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Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College/University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley,

Basham, Lee. “Border Wall Post Truth: Case Study.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 40-49.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: Anne McCormack, via flickr

“The more you show concern, the closer he’ll go to the edge … Some things are just too awful to publicize.”—Don Dilillio, White Noise

“History is hard to follow. Luckily, they killed Kennedy. Leaves bread crumbs if we stray.”—Alfonso Uribe

Dogs don’t look Up. The higher tossed the bone, the less likely they are to see it. Lost in a horizontal universe, they run tight circles, wondering, “where is it?”. On its way down it hits them on the head. Civilized primates are surely different. Our steep information hierarchies are different. Or in the high castles of information a few above look upon many circling below.

Far South Texas, a bone’s throw (or gun shot) from the US/Mexican border, enjoys post truth as a storied and comfortable tradition. So stable, we might question the addendum “post”. Here truth is ephemeral. Like rain, it appears rarely. When it does it collects in pools, grows strange stuff, gets smelly and then dries up.

Are we suddenly flung into a post-truth world? The sophists lost that one, the Stalinists, too. But history’s lessons, like a grade 2 curriculum, never end. They remain the same. Hope springs eternal. Adam Riggio, in “Subverting Reality”, takes a personal approach, emphasizing trust before truth, even providing a theory of true punk music; if form then content. All else is appropriation. Meet fake punk. While I’m not sure about that, I’m sympathetic. Perhaps form does not formulate in the end, which is why we should be suspicious of any form-allegiance. Including representational democracy. But his is an understandable approach. Like Riggio, I’ll take a personal line.

In letter to the editor style: I reside in McAllen, Texas. It is in the Rio Grande Valley. Locals call this the “RGV” or “956”.[1] Table chat I’ve shared in the wealthy parlors of Austin and San Antonio insists we are not really part of Texas, “They’re all Mexican”. But the map indicates we are. Because we are on the North side of the river.

A few miles South of town we have a long stretch of the Mexico/US Border. The Wall. It looks like minimalist conceptual art from the 1960s. Donald Judd comes to mind, Donald Trump, too.[2] Professional photographers adore it, prostrate before it. They fly in just to see and click. The border wall is by nature post-trust and so, post-truth. This Post Truth is a concrete condition. Literally. Made of concrete and steel, I’ve climbed it. Took me 1.5 minutes (a bit slower than average; wear tennis shoes, not boots). Recently, epistemologists have explored this scenario. Suspicion is natural to social primate life, not shocking, misplaced or shameful: The battle is not for trust, but realistic, strategic distrust.

Post Truth Life

We are Texas and proud we are. We proudly supply Washington DC with its cocaine, providing the capital the highest quality, best prices, in vast quantities. Our product is legend, a truly international undertaking, spanning 13 countries. This is our number one economic achievement. We proudly provide the largest, most vibrant, corporate retail experience to be found anywhere between San Antonio and the Federal District of Mexico. Our shopping is legend, a truly international undertaking, filling the parking lots with cars from the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, DF, alongside Canadian vehicles from Ontario, Alberta Quebec and others.[3] We are Texas and proud we are. This is our number one economic achievement. As one might imagine, such a list goes on. The local banks reflect our achievement. Billions of dollars beyond the productive abilities of our local legal economy are on deposit. Almost every penny in the banks is owned to the success of our local legal economy. But what I take to be our greatest achievement, which all this and more rests upon, is the borderland mind. In the parlance of the moment, it is deliciously post-trust and post-truth. If this isn’t social epistemology, what is?

I have lived on the border for more than a decade. My wife, originally from Monterrey, Mexico, and her family, have lived here since she was 14, and for several years before that just a few blocks South of the river’s South side. While most academics are Anglo imports and cling to the same, I didn’t make that mistake. Her family and my friends provide an intimate understanding.

Conspiracy theory is the way of life here, much of it well informed. Though truth is rare enough, its seasons are established and understood. The winds that sweep from Mexico into the North whip up some remarkable and telling conspiracy theories. As does the wind from Washington. Escobares, one of the oldest cities in the US, is a short drive West of McAllen. The Church is built of petrified wood. On the Border even the US census is post-truth and seen as such; not just in population count (understandably, it misses half the people),

At the 2010 census the city of Escobares had a population of 1,188. The racial composition of the population was 98.3% white (7.2% non-Hispanic white), 1.6% from some other race and 0.1% from two or more races.

