Péter Hartl


The concepts of “science”, “freedom”, and “democracy” are often recognized as deeply connected with one another, even though each is subject to various interpretations and involves many complications. A systematic account of these topics should clarify how the values of liberal democracy and the values associated with scientific research can either mutually reinforce or conflict with one another. By integrating historical, analytical, and empirical approaches, this book aims to provide a comprehensive philosophical overview of these complex questions from different perspectives. To this end, the term “science” is considered as broadly as possible, and also covers the social sciences and humanities.1

This volume consists of essays by internationally renowned and emerging young scholars that investigate interrelated questions, including the nature and limits of academic freedom, the social responsibility of scientists, the moral and social values of the scientific community in a democracy, methodological and value pluralism in science policies, the relation between participatory democracy and science, and the threats of populism and autocracy. The contributions also cover the topics of philosophical criticism of totalitarian control of science, various philosophical theories of democracy, public reason, the politicization of science, and epistemic injustice. Some contributions to the volume rely on classic approaches from the history of philosophy (for example those of Max Weber, Robert Merton, and Michael Polanyi) to examine present-day challenges to academic freedom and democracy. Others utilize empirical case studies in their philosophical argumentation about the role of science in democratic and free societies.

More specifically, the chapters in this volume focus on three main areas. Part 1 (“Academic Freedom and Other Values in Science and Society”) focuses on historical and contemporary analyses of different conceptions of academic freedom and its relation to other social and moral values of the scientific community and liberal democracy. Academic freedom can be defined as the freedom of either individual researchers or scientific communities to choose their own topics, problems, and methods (Polanyi 1951, 33).

Another aspect of academic freedom is autonomy: scientific institutions and researchers should be largely independent of external, non-epistemic influences (whether financial, political, or ideological). Especially since the Second World War, academic freedom has been perceived as virtually boundless, with external, non-scientific aims regarded as a threat.2 In this view, academic freedom should be constrained only by basic ethical considerations (Bridgman 1947). Accordingly, the social and moral values associated with academic freedom are the fundamental values of free society, and arguably of any democracy. Democracy and free society are modeled after a more or less idealized picture of the scientific community, typically referred to as "the republic of science” (Polanyi 1962). Such uncompromising defense of academic freedom is proposed as an alternative to the Nazi and Stalinist totalitarian control of science. Moreover, following Francis Bacon’s optimistic ideas, it has been a popularly held view in the post-war period that virtually unlimited academic freedom is — in most cases, if not always — useful for society, based on the belief that scientific research freed from constraints will inevitably produce useful knowledge and beneficial technology (Bush 1945).

However, such optimism about scientific freedom and social prosperity has since been questioned. Some have also criticized the classic ideal of academic freedom and the optimism attached to its value, arguing that to some extent, external, even political, control of science is necessary, and that almost unlimited freedom without public accountability is not desirable in modern democracies (Edsall 1975; Douglas 2003; Kitcher 2011). As such, public accountability of scientists is necessary, and the harmful social consequences of technological progress often associated with boundless freedom in economics and science need to be critically examined. Nevertheless, it remains an open question how to draw normative distinctions between necessary or acceptable and unnecessary or inadmissible forms of public control of scientific research.

The contributors to this part of the volume (Phil Mullins, Péter Hartl, Heather Douglas, and Janet Kourany) focus on the following problems: the nature and the limits of academic freedom, in what sense academic freedom is necessary for a free society, to what extent academic freedom can or should be limited, and which other values beside academic freedom should guide scientific communities and individual scientists. Whereas Mullins and Hartl put greater emphasis on the nature and the value of academic freedom in liberal democracies, Douglas and Kourany examine the role of other values (such as social prosperity, equality, accountability, and responsibility) for scientific communities and society as a whole.

Phil Mullins’s essay (“Michael Polanyi’s Post-Critical Philosophical Vision of Science and Society”) reconstructs Michael Polanyi’s critical and constructive philosophy, with a focus on his social and political ideas and how they relate to his account of science. Mullins examines why Polanyi thought that modern philosophy ultimately led to a false conception of science and gave rise to nihilism, violence, and totalitarianism in the twentieth century.

