Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized, Steve Fuller

SERRC —  December 25, 2016 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx

Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

Please refer to:

fox_in_snow

Image credit: Der Robert, via flickr

The Oxford Dictionary made ‘post-truth’ word of the year for 2016. Here is the definition, including examples of usage:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief:

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’

In STS terms, this definition is clearly ‘asymmetrical’ because it is pejorative, not neutral. It is a post-truth definition of ‘post-truth’. It is how those dominant in the epistemic power game want their opponents to be seen. In my recent symmetrical exposition of ‘post-truth’ for the Guardian, I suggested that the Oxford Dictionary’s definition speaks the lion’s truth, which tries to create as much moral and epistemic distance as possible from whatever facsimile of the truth the fox might be peddling. Thus, the fox—but not the lion—is portrayed as distorting the facts and appealing to emotion. Yet, the lion’s truth appears to the fox as simplistically straightforward and heavy-handed, often delivered in a fit of righteous indignation. Indeed, this classic portrayal of the lion/fox divide may better apply to the history of science than the history of politics.

For better or worse, STS recoiled from the post-truth worldview in 2004, when Bruno Latour famously waved the white flag in the Science Wars, which had been raging for nearly fifteen years—starting with the post-Cold War reassessment of public funding for science. Latour’s terms of surrender were telling. After all, he was the one who extended the symmetry principle from the Edinburgh School’s treatment of all human factors—regardless of whether we now deem them to have been ‘good’ and ‘bad’—to include all non-human factors as well. However, Latour hadn’t anticipated that symmetry applied not only to the range of objects studied but also the range of agents studying them.

Somewhat naively, Latour seemed to think that a universalization of the symmetry principle would make STS the central node in a universal network of those studying ‘technoscience’. Instead, everyone started to apply the symmetry principle for themselves, which led to rather cross-cutting networks and unexpected effects, especially once the principle started to be wielded by creationists, climate sceptics and other candidates for an epistemic ‘basket of deplorables’. And by turning symmetry to their advantages, the deplorables got results, at least insofar as the balance of power has gradually tilted more in their favour—again, for better or worse.

My own view has always been that a post-truth world is the inevitable outcome of greater epistemic democracy. In other words, once the instruments of knowledge production are made generally available—and they have been shown to work—they will end up working for anyone with access to them. This in turn will remove the relatively esoteric and hierarchical basis on which knowledge has traditionally acted as a force for stability and often domination. The locus classicus is the Republic, in which Plato promotes what in the Middle Ages was called a ‘double truth’ doctrine – one for the elites (which allows them to rule) and one for the masses (which allows them to be ruled).

Of course, the cost of making the post-truth character of knowledge so visible is that it also exposes a power dynamics that may become more intense and ultimately destructive of the social order. This was certainly Plato’s take on democracy’s endgame. In the early modern period, this first became apparent with the Wars of Religion that almost immediately broke out in Europe once the Bible was made readily available. (Francis Bacon and others saw in the scientific method a means to contain any such future conflict by establishing a new epistemic mode of domination.) While it is possible to defer democracy by trying to deflect attention from the naked power dynamics, as Latour does, with fancy metaphysical diversions and occasional outbursts in high dudgeon, those are leonine tactics that only serve to repress STS’s foxy roots. In 2017, we should finally embrace our responsibility for the post-truth world and call forth our vulpine spirit to do something unexpectedly creative with it.

The hidden truth of Aude sapere (Kant’s ‘Dare to know’) is Audet adipiscitur (Thucydides’ ‘Whoever dares, wins’).

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Social Epistemology and Social Accountability, Frank Scalambrino « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - December 26, 2016

    […] Steve Fuller, “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized”. […]

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