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Philip Kitcher Public Knowledge and the Difficulties of Democracy i ALTHOUGH MOST PHILOSOPHY SINCE 1 6 4 0 HAS BEEN OBSESSED W ITH th e concept of knowledge as an individual possession, our everyday talk frequently conceives of knowledge as a public good. Many people speak confidently of the grow th of hum an knowledge, som etimes supposing this to have been the greatest achievem ent of our species. Moreover, a central them e in our reflections on democracy is that the advance of our knowledge and the progress of political institutions go hand in hand. As m ore is known, the possibilities for fruitful discus­ sions of the issues that concern us increase, and we become better able to craft effective policies in response to the problems that confront us. Or so at least we often believe. Yet it is im m ediately evident that swift inferences from claims about public knowledge to the attitudes of individuals are unjustified. Ifwe are told that “it is now know n th at” som ething or other is the case, we have no license to conclude that everybody now knows the pertinent fact. More than half the population of the United States thinks that the earth is less than 10,000 years old; many Americans continue to believe that Iraq was directly involved in the destruction of the World Trade Center; about a quarter of them think that preparation for the end of the world and the return of a savior requires destabilization of the Near East; and veiy few have accurate views about the im pact of fuel emis­ sions on the likely tem perature of our planet during the next decades. That may be an extraordinary record for an affluent democracy, but social research Voi 73 : No 4 : W inter 2006 1205 America does not have a m onopoly on ignorance. European schoolchil­ dren assent quite readily to the proposition that genetically modified organisms differ from other organisms because the former, but not the latter, contain genes—indeed, according to the statistics, 64 percent of Swedish students endorse this idea (Jasanoff, 2005). The flow ofmisinformation is m atched by failures to address certain issues that need to be resolved. We know less than we should, and less than we could, about ways of preventing infectious disease, about conse­ quences of global warming, about the causes of religious militancy, and about the prospects of developing drought-tolerant crops (while ensur­ ing that farmers in the poorest regions of the world are not held hostage to agribusiness). Many ofthe m ost urgent political questions of our times are debated w ithout probing the factual m atters that m ight bring rival perspectives closer. Even w hen the central facts have been resolved, at least according to scientific standards, futile controversies continue. These dismal, but familiar, facts lead me to conclude th at the central epistem ological problem s for our times are not those about individual knowledge (questions probed in contem porary Anglophone philosophy w ith an astonishing attention to m inutiae and an equally astonishing disregard of w hat m ight really m atter).1 They are instead about the character of knowledge as a public good and the systems that generate and sustain that good. In w hat follows, I w ant to undertake an initial foray into these central problems. II Let m e begin by setting on one side a serious form of skepticism that really should m atter to our contem porary discussions. Since the writings of Thomas Kuhn (and others), we have recognized the lim i­ tations of any simple m odel of the accum ulation of knowledge, and some scholars have offered argum ents th at question the privileged status of the W estern scientific tradition and that sometimes seek to free “local knowledges” from the hegemony of natural science (Kuhn, 1962; Schaffer and Shapin, 1985; Foucault, 1980). Since I have w ritten elsewhere in response to these live forms of skepticism (Kitcher 1993, 1206 social research 2001),21am going to take it for granted here that they can be addressed, and that we can find a position that does justice both to the insights...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1205-1224
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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