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Cristina Grasseni

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Home > Cristina Grasseni > New Rites For Democracy?

New Rites For Democracy?

by Redazione FGB [1], 27 February 2008

On February 15th 2008, at the premises of the Bassetti Foundation in Milan, the sociologist of science Brian Wynne opened the seminar chaired by Piero Bassetti and Mariachiara Tallacchini about the report for the European Commission, Taking European Society Seriously (2007), now translated in Italian under the auspices of the Bassetti Foundation (Scienza e Governance. La società europea della conoscenza presa sul serio. Rubbettino, 2008).

The introductory and final speech by prof. Wynne, as well as the rich and participated debate that ensued, focussed in lucid and original ways on the social and political effects of the current lack of technical procedures, dialogical tools and planning strategies to bring together different and contrasting outlooks on techno-science and the knowledge economy under a common view.

What follows is my own reconstruction of the main arguments and issues raised at the seminar. It is not a chronological nor a comprehensive summary of the debate, but rather my own interpretation of it. For the benefit of the reader, I have synthetically summarized the main points raised and those which, in my opinion, deserve most attention and reflection. Naturally I hold full responsibility for the way in which I have understood and rephrased the many voices that animated the debate.

In his introductory speech, Brian Wynne explained how, in a reason-based society, it should not be considered problematic that citizens wish to ask questions about techno-science and its effects on their lives.
Such questions are often unbiased, in other words they do not convey an anti-technological, or an anti-science attitude. The questions asked may well suggest important relations between distant areas of technology and science, such as mass-experimentation in drug use (of the type for instance of Thalidomide), GM crops and GM foods, and the long-term effects of radioactive waste. Such relations are not cognitive but practice-based: they suggest that disparate techno-scientific realms may pose similar kind of problems, not only in terms of risk-management, but also in terms of risk-assessment. In other words, such questions are not, on the bottom line, questions asked out of ignorance about Thalidomide or GMOs or nuclear power stations. Content-based answers only respond to them superficially, because through indirect language, what they demand are not only data, but responsibility and trust. The questions are: "who is going to be in charge of this and of its effects?" and by extension "do we trust them?", and again "what are the benefits and who is going to benefit?". These are perfectly reasonable questions, they are not oppositional or backward or conservative per se. They are questions about who takes responsibility for the impact of innovation on society, and about the social ends of such innovation. They are also questions about unintended consequences and about who is ready to take responsibility for them - a question of accountability.