The chapter presents Polanyi’s constructive “post-critical” alternative perspective focused on a discovery-centered account of science and a broadly refrained understanding of human knowledge. Mullins shows how Polanyi interweaves his account of science with ideas about how the social and political organization of society could best promote science according to the vision of a “society of explorers”.

Peter Hartl’s chapter (“The Ethos of Science and Central Planning: Merton and Michael Polanyi on the Autonomy of Science”) discusses in historical context how Merton’s and Polanyi’s conceptions of values, norms, and traditions in science (i.e., “the ethos of science”) laid the ground for their defense of academic freedom and a free society. Hartl argues that Merton’s and Polanyi’s defense of freedom of science and free society against totalitarianism have much in common, even though Polanyi himself was critical of Merton’s sociology. Polanyi’s criticism of Merton, as Hartl shows, arises from a misreading of Merton’s position. Both thinkers argue that freedom of science and a free society depend on each other, and both share the idea that the ethos of science exemplifies the values of a free society as a whole. They both believe that centralized control is motivated by the illiberal idea that the state is solely responsible for the welfare of society. For Polanyi, scientific inquiry is a spontaneous order whose development would be inevitably paralyzed by a central and hierarchic organization. Hartl highlights problems with both Merton’s and Polanyi’s views and suggests some modifications thereof, but concludes that Merton’s and Polanyi’s warnings offer valuable lessons for the present day, as the basic motives underlying the attempts by governments to control science are still with us in the context of populist and authoritarian politics.

Heather Douglas’s chapter (“Scientific Freedom and Social Responsibility”) analyzes scientists’ awareness of their responsibilities toward the societies in which they pursue their research, which has recently increased. The chapter examines the shift from the view of the social responsibility of scientists that predominated in the second half of the twentieth century and investigates how responsibility is now yoked to the freedom to pursue scientific research, rather than opposed to such freedom. First, Douglas describes this change and its causes; second, she addresses the fact that much of our institutional research oversight infrastructure was put in place with a now-outdated understanding of the societal responsibilities and freedoms of scientists; and finally, she makes some recommendations on how to reform the structures we have in place to be more in tune with the current conceptualization of scientific freedom and social responsibility.

Janet Kourany’s chapter (“Bacon’s Promise”) critically examines the modern view (traced back to Bacon) that scientific discoveries will inevitably produce prosperity for everyone. The chapter criticizes Vannevar Bush’s optimistic “Baconian” concept, according to which science, if it is financially supported and left free of any social control, will produce social progress in every respect (health, happiness, security, and prosperity). Although Kourany does not deny that science has produced significant benefits for modern society, she argues that the consequences of scientific and technological progress are rather mixed. She relies on case studies from the food industry and medical research to show that certain scientific-technological achievements have caused serious health problems. She also analyzes how technology and science-driven economic growth have contributed to increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth. Kourany argues that instead of taking for granted that academic freedom without external control has beneficial consequences only, we should reconsider how to supervise and regulate (often very costly) scientific and technological projects and how to hold researchers publicly accountable.

Part II (“Democracy and Citizen Participation in Science”) focuses on various definitions of “democracy” and the role that certain democratic values, notably participation and deliberation, could and should play in science policy and how and to what extent science should be “democratized”.3 The scientific community can serve as an inspiration for certain ideals of democracy, since the scientific ethos is often seen as essentially liberal, anti-authoritarian, critical of ideologies, and opposed to any discrimination based on race, gender, class, or otherwise (Sarton 1924; Merton 1973; Popper 1945). On the other hand, some scholars have contrasted these somewhat idealized epistemic and social norms of scientific communities with partisan politics and have argued in favor of rule by experts, as opposed to democratic elections based on universal suffrage (Comte 1875-1877; Brennan 2016). Yet others have criticized hierarchies and conservatism in science and have called for egalitarianism both in scientific institutions and in society (Fuller 2000; Jarvie 2001).

