Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Voting on Whether Two Pounds of Lead falls Faster than One Pound

The National Science Foundation  has funded a series of “citizens technology forums,” at which previously uninformed, ordinary Americans were brought together to solve a thorny question of technology policy. According to the NSF’s abstract of the project, carried out by researchers at North Carolina State University under a grant, participants were to “receive information about that issue from a range of content-area experts, experts on social implications of science and technology, and representatives of special interest groups”; this was supposed to enable them to reach consensus “and ultimately generate recommendations.”

The project, first funded in 2002 to support two panels, and expanded thereafter, called for eight more panels (comprised of people “representative of the local population”). Their deliberations were to be overseen by a research team “composed of faculty in rhetoric of science, group decision-making, and political science,” who were charged to test both “an innovative measure of democratic deliberation” and “also political science theory, by investigating relationships between gender, ethnicity, lower socioeconomic status and increases in efficacy and trust in regulators.”

The first of these NSF-funded citizens’ groups tackled regulatory policy toward agricultural biotechnology and recommended that the government tighten regulations for cultivating genetically engineered crops, including a new requirement that the foods from these crops be labeled to identify them for consumers.

Both of these recommendations do not fit current understanding of the questions, and conflict with the views of experts — including those within and outside the government. (The labeling recommendation would also run afoul of the First Amendment constitutional guarantees of commercial free speech, which the citizen-policymakers failed to realize.)
One can only surmise where the democratizing of decision-making can lead. Perhaps they see this as an expansion of Galton's thesis on the wisdom of crowds--although I don't think he meant "the wisdom of the woefully ill-informed."

After all, there is some significant difference between guessing the implication of genetic manipulation and the weight of a dead ox.

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