Yet, 92.8% of the population was Hispanic or Latino with 92.3% identifying as being ethnically Mexican.[4]

Escobares is a white town? McAllen has a nearly identical US census profile. Derisive laughter on local radio and in front yard parties follows.

The Wall of Conspiracy

The Wall is patchy, has gaps. Erected by President Obama, many miles here, many miles there, ropes dangle everywhere to help travelers across it. Little kid’s shoes, kicked off as they climb, litter its base. Sometimes the kids fall. The Wall is not monolithic.  Nor opinion. Surprisingly, in an almost entirely Hispanic community, completing The Wall is both opposed and supported by many. Often the same people. This is not insanity, it is time honored strategy. Brings to mind the old movies where people hang two-sided picture frames with opposing photos, and flip the frame according to what a glance out the window informs them about their arriving guests. The photos mean nothing, the flipping, everything. Fireside conversations become remarkable. The anti-wall protests of local politicians are viewed in a familiar post-truth, fading race-war narrative: They have to say that. Both Democrats and Republicans copy cat this story line and then deny any allegiance to it at Rotary club meetings before racially well-mixed and approving audiences. Legal trade is good, the rest is a mess. Why a wall? None of them would do any lucrative illegal business. They pray before their meetings. But Northern cities in Mexico promote ineffective boycotts of McAllen’s retail miracle because of The Wall. They fear it hurts them financially. Odd. The McAllen Mayor responds by stringing a broad, mixed language banner across main street, declaring, “Bienvenidos to McAllen, Always Amigos”. The Wall issue dissolves.

Charades require political tension, sincere or contrived, perhaps a tactic of negotiation.

Why local support for The Wall? Too many headless bodies, too many severed heads. People are sick of the untouchable prostitution trap houses north and east of town. Fenced in, barbed wired, cinder-block buildings with armed guards, stocked with poached immigrant girls and boys, a parking lot full of Ford F150 trucks. The kidnappings of immigrants, the torture chambers and videos when the money never arrives. The ones that by shear luck avoid such fates are relegated to back country depots and “abandoned” houses. Often they are abandoned, forced to burglarize and rob to eat and continue their trek north.

People are also tired of the border’s relentless yet ironically impotent police state. One cannot drive the 57 miles from McAllen Texas to Rio Grande City without passing 20 or more roadside State Troopers in their cartel-black SUVs. Don’t bother to count the border patrol SUVs: They are more numerous. The State Troopers, euphemistically agents of “The Department of Public Safety (DPS)”, fill our now crowded jails with locals, on every imaginable infraction, no matter how trivial. After asking me where I lived, at the end of a convenience store line conversation, one told me, white on white, “Then ya know, people here are bad.” [5] These are not local Sheriffs, born and raised here, who understand people and who is and isn’t a problem. DPS is relentless, setting impromptu road blocks throughout our cities, tossing poor people in “county” for not having car insurance and the money to pay for it on the spot. Whole Facebook pages are devoted to avoiding the road-blocks in 956. Down at McAllen’s airport entire multi-story, brand new hotels are now filled with foreign agents of the state. The whole monster-mash, everyday is Halloween scène down on the border could be chronicled for pages.

All of this is perceived by a hardworking, fun-loving, family-driven community as an ill wind from the South, drawn by the bait-and-switch vacuum of an uncaring, all-consuming “great white north”, and a Washingtonian two-face. Right they are. With The Wall, perhaps these police-state parasites will leave. The slave traps will wither by the rule of no supply. Rich white and agringado activists up North be damned; who for their own, disconnected reasons, demand it never end.[6] To quote a close relative, “Nombre! They don’t live here!”.

