In this piece, Roger Pielke, Jr. argues for the importance of “facilitating democratic discourse” and suggests that there is room for improvement in academia. My own experiences have been that we had more open discussions within the Forest Service (due to having different experts needing to agree on documents) than my recent experiences with academia, both as a student and as an alumna. As Roger says, it’s not for everyone, but I think it should be encouraged, especially in institutions whose mission involves education of young people who need to enter a diverse work world. Of course, it’s also one of the main missions of this blog.
More than a century ago, American pragmatist John Dewey emphasized the importance of “intellectual hospitality.” By this he meant “An attitude of mind which actively welcomes suggestions and relevant information from all sides.” Today academics and other experts face a crisis of intellectual hospitality, with implications not just for the art of science communication but also for the broader roles of experts in democracy.
A counter argument is that in an era where politics might matter more than ever, why should experts engage with their opponents? Maybe the stakes nowadays are just too high for the high-minded luxury of intellectual hospitality. In fact, perhaps we should actively be opposing delegitimized academics, the GMO industry, climate skeptics and even Republicans, lest we help their causes. I hear this argument a lot, as do others who seek to cross political lines in scientific engagement and communication.
Despite my experiences, I persist in believing that not just science but also democracy is well served by intellectual hospitality.
Experts reinforce democracy and work against authoritarianism when we adopt a stance of intellectual hospitality. A half century ago, American political scientist E. E. Schattschneider made a powerful case for the importance to democracy of a willingness to engage different points of view: “Democracy is based on a profound insight into human nature, the realization that all men are sinful, all are imperfect, all are prejudiced, and no one knows the whole truth.”
To paraphrase Walter Lippmann, democracy is not about getting everyone to think alike, but about getting people who think differently to act alike. Intellectual hospitality will not lead to uniform thinking, but it may facilitate collective action.
As experts we face important choices in how we deploy the authority that we have gained in society. We can use that power to delegitimize those we disagree with, to seek to dominate the intellectual arena. Alternatively, we can allow some in our ranks to try to serve as a corrective to the hyper-partisan politics of our era, to seek to facilitate democratic discourse. The choice is profound, not just for the politics of specific issues like climate change and GMOs, but for the practice of democracy itself.