Jasanoff on Public Truths: An Approach to the Fire Retardant Debate?

Sheila Jasanoff, Sheila Jasanoff
Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School

Andy Stahl’s comment here: reminded me of a recent piece I’d read by Sheila Jasanoff. Andy made the claim:

“While anecdotal information (“evidence based on hearsay“) can be helpful, scientific research and hard facts are a better basis for policy decisions.”

Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School, is an expert on the intersection of science, policy and law. This interesting piece by her recently came across my desk, and while it is fairly long, I’d like to draw your attention to her thoughts about how democracy, information and science come together (my italics).

To address the current retreat from reason—and indeed to restore confidence that “facts” and “truth” can be reclaimed in the public sphere—we need a discourse less crude than the stark binaries of good/bad, true/false, or science/antiscience. That oversimplification, we have seen, only augments political polarization and possibly yields unfair advantage to those in possession of the political megaphones of the moment. We need a discourse more attuned to findings from the history, sociology, and politics of knowledge that truth in the public domain is not simply out there, ready to be pulled into service like the magician’s rabbit from a hat. On the contrary, in democratic societies, public truths are precious collective achievements, arrived at just as good laws are, through slow sifting of alternative interpretations based on careful observation and argument and painstaking deliberation among trustworthy experts.

In good processes of public fact-making, judgment cannot be set side, nor facts wholly disentangled from values. The durability of public facts, accepted by citizens as “self-evident” truths, depends not on nature alone but on the procedural values of fairness, transparency, criticism, and appeal in the fact-finding process. These virtues, as the sociologist Robert K. Merton noted as long ago as 1942, are built into the ethos of science. How else, after all, did modern Western societies repudiate earlier structures of class, race, gender, religious, or ethnic inequality than by letting in the skeptical voices of the underrepresented? It is when ruling institutions bypass the virtues of openness and critique that public truthfulness suffers, yielding to what the comedian Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” the shallow pretense of truth, or what the Israeli political scientist Yaron Ezrahi calls “out-formations,” baseless claims replacing reliable, institutionally certified information. That short-circuiting of democratic process is what happened when the governments of Tony Blair and George W. Bush disastrously claimed to have evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A cavalier disregard for process, over and above the blatancy of lying, may similarly deal the harshest blows to the credibility of the Trump administration.

Public truths cannot be dictated—neither by a pure, all-knowing science nor unilaterally from the throne of power. Science and democracy, at their best, are modest enterprises because both are mistrustful of their own authority. Each gains by making its doubts explicit. This does not mean that the search for closure in either science or politics must be dismissed as unattainable. It does mean that we must ask and insist on good answers to questions about the procedures and practices that undergird both kinds of authority claims. For assertions of public knowledge, the following questions then seem indispensable:

Who claims to know?
In answer to whose questions?
On what authority?
With what evidence?
Subject to what oversight or opportunity for criticism?
With what openings for countervailing views to express themselves?
And with what mechanisms of closure in cases of disagreement?

If those questions can be raised and discussed, even if not resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, then factual disagreements retreat into the background and confidence builds that ours is indeed a government of reason. For those who are not satisfied, the possibility remains open that one can return some other day, with more persuasive data, and hope the wheel of knowledge will turn in synchrony with the arc of justice. In the end, what assures a polity that knowledge is justly coupled to power is not the assertion that science knows best, but the conviction that science itself has been subjected to norms of good government.

It might be fun to work through Jasanoff’s list of questions with the fire retardant issue. To someone outside this issue like me, it seems that we have practitioner experience vs. other knowledge approaches. It seems to me that any “serviceable truth” around fire retardant would have to incorporate both practitioner observations and explain the information (or lack thereof in the case of no studies) presented by Andy. Note that it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s paid position to arrive at “serviceable truths,” and it requires hard work to dig into the details. And of course, we could also use Sheila’s questions for our fuel treatment discussion after we have rounded up the relevant information and looked at it from a variety of angles.


  1. For a long time, the consensus “truth” was based on an agricultural model of forestry. Old growth was viewed as decadent, a biological desert, inefficient, and it needed to be replaced with thrifty tree farms. This worldview was supported by the “iron triangle” of campaign contributions from the timber industry to Congress, timber targets from Congress to the agencies, and log volume form the agencies to the timber industry. This Iron Triangle was virtually impenetrable to new views of forest values based on ecology, biodiversity, etc. At least until it was violently broken apart by Judge Dwyer.

    I am very unclear how community views organic evolve, especially when the status quo is wrapped in self-reinforcing cycles of money and power. The spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and Pacific salmon simply did not have time for the type of slow shifting consensus described by this author.

    Just as there are multiple successional pathways from disturbance to old growth, there are also multiple pathways to community “agreement” on natural resources policy. Some are by necessity swift and highly disruptive.

    • Timber targets in the Sierra Nevada are at about one thirteenth of the levels of the 80’s. Your narrative just isn’t true here, since 1993. “Natural Succession” is impossible to plan for, with human impacts NEVER GOING AWAY. They just aren’t. The Sierra Clubbers still think the Forest Service clearcuts, then drills for oil and sells lands to the rich. I’ve seen that on their Facebook page and the SC lets the Trumpspiracy Theorists run with it.

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