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Governing Epistemology: Collective Reason at the Core of Science
By Peter Galison


An argument in three steps:  First,  over the last several decades, scientific collaborations have grown from dozens to hundreds, now thousands of participants, focusing attention on the intersection of governance and epistemology. What does it mean for an astronomical or particle physics collectivity to come to a conclusion about the existence of the Higgs or the reality of supermassive black hole shadow?  How and when do collaborations essentially vote on the validity of a scientific conclusion?  The very idea rubs many scientists the wrong way. Suddenly, one has to ask: Who decides about when and what to publish?  What is a collective author?  Indeed, the informal collaboration structures of the mid-twentieth century began in the big science 1980s and 90s to exhibit in later years what many theories of liberal democracy highlight: constitutional structure, separation of powers, representative voting.  Second, more recent political theorists, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, began pushing past the general features of liberal democracy, emphasizing the central features they value in democracy then under great pressure: deliberation.  With that move, political-theoretical and scientific decision-making come into a more commensurable form; framing governmentality around mutuality, pluralism, and transparency.  Third, and finally, we come to the axis of dissensus along which scientific and political decision-making began to head down diverging paths.  Political deliberation allows, even encourages non-unanimous decision-making. At least for several centuries, fine points of tax or infrastructure votes did not threaten the legitimacy of the polity. But for a scientific collaboration, saying the group was 52% in favor of the existence of the Higgs and 48% against, would have been utterly demobilizing or “we say 60-40 that this is the image of a black hole.”  This suggests ways that there are mechanisms of deliberation in scientific collaboration that handle dissensus rather differently than in many political and juridical sectors: Using local coordination even in the face of global discord.

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