Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard

Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Harvard University

Necessary Fictions: The Decline of Science in the Democratic Imagination

Yaron Ezrahi

Professor of Political Science, Hebrew University, Jerusalem

April 9, 2007, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Starr Auditorium, Belfer Building, Harvard Kennedy School


My purpose in this talk is to examine the declining power of earlier imaginaries of science, nature and reality in sustaining modern democratic categories of civic agency, political participation, and conceptions of apolitical constraints. The change that concerns us is in the idea of popular sovereignty between early to late, or post-modern, democracy. Focusing on the role of fictions in modern political history, I ask what kinds of experience, how many facts, or how much publicly accessible evidence, are needed to lend such a fiction as popular sovereignty the status of believable reality. The historical record suggests that established political fictions are actually sustained by a very small number of "facts." What contributes most heavily to the believability of such fictions is the efficacy with which they match or sustain the normative-epistemological frame of a particular political world. I conclude with a brief examination of the decline of scientific or natural reality as components of post-modern political imaginaries of order, and the consequences of that decline for enacting popular sovereignty in our time. Video of this lecture is located here.


Ellen Goodman

Boston Globe; Fellow, Shorenstein Center, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

James McCarthy

Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Steven Shapin

History of Science, Harvard University

Cass Sunstein

Chicago Law School

About the speaker

Yaron Ezrahi is a political science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of The Descent of Icarus: Science and the Transformation of Contemporary Democracy (Harvard, 1990) and Rubber Bullets: Power and Conscience in Modern Israel (Berkeley 1998). The subject of his forthcoming book is the crisis in the contemporary democratic imagination.


This short excerpt from the event was edited by William Firestone.