An Epistemic Theory of Democracy

(with Robert E. Goodin). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2018.


In An Epistemic Theory of Democracy, Robert Goodin and I advance on the epistemic democracy literature by (i) making the technical results relating to jury theorems more accessible; (ii) investigating how these results can be made relevant for democratic theory; (iii) discussing institutional implications, and (iv) scrutinizing what lessons theories of epistemic democracy must learn from the Trump election and the Brexit referendum campaign.

The book connects different debates in democratic theory and makes technical results developed my mathematicians available for a political theory audience. We explain how it is possible to link epistemic democracy with deliberative democracy, with discussion related to rational voter ignorance, and with debates surrounding opinion leaders, cascades, filter bubbles and motivated reasoning. We show the practical and institutional implications if we take the ideas of epistemic democracy seriously, and we discuss problems of epistemic malfeasance. Our work offers a mix of formal analysis, computational simulation and normative-theoretical analysis, a mix that is needed to make progress on issues that need to be understood against a technical-mathematical background.


Democracy has many attractive features. Among them is its tendency to track the truth, at least under certain idealized assumptions. That basic result has been known since 1785, when Condorcet published his famous jury theorem. But that theorem has typically been dismissed as little more than a mathematical curiosity, with assumptions too restrictive for it to apply to the real world. In An Epistemic Theory of Democracy, Goodin and Spiekermann propose different ways of interpreting voter independence and competence to make jury theorems more generally applicable. They go on to assess a wide range of familiar political practices and alternative institutional arrangements, to determine what constellation of them might most fully exploit the truth-tracking potential of majoritarian democracy. The book closes with a discussion of how epistemic democracy might be undermined, using as case studies the Trump and Brexit campaigns.

Table of Contents

1: Introduction
Part I: The Condorcet Jury Theorem
2: The Classic Framework
3: Extensions
4: Limitations
5: Independence Revisited
Part II: Epistemic Enhancement
6: Improving Individual Competence
7: Diversity
8: Division of Epistemic Labour
9: Discussion and Deliberation
Part III: Political Practices
10: Respecting Tradition
11: Following Leaders
12: Taking Cues
13: Pluralism: Differing Values & Priorities
14: Factionalism: Differing Interests
Part IV: Structures of Government
15: Epistocracy or Democracy
16: Direct versus Representative Democracy
17: Institutional Hindrances to Epistemic Success
18: Institutional Aids to Epistemic Success
Part V: Conclusions
19: The Relation Between Truth and Politics, Once Again
20: Headline Findings, Central Implications
21: Epilogue: What About Trump and Brexit?
A1: Key to Notation
A2: Estimating Group Competence by Monte Carlo Simulation

See also the description at OUP.