised up to 3 billion accounts at one go. Even to contemplate intelligent and reflective self-rule when confronted by problems of such border-defying magnitude seems like whistling in the wind. We may speak out, but our voices are weak, ineffectual, transient, blown away in the sheer pandemonium of change.

All this was forcefully brought home to me almost twenty years ago, when a small group of colleagues and I argued for such a principle of self-rule in a case involving genetically modified crops, or GMOs. The dispute was in the World Trade Organization, between a group of pro-GMO countries led by the US and the European Union. The petitioners charged the EU with maintaining an illegal moratorium against these commercially successful commodities, which scientific risk assessment had shown to be safe. We argued that the case for the pro-GMO nations was based on a prematurely narrowed and technical view of risk assessment. Any full-blown judgment of risk, we suggested, should look at the consequences of displacing one form of life (small-scale organic farming, for example) with another that was socially and culturally alien (in this case, the industrial agriculture perfected on and for America’s Great Plains). In effect, we made the case for what I have called “epistemic subsidiarity”: the freedom to make technological choices that are consistent with a community’s own values and forms of life, instead of bowing to a scientific universalism that would eradicate deep-seated ecological and agricultural differences in the name of safe molecular manipulation.

The ”academics’ brief,” as our effort came to be called, did not seem at the time to make a noticeable dent in the WTO’s understanding of what makes a risk assessment “scientific”; but years later, by delegating the decision whether or not to cultivate authorized GMOs to Member States, the EU in effect embraced the principle of epistemic subsidiarity.  Claims about the safety of GMOs, the EU now holds, cannot override the right to form different communities of belief on issues as salient to collective life as what food we grow and how we treat the earth into which our designs on nature must extend their roots.

For me, that experience of turning knowledge into action, and experiencing at first hand the resistance of elite global institutions, proved intellectually and politically generative. Though trained as a lawyer, I don’t think I fully appreciated the power of discourse—in this case legal discourse—to allow some voices in and keep others out. Our little team of self-appointed amici, or friends of the EU in this case, could not have got anywhere if we had argued our case in terms of democratic theory, let alone exclusively in STS terms. An unvarnished claim that thrusting GMOs onto reluctant European farmers and consumers was undemocratic would have got us precisely nowhere. Nor would we have made much headway by insisting that risk assessment is nothing but a social construct and that Europeans were entitled to their precautionary assessment of risk every bit as much as the US, Canada and Argentina, on the pro-GMO side, were entitled to their more enthusiastic leanings. Instead, we had to couch our case carefully in terms that could be located within the four corners of legal argumentation as articulates in the WTO’s defining legal instruments. If my Harvard Law School-trained colleague David Winickoff had not been my partner in this effort, I doubt that we could have managed to insert our amicus brief into the proceedings at all.

The second thing I learned was the frailty of any concept of democratic citizenship when people are confronted with technologies that originate in rich countries but propagate around the world in search of lucrative global markets. It was an uphill struggle for five scholars from reputable Western academic institutions to make our voices heard against an alliance of state power with corporate interests, papered over by the proclaimed authority of science. Our intervention in the WTO-GMO dispute made it clear that visions of the human future associated with new scientific and technological developments were localized and culturally specific. Technologies poised to affect all of humanity were not subject to anything resembling deliberation by a suitably varied cross-section of the world’s population. Clearly, our established institutions of global governance were not up to the task of reflecting democratically on the ethics of invention. To revive the democratic impetus, we need to get away from seeing our condition as a succession of problems defined by scientific knowledge. We need to grasp the future as a field of political possibility.

Redirecting the Democratic Gaze

As long as our minds remain fixed on problems in need of solutions, it is easy to see why the siren songs of better expertise and more trust in science cast their spell on us. How many of us, after all, could rightly calculate how to price a unit of carbon for an emissions market, or design a vaccine to fight the mutating variants of the coronavirus, or build failsafe airport or hospital security systems, or certify the accuracy of a military drone? But from the standpoint of reinvigorating democracy, maybe these are misleading questions. Maybe, like the proverbial lost key that does not lie within the seductive ring of the lamplight, we are looking to exercise democracy in the wrong places and by the wrong means. Maybe the creeping paralysis of the  democratic deficit would be easier to remedy if, instead of asking like Lippmann for good solutions, “we the people” would opt instead to bend our attention toward asking the right questions.

Once we hit the reset button on the problem of democracy in this way, it is easy to see how deeply misleading raw solutionism can become. We begin to understand how science and technology don’t merely offer answers to problems that need solving but are involved in shaping the very issues for which we then misguidedly seek scientific and technological solutions. The shift that politicians too often make, from asking the people what are the important problems to asking experts what are the right answers, puts the cart of technocracy ahead of the horses of democracy. It turns the process of building our common future into an exercise in expert problem-solving. Simply put, it sets aside self-rule by people in favor of rule by experts.