People see The Wall as a conspiracy to placate the xenophobes up North, not protect anyone. Keep the cheap labor coming but assert, “We did something to stop it.”. People see The Wall as protection for those who otherwise would cross and fall into the many traps set for them by the coyotes, they also see The Wall as protection for themselves. They see The Wall as a conspiracy supported by the drug cartels and the Mexican government the cartels control (its official protests not withstanding) to simplify the business model, driving the local cells and resident smuggling entrepreneurs out of business. Using operatives in ICE and the Border patrol is more efficient: Cut out the middle women and men. People lament the damage this will do to our local economy and in some cases, personal income. People praise this. People see those who in the North who oppose The Wall as political fodder used by those who could not care less about them, but want to pretend they do without having a clue, or even trying to. People believe The Wall is a conspiracy, not just to keep Hispanics out, which they often despise depending on country (“OTMs”, Other than Mexicans) but to keep Americans in. As I quickly learned, though few border-landers verbally self-identify as “Mexicans” (that takes a trip across the river), they view a dangerous Mexico as safe-haven if things “go south” here in the United States. If a theoretical, grave political or economic crisis occurs, or just a particularly unpleasant but very real legal entanglement, escape to Mexico is their first resort.

People ask, after the finished wall, added concertina wire and all, what if they close the bridges? When they need to run, they want to be able. People see The Wall as an attempt to destroy the Mexican economy, forcing them into the proposed North American Union, where Canada has submitted in principle, and the only hold-outs are the resolute patriots of the Republic of Mexico, “Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States”.[7] Washington will never be its capital. A noble sentiment. More pedestrian conspiracy theories circulate about campaign contributions from international construction corporations and their local minions. Workers on both sides of the river hope the fix is in; it means jobs for everyone. Recall the Israeli government hired eager Palestinians to build their wall; but that’s another post truth reality. Revealingly, the Israeli example has been promoted in the American press as a model with the notorious phrase, “best practices”. Such is the politics of promised lands.

What is Post Truth?

Post truth is, first, access to a shared, community truth, is now lost. But that would only entail agnosticism. Post truth is more. It is also, second, seemingly contradictory claims now have equal legitimacy in the government, media and with the citizenry. No one looks up. This is an unlikely construct. Like choosing wallpaper, but this time for the mind, what a citizen believes, political, economic or otherwise, is entirely a matter of personal taste. And there is no accounting for taste. No epistemic grounds for ordinary controversy, but insidiously a double-truth theory laid upon the collective consciousness of democratic society. Collective madness. Hence: A post truth world. It’s a catastrophe. Or is it? Look up at the above.  What is epistemically interesting is that most of the conspiratorial stances above do enjoy some significant evidence and are mutually consistent. Hence simultaneously believed by the same persons. Enter real “post truth”, and a larger diagnosis of our information hierarchy. It is not reliable. Instead we look to each other.

Five Suggestions about Post Truth

Post truth is about epistemology, social and otherwise, but only at one or more steps removed. On the ground it is entirely pragmatic. Post truth is not to be confused with mere state propaganda. That is another, much more narrow notion. Post truth, as before defined, is ancient and ubiquitous. The 21st century is no different.

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1. The first, a bit tiresome to repeat, is found in several epistemic critiques of the pathologizing approach to conspiracy theory: We should not conflate suspicions with beliefs. There is nothing cognitively anomalous about post truth states of consciousness when read this way.[8] Suspicion is epistemically virtuous. The fears surrounding ambitions of pathology, how ever great, are immediately de-sized in face of this simple distinction. Suspicion is one of the virtues of Eric Blair’s famous character, Winston Smith—at least until he trusts and is captured, tortured and turned.

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2. “Post” implies a time before that has passed. More formally, it might be termed a tense-based situational truth agnosticism.[9] Applied to “trust” and “truth”, on the border, this proposed time before would require reference to the more social and intelligent Pleistocene mammals. Maybe to the first human visitors, ten or more thousand years ago, no doubt in search for water. An attitude of panic towards “post truth” seems misplaced. Nothing can survive laughter. This is a second suggestion. Post truth hysteria is, while initially quite understandable, difficult to take seriously for long. Rage concerning it, even more so.[10]

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3. Linguists point out that “trust” and “truth” are closely related. One births the other. By accident and so inclination, I am an epistemologist of trust, especially its “negative spaces”, to borrow from art-theory. These spaces in our current information hierarchy, where so few control what so many hear, and often believe, are legion. In our society navigating these is elevated to high art, one we should not fear. My third suggestion is that if nothing changes then nothing changes. And my prediction, nothing changes in a post truth world. Because nothing has changed. Or soon will.

