Playing the Game in a Post-Truth Era, Amanda Phillips

SERRC —  June 30, 2017 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Amanda Phillips, Virginia Tech, akp@vt.edu

Phillips, Amanda. “Playing the Game in a Post-Truth Era.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 54-56.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3F9

Please refer to:

Image credit: Keith Allison, via flickr

In 2008 Major League Baseball (MLB) became the last of the four major North American professional sports leagues to introduce the use of video instant replay in reviewing close or controversial calls. Soon after, in 2014, MLB permitted team managers to challenge calls made by umpires at least once during game play. To anyone even marginally familiar with the ideology of baseball in American life, the relatively late implementation of replay technology should come as no surprise. The traditions of the sport have proven resilient against the pressures of time. Baseball’s glacial pace, ill-fitting uniforms, and tired ballpark traditions harken back to a time when America’s greatness was, perhaps, clearer. I am neither the first, nor will I be the last, to state that baseball represents an idealized national conservatism—fetishized through pining nostalgia and a cult-like devotion to individual abilities and judgment. It is a team sport for those averse to the compromises of glory inherent within the act of teamwork.

The same proves true for the judgment of umpires. Instant replay usurped their individual legitimacy as knowers and interpreters of play on the diamond. The truth of play changed with the introduction instant replay review. This goes beyond Marshal McLuhan’s reflection on the impact of instant replay on (American) football. McLuhan stated in an interview that audiences “… want to see the nature of the play. And so they’ve had to open up the play … to enable the audience to participate more fully in the process of football play.” [1]

By 2008, audiences knew how to participate in sporting events, how to adjust their voices to yell about the umpirical incompetence unfolding on screen. Instead, the introduction of review changed how truth operates within baseball. The expertise of umpires now faces the ever-present threat of challenge from both mechanical and managerial sources. Does this change, the displacement of trust in umpires, mean that baseball, like the rest of American society, has entered a regime of post-truth?

Political Post-Truth

The realities and responses to the current era of political post-truth hang heavy in the hearts of many. Steve Fuller (2017) in ‘Is STS all Talk and No Walk?’ concludes that in order to challenge the ‘deplorables’ who tout our epistemology but not our politics, we need to conceptualize our work as more of a game, a sport to be played. This argument comes out of a larger field-based conversation between Fuller and Sergio Sismondo (2017) on how STS can best respond to the post-truth world it (apparently) created.

On one hand, Sismondo looks to a future where STS researchers shore up scientific and technical institutions, or at the very least find ways to collectively defend areas once guarded by the now pariah ‘expert’.[2] On the other hand, Fuller argues that the field needs to continue its commitment to epistemic democratization—regardless of how this pursuit might upset what we understand as the social order to things. Fuller’s desire to think about scholarship as a sport serves as a call to action to recognize that our play book of challenging truth-claims might be stolen, but that does not mean that not yet imagined strategies could win the game.

Our options thus appear to be that we can retreat and reify, or innovate and outwit. While I personally find Fuller’s suggestion the more intriguing of the two, I have concerns about bringing the win-lose binary of sport to the forefront of disciplinary and research priorities. While Fuller idealizes the so-called free space of game play, rarely do teams start on the even ground to which he alludes. Take, for example, the ‘mortar kick’. [3]

In 2016 the National Football League (NFL) instituted a rule change that influenced where a ball would be placed in the event of a touchback after a kickoff.[4] The change moved the ball up five yards to the 25-yard line to encourage teams to take the touchback rather than receiving the ball and trying to run to favorable field position.

This rule was created with the explicit purpose of making kickoffs safer by incentivizing a team to not jockey for field position and risk player injury. This result was soon defeated by the New England Patriots who started utilizing mortar kicks during kickoffs. These kicks arc extremely high in the air and aim to land around the 5-yard line. The kick does two things. It forces the receiving team to catch the ball and run toward field position, and it gives the defending team additional time to get downfield to thwart the attempted run. This play, while legal, defeats the specific intentions of the rule change. The Patriots innovated game play around a barrier, but in doing so privileged strategy over safety. Such strategies are born of a crafty and vulpine spirit. Does STS want to emulate Bill Belichick and the controversy embroiled Patriots?[5]

The Cost of Winning

The mortar kick brings to light a fault with the metaphor Fuller wishes to embrace. Despite the highly structured and rule-driven orientation of sports (and science for that matter), the introduction of the mortar kick suggests that the drive to win comes at a cost—a cost that sacrifices values such as safety and integrity. We working in STS are not strangers to how values get incorporated or discarded within scientific and technical processes. But it seems odd from a research perspective that we might begin to orient ourselves towards knowingly emulating the institutional processes we analyze, criticize, and seek to understand just to come out a temporary victor in the contemporary social battlefield. There is no doubt that the current post-truth landscape poses problems for both progressive political values and epistemic claims. But I am hesitant to follow Fuller’s metaphor to its terminus if we do not have a clear sense of which team is ours.

At the risk of invoking the equivalent of a broken record in STS, what stood out to me from Latour’s 2004 article was not the waving of a white flag, but rather the suggestion of developing a critique “with multiplication, not subtraction”. While this call does not seem to have been widely embraced by our field, I think there is room to experiment. I can envision a future STS that embraces a collective multiplicity of critical thought. Let us not concern ourselves with winning, but rather a gradual overwhelming. If “normative categories of science … are moveable feasts the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties” (Fuller 2017), let us make explicitly clear what movability does and how it comes to be. Let us conceptualize labor and research more collectively so that we more thoroughly examine the many and conflicting claims to truth which we face.

If we must play a game, let us not emulate the model that academia has placed before us. This turns out to be a game that looks a whole lot like baseball—set in its ways, individualistic, and often times boring (but better with a beer in hand). Change is more disruptive in a sport reliant on tradition. But, as shown with the introduction of video review, the post-truth world makes it easier to question and challenge authority. This change can not only give rise to the deplorable but also, perhaps, the multiple. If the only way for STS to walk the walk is to the play the game, we will have to conceptualize our team—and more importantly how we work together—in more than just idioms.

References

Fuller, Steve. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective (2016): http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx.

Fuller, Steve. “Is STS all Talk and no Walk?” EASST Review 36, no. 1 (2017):  https://easst.net/article/is-sts-all-talk-and-no-walk/.

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225–248.

Sismondo, Sergio. “Post-Truth?” Social Studies of Science 47, no. 1 (2017): 3-6.

[1] “Marshall McLuhan on Football 2.0” https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=95&v=3A_O7M3PQ-o

[2] His mention of “physicians and patients” who would need to step up in the advent of FDA deregulation seems to overlook the many examples of institutions, scientific and otherwise, failing those they intend to serve. Studies looking at citizen science and activism show that it did not take the Trump administration to cause individuals to step into the role of self-advocate in the face of regulatory incompetence.

[3] http://www.sharpfootballanalysis.com/blog/2016/why-mortar-kicks-can-win-games-in-2016.

[4] A touchback occurs a kicker from defending team kicks the ball on or over the receiving teams goal line. In the event of a touchback, the ball is placed at a specified point on the field.

[5] Sorry Boston.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. It’s No Game: Post-Truth and the Obligations of Science Studies, Erik Baker and Naomi Oreskes « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - July 10, 2017

    […] Amanda. “Playing the Game in a Post-Truth Era.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): […]

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