Knowledge and the Public Good–Some Suggested Reading

Haim Watzman

The dissemination of knowledge—high-quality knowledge—is essential to a democratic society. So I’d like to point out an interesting juxtaposition of articles from my Shabbat reading that, taken together, have something important to say about the importance of getting good knowledge to the public.

Danielle Allen’s review of Josiah Ober’s book Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens in The New Republic concludes:

Josiah Ober shows us that Athens knew what the Athenians knew, because the city as a whole had devised institutions that made sure the useful knowledge of the widest possible range of individuals flowed to where it was needed. Have we fully tapped into the resources of participatory democracy to supplement our own representative structures with a citizenry within which all the sluices of knowledge are open and have been set a-flowing? Does America know what Americans know?

In the March 5 issue of Nature, Harry Collins, a social scientist who studies science, concludes an essay entitled “We Cannot Live By Skepticism Alone” with these words:

Science, then, can provide us with a set of values—not findings—for how to run our lives, and that includes our social and political lives. But it can do this only if we accept that assessing scientific findings is a far more difficult task than was once believed, and that those findings do not lead straight to political conclusions. Scientists can guide us only by admitting their weaknesses, and, concomitantly, when we outsiders judge scientists, we must do it not to the standard of truth, but to the much softer standard of expertise.

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