The debate underlined many different aspects of the issue:
- There is a plurality of meanings attached to "responsibility" (liability, accountability, answerability...), and sanctions or punishment are not functional for the issue of "unintended consequences". This is because the nature and impact of our action has changed, from individual to collective. Nevertheless, we still attach trust and ethical expectations to the "ambiguous" virtue of "responsibility", namely that of maintaining a normalising balance within a landscape of values and facts. Therefore, such a shift requires the corresponding evolution of our concept of "being responsible": from one of being "respectful of one's duty" to one of being "capable of foreseeing the consequences of one's actions, of consulting others, of being flexible about one's plans and of being willing to give truthful accounts of one's actions (Foddai);
- Trust and competence do not necessarily go together (Cavalli). There is a fundamental difference between a democratic system based on politics and one based on policy, that is between a system which singles out those who are politically legitimised to make decisions, and one that singles out those who are competent to make decisions (Montanari). Political decisions are often taken, as a matter of fact, without an adequate level of technical knowledge of the issues at hand, because of the trust that decision-makers have for the "good judgement" of technical advisors (Cattaneo).
- The question is how to maintain such trust when faith in the social and political "neutrality" of science breaks down - which is different from the "epistemological" breakdown of science as an "absolute certainty" (Bassetti, Wynne, Cattaneo).
- This question is of an anthropological nature, since it hinges on the fact that different value cultures exist, and often diverge. Many of the techno-scientific issues at hand are hence inherently divisive (Testa, Cattaneo).
- Decisions are often debated and taken at the local level, where local contexts, histories and communities of practice are of paramount importance to understanding and bridging such a divide. It is on the ground, at the local level that procedural solutions for reaching compromise can more easily be seen (Menoni, Grasseni).
- There is an institutional lack of procedures to collectively assess the benefits of technoscience in an evidence-based and participatory way (Adamoli, Colombo, Cattaneo, Bassetti).
- There is a real threat that with the lack of such procedures, a number of strategies of choice-avoidance may take over, all of which steer public attention and interest away from "truth-seeking": firstly technocracy (the tyranny of expert committees, indicators and the like), secondly information-swamping (citizens can be submerged in information, as if choices about techno-science could be a matter of individual choice, but this is illusory), thirdly demagogy, i.e. the tyranny of the opinion of the majority (Colombo).
- Such procedures must not only discuss "what to do", but also "why", namely they must include discussions about ends, not only means (Testa, Colombo).
- If one is open and honest about the fact that decisions are not the outcome of neutral expert judgment, but the result of political premises, one should also find more substantial ways to support citizen participation in public decision making (Adamoli).
- Nevertheless, introducing an honest and open debate on "social ends" means facing a clash between irreconcilable anthropological views on collective good, the value of life, the meaning of science, and so on. In other words, we are faced with the prospect of incommensurable worldviews, and divergent understandings, of what is "beneficial" and to whom (Cattaneo, Testa, Trevissoi).
- The legal and juridical system is expected to deliver an exactness of analysis and certain criteria for decision-making that scientists themselves admit they cannot deliver (Tallacchini).
- To shift from a politics to a policy oriented management of complex socio-economic issues requires that society holds a sufficiently homogeneous and shared conception of what is the collective good. Without such social integration, the necessary timescape to invest on public good disappears from political debate, and any political representative will only aim at the short-terms effects of one's choices (Montanari).
- To limit the discussion to the role of expert judgement and of epistemological uncertainty means to ignore the economic impact and the power relation between the actors of technoscientific scenarios and those who drive them. There is a need to address such concrete scenarios (Trevissoi, Bassetti, Operto).
- The rhetoric of a knowledge economy runs the risk of considering the public as a science-illiterate counterpart. Nevertheless, EU sensibility has evolved from one of a "deficit model", and now conceives of its "science in society" unit in a different way than as simply "raising public awareness of science" (Bucchi). Nevertheless, one should also take into consideration the fact that, as shown by recent demoscopic research, on the whole the level of average scientific competence is low in Italy (Cavalli).

In his final statement, Brian Wynne underlined what the real issue is: how do we generate processes of trust in novel ways and taking into account these complex scenario? That means finding technical, therefore ritual, forms of the harmonisation of intellectual, economic and political interests and counterparts. Public mistrust is best dealt with through participatory processes. For such techniques to work, though, good faith - including institutional good faith - is a necessary prerequisite. In other words, what we need to decide first is the issue that we are confronting as a European society: is it that of generating globally competitive innovation? Or is it a different one?
Ritual procedures such as those that have been established in juridical systems (the hearing of conflicting parties in court, for instance) are a good starting point as working models for establishing procedures of consultation. These highly ritualised forms of "public hearing" serve a political function, and can be useful alternatives to either professing the anthropological incommensurability between radically divergent worldviews, or taking to street-rioting. In this sense, the precedent of the Windscale Public Inquiry held in the 1970s about the Sellafield reprocessing plan in the UK is an instructive precedent. What it teaches is that, regardless of the actual contents debated and results achieved, the form of the debate must hold onto both reason and rite (see Brian Wynne's Rationality and Ritual: The Windscale Inquiry and Nuclear Decisions in Britain, 1982).

My preliminary conclusion of this rich and illuminating debate would be that choice-making cannot just be "conventional", even when taken in a condition of epistemological uncertainty and under the pressure of corporate interests. Precisely where the cognitive and epistemological status of the data at hand is open to debate, and the stakes are high, there is a deep need for a ritualisation of public decision-making in order to acknowledge it as authoritative. The function of a public rite here should be taken in the literal, anthropological sense, rather than just evoked: what are needed are scenarios and roles theatrically unfolding in ways that are codified, established and recognised in the collective imagination as "traditional", namely both authoritative and effective, and agreed upon by participants with an intimate level of adhesion.

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