Thesis ID: CBB957399527

Science & the Authoritarian: Deference to Scientific Authority & How It Disables Democratic Deliberation on Controversial Science Issues (2019)


The concept deference to scientific authority captures how beliefs about science as authoritative knowledge can become a type of authoritarianism, with more deferent people believing that scientists, and not citizens, have authority in decision-making concerning scientific issues—even when those issues concern societal and moral questions beyond what science can answer. Because democratic deliberation depends on citizens willingly participating and accepting others’ viewpoints as legitimate, deference to the point of authoritarianism can disable such deliberation on how we want to use science and technology in society. Few studies examine deference to scientific authority, however, and large gaps exist in our understanding of the concept’s core theoretical features. These include how deference compares to trust in scientists and the cultural authority of science and limit our ability to capture deference and its implications for science communication and decision-making. This dissertation provides the first empirical look at those gaps by focusing on three main questions: 1) what is the scope of deference—does it predict anti-democratic views even in decision-making on science’s societal implications? 2) what does it mean “to defer”—respect for expertise or authoritarianism? 3) where does deference come from—what makes some people more likely to defer to scientific authority? Examining this last question involves the first look at how deference relates to broader beliefs in science as an authoritative way of knowing the world and builds on work on the cultural authority of science. Results indicate that existing deference to scientific authority items do predict anti-democratic views on decision-making on science’s societal impacts and relate to a narrow, idealized view of “science.” Deference, therefore, is distinct from trust in scientists and also from just believing that science is authoritative knowledge. Existing deference items, however, suffer from validity and reliability issues. This work ends with a proposed model for capturing more complete pictures of deference. It ends with discussion on how we can research what the optimal level of deference to scientific authority is across different decision-making contexts—from scientific questions to normative questions—and better understand its implications for how we use scientific information and applications in society.

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Authors & Contributors
Christian H. Ross
Collins, Harry M.
Cunningham-Burley, Sarah
Evans, Robert
Forbes, Curtis
Greene, Mott T.
Social Studies of Science
Spontaneous Generations
Public Understanding of Science
British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
History of Science
Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy
Harvard University Press
MIT Press
Arizona State University
Authority of science
Science and society
Public understanding of science
Authorities; experts
Collins, Harry M.
Evans, Robert
Feyerabend, Paul K.
Mach, Ernst
Oppenheimer, J. Robert
Planck, Max
Time Periods
21st century
20th century, late
20th century
19th century
20th century, early
United States
Carnegie Museum of Natural History (Pittsburgh)

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