Technologies of Humility

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Article: Sheila Jasanoff. Technologies of Humility: Citizen participation in governing Science. Minerva, 2003


2008-9 updates:

  1. A manifesto for socially-relevant science and technology”. December 2008
  2. The Essential Parallel Between Science and Democracy. Seed Magazine, February 17, 2009


Andrew Maynard:

The 3 papers

"“A “manifesto” for socially-relevant science and technology” revisits her 2003 paper “Technologies of Humility: Citizen participation in governing Science,” published in the journal Minerva (and downloadable here). In this seminal paper, Jasanoff explored new approaches to decision-making that “seek to integrate the ‘can-do’ orientation of science and engineering with the ‘should-do’ questions of ethical and political analysis.” Her work led to the concept of technologies of humility—“social technologies” developed around a framework that poses “the questions we should ask of almost every human enterprise that intends to alter society: what is the purpose; who will be hurt; who benefits; and how can we know?

While Jasanoff’s work on technologies of humility was highly influential amongst social scientists—more so in Europe than the US it must be said—it gained very limited traction in US policy making. This was undoubtedly due in part to political ideologies in vogue at the time.

However, six years on, and things have changed—sound science and technology policy are back in fashion, Jasanoff’s ideas have had time to mature, and this time round she’s writing for a broader audience in a more accessible format.

“The Essential Parallel Between Science and Democracy,” published February 17 on the Seed Magazine website, presents a clear vision of the interplay between science and society, and the need to understand and manage the relationship between the two if real progress is to be made. ” (

The ideas

Andrew Maynard:

"Jasanoff suggests, is that the tendencies of modern science do not always converge with the aims of democracy. And as a result,

- “simply throwing more money at science, or even listening to the best-qualified scientists for policy advice, may not ensure that research and development are conducted for the public good.”

This is strong stuff, but important nevertheless. Interestingly, Jasanoff is particularly concerned with how closely science has become linked to special economic and political interests. This is somewhat complex ground, as high-level science policies in the US have favored investigator-drive “basic research” for some time, on the (outmoded) assumption that knowledge generation will naturally trickle down to innovation. Yet the reality is that scientific progress is directed by various drivers and motivators—economic return being amongst them—and in the absence of a clear research and development strategy, these can seriously undermine both the generation of knowledge for its own sake, and the generation and use of strategically relevant knowledge. And in this context, the conclusion Jasanoff draws is spot on—that we need a carefully balanced portfolio of public science, which combines curiosity-driven research with mission-driven studies.

Moving through the need to revise current intellectual property laws and practices and open up the public debate on science and society, Jasanoff goes on to challenge the role of science as “speaking truth to power” in society. Instead, she suggests that

- “rather than claiming the rarely attainable high ground of truth, scientific advice should own up to uncertainty and ignorance, exercise ethical as well as epistemic judgment, and ensure as far as possible that society’s needs drive advances in knowledge instead of presuming to lead society.”

This is classic Jasanoff, and reflects much of her thinking on science, society and humility. It’s a bold statement of how we should be thinking about the relationship between science and society. But it is also a challenging one. Jasanoff continues,

- “Such humility requires experts to sometimes bow to others who are less technically informed, but subordinating expert preference to democratic priorities may be a tough act. The roots of resistance run deep. They are grounded partly in the innocent, wishful, antiquated notion that science would be apolitical if only it could be left alone.”

But of course the irony here is that, as Jasanoff points out, science neither wants to or can be left out of the political process. If you want proof of this, just check out the science lobby in Washington DC! And as she goes on to argue, simplistic dichotomies between science and technology, and how they are used, have little place in the 21st century. Instead, a rather more clear understanding of what it means to scientific and technological development to democratic ends is needed.

The way forward, argues Jasanoff, is through a “Second Enlightenment

- “Finding the rightful place for science … demands a Second Enlightenment. This time, we do not need to overthrow the false gods of superstition or the self-serving autocracies that thrive by creating their own reality. This time, like the fox of Greek philosophy, we already know a great many things about how to examine life, harness energy, measure society, create incentives, and use statistical evidence to support rational public decisions. Nor should we hesitate to learn more. But do we, like the hedgehog, also know the big things? What makes for human happiness? Which manipulations of nature are we too ignorant of to safely undertake? When might attempts to enhance human capabilities bump against deeply held beliefs about the value of being human?”

The Second Enlightenment must be, according to Jasanoff, the enlightenment of modesty; based on the skeptical, questioning virtues of an experimental turn of mind, and accepting that truth is provisional, that questioning of experts should be encouraged, and that steps forward may need corrective steps back." (

More Information

  1. A Manifesto for Socially-relevant Science and Technology
  2. The Essential Parallel Between Science and Democracy