Karl Popper (1902-1994) was a philosopher who wrote on both scientific knowledge and politics. His most famous work was a two-volume book entitled The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Popper’s claim was that, all through history, societies that are run by elites who take themselves to have more valuable knowledge than other people always end up being repressive tyrannies. Plato’s beloved republic was supposed to be run by philosopher kings, and in this society, Popper notes, there is state censorship, noble lies, eugenics, and very little human freedom. Hegel’s society, Popper argued, requires individuals to subordinate their own interests and beliefs to the plans of an Absolute Spirit that worked through whomever happened to be king; and this unquestioning obedience, combined with the faith that God is behind whatever the state is doing, helped to make the rise of National Socialism possible in Germany. Marx believed that in the transition from capitalism to communism, there would need to be an interval when authorities controlled everything and re-educated the masses; this idea led to Stalinism. In general, Popper argued, whenever people set themselves up as knowing better than others, an oppressive tyranny results.
Popper’s alternative is the open society. An open society is one in which people are free to think as they like and say what they think. People are free to criticize one another’s claims and ask for evidence and for justification. No one inherently has a greater claim to the truth. Each individual has the right to employ their own reason to determine their beliefs. A democracy is the best form of government for such a society as it allows for free and equal participation by all citizens. Obviously, in such a democracy not everyone will get their way, but everyone will have the chance to offer their own view, and a view will become dominant only by winning over the majority of citizens. So long as citizens are encouraged to exercise their own critical rationality, asking for evidence and justification and deciding on views that seem best supported by available knowledge, the society will generally follow the best available suggestions. Mistakes will be made, but no worse than what happens in any alternative to an open society.
This is obviously only the beginning of a rich discussion in political philosophy, but what is important for our purposes is the way Popper links epistemic autonomy with social and political freedom. Epistemic autonomy is an individual’s capacity to use their own reason and experience in determining what is true. The opposite would be being told what to believe without sufficient evidence or reason—belief at the point of a gun, in other words. Epistemic autonomy both leads to and results from social and political freedom. It leads to social and political freedom in two ways. First, individuals with epistemic autonomy want to have for themselves the freedom to use their reason and determine their own beliefs, and preserving this freedom for themselves will mean also preserving it for others (at least, so long as they do not regard themselves as having special privileges). Second, individuals may discover that the best way to use reason and evidence in determining their beliefs is through free and open dialogue with others, since others will have reasons and evidence that the individuals had not considered.
But it is also true that epistemic autonomy results from social and political freedom. If we allow citizens a maximal set of rights—in the words of John Rawls, a set of rights that is as broad as can be while extending the same rights to everyone else—then individuals will need to determine for themselves how they act, how they live, and what they believe. This is epistemic autonomy.
Objection: This is all well and good so far as it goes. But even in self-professed free societies, there can be propaganda and persuasive advertising and all sorts of ways to manipulate people’s beliefs. People may think they are epistemically autonomous when, in reality, they are being manipulated by powerful political or corporate interest groups.
Popper would hasten to agree. But how do we fight against such manipulation? Appointing some small group of people either to be in charge or to determine what public knowledge should be would only make the situation easier for those who seek to manipulate society to their own ends, for the manipulators now need not try to convince a majority of citizens but only the small group in charge. The best antidote to bad information is more information, Popper would say. Over time, the information that is more accurate will prevail over misinformation.
But let us consider a harder case in which citizen’s freedoms might be seen as threatened by having more information. For many years in the U. S., standardized test scores have favored some groups of people over others. Males tend to outperform females, and Asian students outperform other racial or ethnic groups. This is normally regarded as indicating both biases in the tests and differences in the educational experiences of people in these groups. But a few researchers have claimed that the differences in the test scores remain even when one compensates for the tests’ biases and the differences in experience. In other words, some portion of the difference in test scores, they claim, really just has to do with the differences in sex or race or ethnicity. Some groups of people are smarter than others, at least according to the measurements of these tests.
Now suppose the view of this minority of researchers were to turn out to be true. Suppose there were some measurable difference in intelligence between these groups of people. Suppose we could set aside all of the well-founded concerns about standardized tests, disparities in education, and so on, and suppose there really turned out to be such a difference—a small difference, perhaps, but a genuine difference. It is a difficult conceptual possibility for us to confront because we know how such a result would be deployed in the service of sexism and racism. Elite college admissions and high-level employment opportunities would be skewed towards privileged groups—for after all, don’t we want the best and brightest in these spots? And people would be shut out from opportunities over factors over which they had no control such as their sex or race. We might well worry that all of the hard work that has gone into the struggle for equality of opportunity among historically disadvantaged groups would be wiped away with such a research discovery.
With that in mind, would it be wiser for researchers to suppress their discovery? If they saw that the discovery would be used to justify sexist or racist policies, would they not be morally obliged to block that discovery from becoming known?
Defenders of the free society would say that the discovery should not be suppressed. But, of course, that does not mean they would welcome sexist or racist policies. Rather, they might say, the research has given us a strange and wholly unexpected fact that will probably require further study to fully comprehend—but it has not given us any obvious reason for dismantling any of the moral progress we have made. It has been known for a long time that differences exist among groups of people for whatever reason; that is obvious. But we have learned to disregard those differences when it is a matter of social or political equality. Why should it be any different in this case?
The more general strategy of the defenders of the open society is to let all information be out in the open so that it cannot work behind the scenes in the dark and undiscovered. If some group of people thinks a small difference in standardized tests would justify racist or sexist policies, let them bring that argument out into the open where it can be discussed, challenged, and refuted. The alternative is to allow the argument to fester unspoken in individuals’ minds, governing their actions without ever being brought out in public display. The bright spotlight of public scrutiny will kill off the unreasoned beliefs and nourish the ones supported by reason and evidence.
Or that is the faith of the defenders of the open society, at any rate. But having seen what we have seen about the rationality of humans at various points in our history (think particularly of the Victorian scientists here), we may well worry whether “the bright spotlight of public scrutiny” always does the work it is supposed to do.