Behind the technical questions that the modern world generates in such profusion lie ancient questions of ethics, values and purpose that democracies are well equipped to settle. Do “we the people” want to use bio- and neurotechnologies to create cadres of enhanced “super soldiers” (as China, the UK, and the US are already said to be doing with their defense research funds)? Or should we instead be investing more resources into better understanding the arts and instruments of peace? Should we be experimenting with increasingly pathogenic viruses, through what is called gain of function research; or, given the continuing uncertainty about where Covid-19 originated, should we prudentially call a halt to such research until we better understand immunity? Should we be building vast expanses of solar parks or wind mills in developing countries, or should we first carry out a serious comparative accounting of who will be using the new renewable energy and for what purposes? Should we be experimenting with self-drive cars or be exploring how to improve our aging public transit systems? Should we be designing artificial intelligence and facial recognition software to enable our smart devices to track our motions more accurately; or should we be asking when to sacrifice gains in machine intelligence so we can claw back more space for individual growth and autonomy?

These questions about the kinds of futures we want to make matter profoundly to the young, who are hungry for ways of thinking that will empower them to find alternatives to the blockages of the present. STS scholarship has done this by repeatedly demonstrating that the mere fact of discovery does not determine the paths followed by technology. Take nuclear power, for example. Responding to public resistance, Austria banned it, Germany is phasing it out, and the US maintained a decades-long de facto moratorium on building new plants while experimenting with smaller and safer reactors. In sharp contrast, the Soviet Union suffered the Chernobyl disaster because flaws in its reactor design were known only to system insiders and were not publicly revealed or corrected in time. Significantly, it was in response to Chernobyl that Mikhail Gorbachev launched his policy of glasnost, or openness. It was somehow fitting that a nuclear disaster at a defective plant spelled the end of the political order that had built it and allowed it to keep operating despite many telltale warning signs. 

Once we see that technological systems reflect a society’s perceptions of which risks to tolerate and which benefits to seek out, the cross-national differences in law and policy that my work has so often illustrated become easier to understand. The same technology, for instance, could be seen as increasing individual choice or imposing unacceptable harm on the collective. Seduced by the lure of personal freedom, most American cities eliminated their streetcars in favor of automobiles, with eventual choking congestion and gridlock. Freiburg, by contrast, retained its communitarian streetcar system, and today brags about being one of Germany’s greenest cities. As computers developed increasing power to extract and store our data, European, but not American, law began crafting new privacy rules, including the well-known right to be forgotten. Americans thereby expressed a preference for unregulated information flow, whatever the cost, while Europeans saw too much information as a threat to people’s ability to grow and evolve, unhindered by the detritus of false or irrelevant memories. In these and innumerable other cases, technological choices were rooted in what we in STS call sociotechnical imaginaries, or collective visions of how to achieve desired social ends through science and technology.

The growing popularity of the concept of imaginaries, especially among younger STS scholars, is itself a sign that the yearning for democracy remains alive and well. People prefer analytic moves that seem to restore human agency over those that cast us as passive victims caught in technology’s unyielding grip. But work in the framework of imaginaries can also help to counteract the rise of alienation and apathy because it offers insights into what is at stake in designing the future. In the present, things too often seem to be immovable and obdurate. Technological artifacts, in Langdon Winner’s phrase, simply “have politics.” In the imagined future, however, the objects of governance, the instruments of intervention, and the capacities of political subjects all remain to be made, along with the design of technology. Once we recognize that alternatives exist, we can choose better which paths to follow and which to reject, for ourselves and our societies.

Let me offer a single example that also speaks to some of the terrible news of gun violence coming from America in recent weeks. In the wake of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 children and 2 teachers, much has been made of an ad by the gun manufacturer, Daniel Defense, that made the guns the shooter used. It shows a seated toddler wearing a T-shirt bearing the word “Rascal” playing with a rifle. The caption, from a company that frequently draws on the Bible in its advertising, reads: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” A joined hands emoji accompanies the Twitter version. Text and imagery powerfully combine elements of the American nation-building mythos: religion, violence, the gun as plaything, the solitary self as its own best defender, and children as hope for the nation’s future.

But in the aftermath of a shooting spree that killed so many children, this imagery may have overstepped a psychological line, and pending lawsuits have already begun to zero in on the unconscionable act of teaching lethal violence to a toddler. For now, the gun company may be shielded by federal law, but the mills of the law do grind, if slowly, and pedagogy can be used to activate the legal imagination to think of novel ways to bring the oversteppers to account. To me the caption in this image finds its counterpoint in another that I am personally more familiar with, from the top of Harvard Law School’s Austin Hall, this time from Exodus: “And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.” Lawyers trained to understand and dissect the sociotechnical imaginaries of violence in our society may find the ways to walk and work to do in order to reclaim the future for a society that does not think political power grows only from the barrels of guns.

