When science and democracy conflict

Philosophy Ph.D. student Vanessa Schipani taught the SNF Paideia course Science Communication in Democracy, based on her dissertation research.

Vanessa Schipani teaches class.
Vanessa Schipani provides an op-ed writing tutorial as part of her Science Communication in Democracy course.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Vanessa Schipani observed that people on both sides of debates would say the science was on their side. Schipani says the reality, however, was that the science was uncertain and this uncertainty was hidden from public debate, a nuance not lost on the fifth-year philosophy doctoral student, who examines the importance of science communication in maintaining a healthy democracy. 

“That was really problematic. It’s better to be honest about the uncertainty of the science because when the science changes people aren’t taken off guard. It also better respects their autonomy, which is deeply important to protect in a democracy,” she says.

Before starting her Ph.D., Schipani spent 10 years working as a science journalist, most recently for FactCheck.org at Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Her experience shaped how she defines the duties journalists have in a democracy: “to cultivate a well-informed public, and to hold those in power to account.” The problem, Schipani says, is that journalists generally don’t think of scientists as people they need to hold to account, and they should.

“What I want to do is, on the one hand, acknowledge that scientists have more knowledge and, therefore, to a certain extent, more power, but I want to rebalance the power in a way that inherently does give more power to the people,” Schipani says. “One way to do that is through warranted trust, and ‘warranted’ is the key word there.”

Her research is the basis of the Science Communication in Democracy course she taught to six students this fall, one of the SNF Paideia-designated courses that focus on citizenship or community service through examining dialogue across differences. Schipani poses the questions, “If people have limited knowledge of science, how does that impact their ability to meaningfully participate in a policymaking process that utilizes science?” and “How can we formulate science-based policies that limit freedoms if people reasonably disagree with the value assumptions that scholars now argue are inherent to science?”

In preparation for an assignment to write an op-ed or short story, students spent one class going through a list of pieces of op-ed writing advice that Schipani compiled from former New York Times deputy op-ed editor Clay Risen. That includes not biting off more than you can chew, making a novel point, challenging something, and writing about something timely.

The students then workshopped their op-ed ideas, such as arguing for the value of TikTok in science education or about effective methods of climate activism. Schipani challenged the class to think deeply about op-ed criteria, asking, “How is that point novel?” and encouraging, “You would mainly want to be thinking about how to make it timely.”

Rethinking conceptions of science

As a philosophy major and student journalist, fourth-year student Emi Tuyetnhi Tran says that, when she saw a flyer in the Department of Philosophy advertising a course called Science Communication in Democracy taught by a seasoned journalist, “it seemed like the absolute perfect course for me.” Tran, who is from Orlando, Florida, is executive editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian.

“I am charged with shaping and upholding the student-run media company’s editorial vision and standards,” Tran says, “and Vanessa’s course is helpful because it allows me to step back and have a top-down view of journalism, compared to the bottom-up nature of doing journalism at the DP day-to-day.”

Tran says the course also challenged her previously held view of science “as an objective arbiter of truth” and made her “re-examine how I think about the illusion of objectivity in reporting and the purpose of being a journalist, which is to inform the community.”

Luna Afra Evans, an exchange student from the Free University of Berlin studying philosophy and political science, took the class because of an interest in both science communication and political theory.

“I love to talk about what democracy is and how we should communicate about it,” says Evans, a third-year student from Frankfurt. “When I grew up, I loved science shows, and when I grew older I loved these science YouTube videos where people explain stuff.”

Evans says this class might be their favorite because of the interdisciplinary approach. They note, “We often talk about what democracy actually is or how the public can be more involved, what the public’s role is in science, how we can communicate concepts that you could write a whole thesis about to non-experts, and also how science influences democracy and vice versa.”

Evans says they especially enjoyed conversations about the moral foundations of decision-making in politics in science. The size of the class, Evans says, made it a good place to discuss complicated issues of individual autonomy versus sacrifices for the greater good “because it’s a very respectful environment, and I think we are always very charitable with interpreting each other’s arguments.”

COVID-19 was one of the case studies students examined in the latter half of the course, along with vaccines, segregation, climate change, flat earthers, abortion and pregnancy, LGBTQ+ rights, and criminal justice and brain development. This followed an introduction to democracy, and readings and discussions on public understandings of science, trust in experts, and tensions between science and democracy.

Something for everyone

Schipani’s work at FactCheck.org overlapped with finishing a master’s degree in history and philosophy of science. Deciding to pursue a Ph.D., she says she felt lucky to already be working in one of the best places for the research she wanted to do. “My dissertation is pretty interdisciplinary, so that’s why it’s great to be at Penn. I pull from research in the science of science communication as well as from the philosophy of science and political philosophy.”

She incorporates work from disciplines outside philosophy because it helps her apply the analytical rigor of her discipline to the complexities of the real world. “I want everybody to study this topic,” she says.

Schipani says there are “experts making certain decisions about policies that may limit our freedoms, but not everyone can understand those justifications.” She says part of the solution is cultivating trust, which she says requires scientists to prove two things: that they’re being epistemically responsive—continually updating theories based on new evidence—and being politically responsive by listening to the public’s values. 

“Science and democracy have this idea of responsiveness in common,” Schipani says. “Science has to be epistemically responsive, democracy has to be politically responsive, and when it comes to policymaking, you need both of them.”