At any rate, the term “democracy” notoriously has many meanings and is often used in conjunction with different quantifiers (Shapiro and Hacker-Cordon 1999; Cunningham 2002). Participatory' democracy is frequently contrasted with representative democracy, and since Rousseau there has been a long tradition of considering direct, participatory democracy, where citizens themselves take part in deliberative processes, as the genuine, or at least the more authentic form of democracy, rather than rule by a political class (Arendt 1998, 31—33, 220-226; 1990, 30-33). The core concept of deliberative democracy, developed mainly by Rawls and Habermas, is “public reason”, which encapsulates moral or political norms that can be justifiably imposed upon free and equal individuals (Chambers 1996; Gauss 2010, 184; Habermas 1998, 41-44; Habermas 1996; Rawls 1996, 36-37, 55-58). How these norms should be determined, to whom these rules are justifiable, and whether deliberation requires equal consideration of all perspectives or should assign greater weight to expert opinions is still the subject of much debate (Bohman 1996; Cohen 2008; Enoch 2015). Complete deference to scientific expert opinions seems to conflict with at least some conceptions of public reason or, at worst, with democratic principles in general (Kitcher 2011, 20-25; Mulligan 2015).4

Although the statement that “scientific truth is not a matter of the decision of the majority” is hardly debatable, many scholars have argued that scientific research should be supervised, if not to some extent controlled, either by democratic institutions or directly by the public in a well-functioning democratic society (Brown 2009). Arguably, the most elaborate analysis of the role of science in a democratic society is proposed by Kitcher (2001; 2011) who believes that scientific research and institutions must serve the goals of democracy — in other words, that public knowledge should be shaped to promote democratic and egalitarian norms and values. The question arises to what extent these scientific institutions and decisions on scientific research agendas can be properly called democratic. Moreover, it needs to be examined to what extent the general public, juries of citizens, or elected politicians could and should decide on scientific research agendas, scholarships, goals of scientific research, and moral-social questions related to scientific knowledge (Brown 2013; Leschner 2003; Est 2011; Ruphy 2019).

The chapters of Part II, by Hans Radder, Hugh Lacey, and Dustin Olson, contribute novel insights to the debates around the following questions: which approaches to science should be fostered in the context of upholding democratic values (in particular, the values of participatory and deliberative democracy); to what extent is citizen participation in decisions concerning science policies and scientific research legitimate or useful; and how should democratic institutions support public decision making by mitigating the distortions of scientific expert opinions.

Hans Radder’s contribution (“Which Science, Which Democracy, and Which Freedom?”) has two aims. First, to elaborate on the notions of science, democracy, and freedom in the context of the diversity of the sciences and their relations to technology. Radder’s account of democracy combines the features of voting, deliberation, and the separation of the executive, legislative, and judiciary powers of the state, as well as appropriately inclusive elections. His take on the notion of (negative and positive) freedom acknowledges its significance as a general regulative value, while also emphasizing its entanglement with sociopolitical interpretations and contextualizations. The second aim of the chapter is to discuss a range of examples of the actual and desirable relations between science, democracy, and freedom. Radder’s examples include the significance of the double hermeneutic for the human sciences; an analysis and assessment of the development of the Dutch National Research Agenda as a form of citizen participation in science; a discussion of the principal legal and social aspects of academic freedom; and, finally, a defense of the thesis that it is in the public’s interest to guarantee the freedom to pursue basic academic research.

Hugh Lacey’s chapter (“Participatory Democracy and Multi-Strategic Research”) examines what approaches to science should be fostered in the context of upholding democratic values. The chapter analyses two conceptions of democracy: “representative democracy” and “participatory democracy”, and two of scientific research: “decontextualizing research” (i.e., research into which decontextualizing strategies are adopted); and “multi-strategic research” (i.e., research that allows for a pluralism of methodological strategies). Lacey discusses connections between representative democracy and decontextualized strategies in research. Moreover, he examines the possible consequences for science of recent threats to democratic values and institutions in a number of countries. Lacey’s thesis is that upholding the values of participatory democracy fosters multi-strategic research, which in turn buttresses the traditional ideals of modern science.

