A change in our expectations concerning the use of science for policy implies the need to make something like philosophical deliberation more central to decision making.
Philosophy relevant? We had better hope so....Of course, deliberating over values is no more a magic bullet than science has turned out to be. But whether we are talking about scientific results, or ethical, social and political values, a lack of certainty does not mean that evidence cannot be marshalled and reasons cannot be given.
Practically speaking, this implies employing individuals with philosophical training in a wide variety of policy and regulatory institutions: not as specialists whose job is to provide answers, but to ask the right kinds of questions.--Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman"Why policy needs philosophers as much as it needs science," @Guardian [HT Pinar Emirdag]
Briggle and Frodeman's piece was shared on my Facebook page and then shared again by others who thought I endorsed their analysis. They propose that philosophy is a genuine purpose skill that allows one to ask the right kinds of questions in complex, managerial bureaucracies ("wide variety of policy and regulatory institutions"). This general purpose skill would be analogous and complementary to the general purpose manager (armed with case-study cultivated MBA who knows how to deploy general purpose technologies, i.e., to read spread-sheets and gets things done in complex bureaucracies). Another analogy is with the general purpose consultant (again somebody who deploys general purpose technologies etc. and who offers solutions to others who need to get things done in complex bureaucracies).
Before I get to that I should mention that they rely, in turn, on a long, ambitious piece by Daniel Sarewitz, which weaves together a whole bunch of issues connected to science managament at the intersection of science, technology, and society. One notable feature of Sarewitz's analysis -- unremarked upon by Briggle and Frodeman -- is that he he has a mistrust of what goes by academic freedom and pure research and thinks that the guidance of science by the department of defense toward particular technological (including non-military) innovations was very fruitful (for a period until the system deteriorated). That is to say, when ends are given Sarewitz can offer a template for good science management. When ends are not given or when (as he suggests) science becomes too large and complex, he falls back on a forty year old idea, Alvin Weinberg's “trans-science.” In it "the objects and phenomena studied by trans-science are never absolute but instead are variable, imprecise, uncertain — and thus always potentially subject to interpretation and debate." Sarewitz never explains how this recognition helps, and it's pretty clear that trans-science has been a failure. In fact, if one reads between the lines, it's pretty clear that Sarewitz laments that people who should be doing trans-science end up trying to do, well, science.*
Oddly enough, the failure of trans-science does not deter Briggle and Frodeman:
Sarewitz doesn’t speak in terms of open science. Rather, he revives Alvin Weinberg’s call for “trans-science”, a problem-oriented approach to inquiry that is judged by its success in the real world, rather than by disciplinary metrics. Weinberg says that trans-science begins with an act of “selfless honesty” where experts acknowledge that an issue has exceeded the boundaries of their domain.
Trans-scientists have to know when they don’t know – otherwise they’ll labor under the illusion (and perhaps fool others too) that they are capable of solving problems that they can’t. This is the stuff of Socrates. For Socrates, wisdom consisted in knowing that one doesn’t know. He exposed the self-assured expert as a poseur, pronouncing on matters outside his jurisdiction.
If trans-science is our new ideal, then Socrates is back in business. Philosophers working within the Socratic model can bring useful skills to our knotty problems, including hermeneutics (thinking through issues that allow varying interpretations and framings), ethics (uncovering and analyzing hidden value commitments), and epistemology (assessing different claims to knowledge).
I suspect that even loyal Plato would acknowledge that having Socrates in one's organization would ground things to a stand-still if not permanent conflict among the members of staff. [Evidence: try running a department meeting with a dozen would be Socrates-es.] After all, even Socrates acknowledged that the best and only possible place for philosophers was in running the show (philosopher-ceo) not to be distributed amongst, ahhh, the worker-bees within the division of labor.
This is not to deny that trained philosophers can make good consultants or managers. I am familiar with plenty of cases where the analytical and logical skills taught by philosophy departments pay off nicely (either as a signal for smarts or as a means toward problem solving or enhancing existing technologies (software, statistics, etc.). I have no doubt it's true that some versions of "hermeneutics (thinking through issues that allow varying interpretations and framings), ethics (uncovering and analyzing hidden value commitments), and epistemology (assessing different claims to knowledge)" can be useful in ordinary bureaucratic-life when accompanied by the distinctive mindset described by Briggle & Frodeman. Those of us who engage in various forms of public philosophy have long recognized this.
Even so, I am skeptical of the core claim by Briggle & Frodeman: that having philosophers around in large organizations will ensure that the right kinds of questions for the purposes of their organizational aims are asked. Why expect that? Why think that philosophy can facilitate instrumental rationality -- because that's what this is about -- absent the skills and expertise of local context. (Jonathan Swift and Aristophanes had fun lampooning this idea, so I won't repeated it here.) That's magical thinking even if we put Briggle & Frodeman in charge of the curriculum that trains these philosopher-consultants (they have a low opinion of the existing status quo: "as it is currently constituted, academic philosophy is not up to this task.")
This is not to deny that folk with philosophical training can't become skilled local cogs in complex bureaucratic agencies (or excellent consultants). They do so regularly. But they do so by way of becoming skilled locally (or by acquiring excellence in other general purpose technologies of the sort offered in MBA/CPA/MPA/IT programs). By contrast, turning (as Briggle & Frodeman suggest) the philosophy curriculum toward "social significance" as such (or in general) will not make particular philosophers ask the right questions locally.
Of course the Sophist in me thinks, if Briggle & Frodeman can convince society to hire a lot of my students, who am I to complain?
*I quote: "Weinberg’s pleas for “selfless honesty” in drawing the lines of expertise have gone largely unheeded, as scientists have, over the past forty years, generally sought not to distinguish trans-science from science but to try — through what amounts to a modern sort of alchemy — to transmute trans-science into science." Onbe may add that any approach that demands self-denial in what is effectively meant to be a credit economy (science) is doomed to failure. (Note that science is, of course, many other things, too.)