Facts That Matter

I want to turn finally to the alleged erosion of facts that is today the most recurrent source of despair about the future of democracy. The lexicon of politics has changed in recent years to accommodate terms like alt-facts, port-truth, fake news, and truthiness. The complaint in liberal circles is that the influence of social media has created the means for seeding the public sphere with demonstrably false allegations, and that these quickly acquire a life of their own and propagate with speed and efficacy in the digital medium, almost as if verbal pathogens in the public sphere behave like live viruses in a pandemic. Proposed solutions have largely adopted the model of a filter, designed to catch such locutions before they spread and poison the minds of the demos.

There are a number of problems with these proposals. First, and perhaps most important, it presumes that we know what is a fact and where fiction and falsity begin. Yet, the demarcation between fact and non-fact is not so easy in practice. There is an often repeated quip widely attributed to the Harvard professor and New York State Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This presumes that on any matter of public concern, we know what the facts are, and that we can see where facts end and opinion begins. Across an entire range of public problems, however, that distinction is far from clearly established. The STS proposition that a fact is simply a statement with which no one any longer disagrees usefully sidesteps the definitional problem. But it also means that what looks like a fact may be an overconfident assertion, or an untested or unchallenged one, or simply a statement whose facticity no one has yet bothered to question.

The fact is that public facts are often made to carry predictive loads that are too heavy for them to bear. They are assertions based on simplified models of the world that don’t necessarily hold up under scrutiny. When things go wrong because the facts relied on were insufficient, we tend to say these were unintended consequences and to move on. Few public officials have the courage to admit that they were simply wrong.  And when they do, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently did with regard to the relationship between pandemic relief and inflation, the critics’ response is to insist that better knowledge was available, not that estimate and guesstimate lie uncomfortably close to one another in an unknowable world.   

STS thinking suggests that there is another way to protect the public sphere from corrosive falsity, and that is neither to insist on impossibly perfect performance from public officials nor to keep false statements from circulating (which seems a lost cause for the most part). It is to turn people into better critics and consumers of the facts they read and hear. It is to subject facts to democratic analysis that focuses on how they were made and not what they are. As I have suggested elsewhere, these questions then become key: Who claims to know? In answer to whose questions? On what authority? With what evidence? Subject to what oversight or criticism? With what openings for countervailing views? And with what closure mechanisms in cases of disagreement?

A Time of Laughter and Crying

I want to close on a note of cautious optimism. The state of democracy today does not seem as strong as it did 50-60 years ago. That was the era of new social movements, antiwar protests, Earth Day, the moon landing, the Beatles. The world seemed full of unrealized possibilities. Beyond the much discussed fact of political polarization, we are confronted today with problems that force us to wonder if the very idea of a demos is hopelessly antiquated. Depending on the nature of the problem to be solved, “we the people” could be anything from a vociferous community of people defending their property against unwise development or well-merited taking for public purposes to the shifting, shapeless, unbounded mass of humanity that is threatened by an issue that affects all of humankind, like climate change or germline genome editing. Besides, the climate crisis looms, machines have begun to outthink us, peace is elusive, livelihoods are threatened, and there are no longer any brutally elementary facts we can all agree on. In a world of unknowable cross-border problems and inchoate coalitions, what could it possibly mean to talk about legitimate self-rule?

And yet I hope I’ve laid out a positive strategy of self-reflection, along with some conceptual pointers that may serve as guides for reimagining what democracy might look like in our day. This would be an ideal of democracy oriented less toward problem-solving and more toward asking the questions and framing the goals that define the directions and purposes of our collective life. Democracy so conceived (should I add “and so dedicated”?) would not fall victim to a Lippmann-esque analysis of its technical incompetence. Nor would it need to be trained to participate in the Deweyan tradition. The urge to be involved would come of its own accord, from an active desire to reconfigure the sociotechnical imaginaries of our time in ways that enable greater inclusion and human flourishing.

In the vast body of stories that make up the Indian ethical traditions there are a number of recurrent psychic motifs that appear across story lines. One of these is the dual motif of laughter and crying. The Sanskrit scholar Maurice Bloomfield wrote of one such example from the Jatakas, or tales of the Buddha’s life. An ascetic comes to the king’s palace where he gets to see the king’s son, the future Buddha. Now, the ascetic, blessed with temporal panopticism like our own AI and supercomputing systems, “could look backward into the past for forty world-cycles, and forward into the future for forty world-cycles.” With this wide-angled gaze, he first saw the Buddha in his ultimate radiance, and he laughed at the sheer splendor of it; then he perceived that he himself would die and not be reborn in a form that could see the perfected Buddha—and he cried.

I want to say at the conclusion of this Holberg lecture that the limits of our forecasting abilities, and our mixed success in making the world a livable place for the many, should certainly make us weep. But when we remember that within each of us there lurks the power to imagine other worlds and altered lives, and that together our wavering individual candle power has the capacity to illuminate the darkest world, I believe we can also allow ourselves the pleasure of sustaining laughter.

Thank you.

Sheila Jasanoff
2022 Holberg Laureate; Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. 

The Holberg Lecture was delivered at the University Aula in Bergen on 8 June, 2022