Friday, November 30, 2012

Reasoning about reason

If unrest and demonstrations are anything to go by, there is profound disaffection among citizens about the democracies they are part of. Failure of neo-liberalism to provide an alternative has created further distress among the public. Neither have institutions been able to read reason for public anguish nor have the state created space for public reason in influencing public policy. The dozen essays written over past two decades by Harvard University Professor Sheila Jasanoff conclude that acknowledging public reason can shed surprisingly clear light on a world in turmoil.

Without doubt, the essays put together in the volume are work in immense scholarship. Picking on scientific controversies from Germany, England, the US and India, ranging from mad cow scare to silicone gel breast transplant, Jasanoff creates a mosaic of scientific controversies wherein interplay between science and public reasoning had led to influencing state policies to some extent. Yet, the power of words to compel action has remained a subject for philosophical and political analysis from Plato down to modern times. It is no wonder, therefore, that in majority of instances reason is achieved, not attained.

One reason why reason is not treated as a practice has to do with its implications on re-visioning democracy. The entrenched notion with which democracies have been governed all across, reason viewed as a social practice only undermines powers that be. Not surprising, therefore, that in a functioning democracy there is lack of systematic correspondence between what is offered as public justification and what actually gets acknowledged by the citizens. To overcome this mistrust, Jasanoff offers public reason as a response to the problem of trust in a society that is besieged with technological uncertainty, information excess and proliferating expertise.

In an era when modern governments have come to be regarded as oppressive and intrusive, excluding knowledge and perspectives of the public has only added to their woes. It is now widely reasoned that increased participation and interactive knowledge-making alone can improve accountability and alleviate democracy's discontents....Link

Science and Public Reason
by Sheila Jasanoff
Routledge, London
290 pages, US $ 145

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