Dustin Olson’s contribution (“Public Opinion, Democratic Legitimacy, and Epistemic Compromise”) relies on a recent example from US politics — the climate change debate in the 2010 mid-term elections - to show how public opinion is shaped through the exploitation of epistemic interdependence and partisan bias. Prior to the election, public opinion on climate change was subject to several willfully disseminated distorting influences, which had a significant impact on the outcome and compromised its democratic legitimacy. To defend democratic legitimacy, Olson demonstrates how we can re-evaluate and update the parameters under which the liberal institutions necessary for informed public opinion operate in light of our current political and epistemic needs. Moreover, Olson argues that democratic institutions have moral, political, and epistemic obligations to facilitate public reason and to mitigate the willful dissemination of distorting influences on democratic decision making.

Part 111 (“Freedom and Pluralism in Scientific Methodology and Values”) focuses in general on how pluralism about values in certain domains should influence our understanding of scientific research and guide science policy in a free society. According to the classic idea of value-free science, scientific opinion must not be influenced by value judgments other than epistemic values (Nagel 1961). Hume and the positivists argued that value judgments do not express propositions that can be true or false, and that values are therefore not subject to scientific investigation (Hume 1975, 172—173; Hempel 1965, 85— 86).5 Since the 1960s and 1970s, the defenders of the “strong” program of sociology of science, as well as various social constructivists (Barnes, Bloor, and Henry 1996; Latour and Woolgar 1979), have argued for the opposite view: given that external, non-epistemic values (such as political, religious, or ideological ones) inevitably determine scientific theory choices, the value-free ideal has to be rejected and a relativistic understanding of scientific knowledge should be adopted. However, in recent years, both the value-free, objectivist idea of science and relativistic social constructivism have been scrutinized and reconsidered, if not rejected. In their place, some scholars have proposed a position between the two extremes that recognizes and approves of non-epistemic values in science but avoids relativism (Lacey 1999; Douglas 2009). Others have rejected the assumption that epistemic values should be taken as a priori and have adopted a pragmatist stance about scientific and democratic values (Brown 2017).

If the importance of both epistemic and non-epistemic values in science is recognized, it is also clear that there are many such values, including methodological, moral, practical, and political ones. In all domains, it can be plausibly argued that there is no single value that could or should influence or guide scientific institutions and science policies, and that a pluralist approach should be adopted instead. It also has to be kept in mind that pluralism can have multiple contexts; given that many authors reject the very strict and sharp distinction between epistemic/non-epistemic values (or deny its significance), pluralism might also answer their concerns by calling attention to the idea that values (whatever their category) always come in the plural. Furthermore, pluralism in science and values would reflect, in a more structured way, the actual practice of many scientific fields. It thus provides a strong theoretical device for engaging with actual problems and challenges, while still leaving open the possibility for normative issues to be resolved by local reductions to more monolithic value discourses (for further references, see Elliott and Steel 2017).

The contributions in Part 111, by Jeroen Van Bouwel and Lidia Godek, investigate the following questions: which types of values are legitimate in guiding scientific communities and decisions about science policy in a free society, and on which domains and to what extent can value pluralism be used in science policy making alongside our theoretical understanding of science.

Jeroen Van Bouwel (“Are Transparency and Representativeness of Values Hampering Scientific Pluralism?”) examines under what conditions the influence of values on science is justifiable. The chapter analyzes two of three conditions proposed by Elliott: that influences should (1) be made transparent and (2) be representative of our major social and ethical priorities. By analyzing transparency initiatives in political science, Van Bouwel argues that the first condition has benefits but also drawbacks, in particular in relation to initiatives for fostering scientific pluralism. Moreover, he maintains that the second condition might help us to answer which or whose values scientists should legitimately follow. One way to understand the second condition is that the values used in science should be representative and democratically legitimate. To further elaborate on Elliot’s views, Van Bouwel relies on economic models and proposes an alternative account of representativeness, rejecting conceptions that hamper scientific pluralism. Instead, Van Bouwel contends that a reflection on social and epistemic practices in science shows that commitments to transparency and representativeness should include a commitment to agonistic, pluralist democracy and scientific-methodological pluralism. The chapter illustrates how questions about scientific plurality and values are interrelated and why a commitment to pluralism is beneficial for both democracy and science as an epistemic enterprise.

Lidia Godek’s chapter (“Max Weber’s Value Judgment and the Problem of Science Policy Making”) argues that to understand Weber’s concept of value judgments and its practical implications, we must analyze his meta-philosophical thesis of “reference to values”. Godek begins by discussing the question of how we should understand the role of value judgments and to what extent they are acceptable in scientific practice and science policy making. The chapter distinguishes two levels on which Weber’s conception of value judgments can be analyzed: (a) the methodological level relating to the choice of the subject matter of scientific inquiry (a reference to values, value axioms, and ideal types); and (b) the worldview level, including the postulate of value freedom as an assumption of modern science. For Weber, value judgments cannot be reduced to the practical value judgments of scientists. Godek reveals how, in Weber’s theory, such a plural perspective on value judgments is manifested in the value of the vocation of scientists and the values associated with the institutionalization of science. Finally, Godek considers the consequences of the institutionalization of values and develops three different models of science policy making, namely a regulative, a protective, and an integrating approach.


The essays in this volume (with two exceptions) were originally presented at the international conference on Science, Freedom, Democracy on July 8-9, 2019, at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Philosophy, Budapest, Hungary. The conference and the publication of this book were supported by MTA BTK Lendiilet Morals and Science Research Project, Hungarian Academy of Sciences - International Conference Fund and the Research Centre for the Humanities. The volume contributes to the research program of the MTA BTK Lendiilet Morals and Science Research Project (Hartl-Tuboly) and to the MTA Premium Postdoctoral Fellowship program (Tuboly). We are indebted to our authors for their participation and the stimulating discussions both at the conference and in this volume. We are also grateful to our reviewers and editors at Routledge for their kind work and help, especially during the recent global health crisis.


  • 1 As is the case with this volume, it is often sociologists of science and philosophers of science who take up the topics of academic freedom and public engagement -despite the fact that these also deserve the attention of political and social philosophers. Although the perspectives of political and social philosophers could enrich these discussions, our aim here is only to lay out a tapestry of recent issues and to foster discussions among philosophers that bear straightforward relevance to contemporary discourses.
  • 2 After the Second World War, especially during the McCarthy era, the Cold War transformed many of the sciences and their public relations to society. Philosophy of science, largely imported from socialist Red Vienna, quickly lost its socio-politically engaged character and fell back on more neutral and technical subtleties. See Reisch (2005).
  • 3 It should be noted here that topics such as “public engagement”, “citizen participation”, and similar problems of the relation between science and democracy are relatively recent issues in the philosophy of science. While it is generally acknowledged that philosophy of science was a socially engaged and politically active field before the Second World War (Howard 2003), it was mainly restricted to the epistemic and moral accountability of scientists and was motivated by a certain Enlightenment vision of the public’s empowerment. Current debates about values in science and society are more focused, specialized, and pay greater attention to actual regulations and norms.
  • 4 In this respect, one might suspect a broader narrative where cultural factors play a key role. During the early decades of the twentieth century, leading scientists often produced detailed works about the philosophical implications of their scientific achievements (see Arthur Eddington, James Jeans, J.B.S. Haldane, J.D. Bernal, and others). These works achieved best-seller status and were also widely influential among non-scientists. But their impact (as documents of the cultural sensitivity of their era) extended rather to the level of concepts and worldviews and not to policies, public governance, or the shaping of political norms. One might thus suspect that the notion of “experts” had a different meaning then and now, and that the questions of philosophy of science evolved and developed along different lines.
  • 5 It should be noted, however, that while many logical positivists accepted the idea of non-cognitivism (namely the view that value judgments do not express genuine descriptive propositions and are thus not truth-apt), they still considered moral and political discourses to be of utmost importance and hence tried to find alternative ways to engage with such issues; some of them delivered popular talks about the everyday (and thus moral) relevance of science in adult education centers; other organized exhibitions, museums, and films; and a third group transferred the subject to psychology or mathematics (as in game theory). Thus, against general wisdom, it is important to be aware of how philosophers (of science) let ethical and socio-political issues slip away from the canon for decades.


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