Post trust is not the new normal, it is the oldest one. You don’t know people, or societies, until you go about with them. We should be cautious, watchful. As my son would put it, “We should lurk them hard”. A skeptical attitude, an expectation of post truth because of a post trust attitude, is appropriate, an adult attitude. Among billions of humans of all types and classes, we hardly know anyone. And those who protest this, doth protest too much. Such an attitude of truth-privilege, as found among the denizens of the political Avant-gardes and their fellow travelers in our mass media, has always been unearned.[11] One often betrayed. Professional managers of belief I will grant the mainstream media, professional purveyors of truth is quite a stretch, a needless one. But a conceit that has proven lethal.

Consider the 2003 Iraq invasion. We were told at the time, by both current and prior presidents, it was an invasion for feminism.[12] The media, including the New York Times, chimed in approval. Normalizing this invasion was this media’s crowning achievement of the 21st century’s first decade. One might think they got off on the wrong foot, but that would entirely depend on what the right foot is. I argue for a more functional outlook. Their function is basic societal stability, congruence with official narratives when these are fundamental ones, not truth; an establishment of normality in virtually anything. Truth has its place at their table only among the trivial, not basic stability. Consider the US civil rights movement. Here the political Avant-gardes and mass media had an effect we view as laudable. Yet this did not threaten the established political or capitalist order. It ushered old participants into greater integration within it and to new levels of participation on its behalf. Mr. Obama, for instance.

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4. Mainstream media and Avant-garde political pronouncements are unreliable in proportion to the importance to the purveyors that we accept them. I don’t mean this as revelatory, rather in the manner of reminder. The opportunities for manipulation loom especially large when popular cultures are involved, and the way we identify with these are transitioned to apathy or atrocities. Or both, simultaneously. This transcends political dichotomies like “right” and “left”. Both, because of their simplicity are easy marks. The proper study is, perhaps, is that of “faction”. A war for feminism? A war to extend democracy? A war for Arab prosperity and against child poverty? A war for American energy independence? A war for the world: Pax Americana? But the ploy worked, both popularly and within academia. It’s being re-wrought today. In the popular and academic hysteria following 9/11, Michael Walzer, champion of Just War Theory, wrote,

Old ideas may not fit the current reality; the war against terrorism to take the most current example, requires international cooperation that is radically undeveloped in theory as it is in practice. We should welcome military officers into the theoretical argument. They will make it a better argument than it would be if no one but professors took interest.[13]

Walzer asks to take his place among the generals. Walzer goes on to argue for the importance of aerial bombing while trying not to blow rather younger children to smithereens. Walzer’s justification? Protecting US soldiers. If any of this strikes us as new or news, we live in what I like to call the united states of amnesia.  He claims current bombing technology overwhelmingly protects the innocent. An interesting post truth formula. Who then are the guilty soldiers and functionaries, and how could they be? Denounce the stray bomb fragments, then embrace the counsel of professional conspirators of death in our moral considerations. This is suspect, politically, morally and epistemically. It is also feminism. That’s a post truth world. Long before a real estate agent joined the pantheon of US presidents.

The rebellion of conspiracy theory helps here. Conspiracy theory is typically, and properly, about suspicion, not belief. Certainty, even if just psychological, “truth”, is not an option in a responsible citizen. A vehement lament and protest against post-truth is inadequate if it ignores the importance of suspicion. But nothing like suspicion post-trusts and so post-truths. To borrow a lyric from Cohen, “that’s where the light comes in”. And we post-any-century-primates have good reason for suspicion. True, the opening years of the 21st century hit a home-run here, it wasn’t the first or last. If anything is transcendently true, that’s it.

If this functional, suspicious understanding becomes our baseline epistemology (as it is where I live), we might worry catastrophe will ensue. Like leaving a baby alone in a room with a hungry dog. But what actually happens is the dog patiently awaits, ignoring the obvious. Good dog. People and dogs share much. With humans what actually ensues is table talk, memes on the internet, and winks and rolling eyes across the TV room. Formally known as the “living room”, this post-living room space is not grade school and we are not attentive, intimidated students. We’re artists of negative spaces and we usually negotiate them with aplomb. Unless we really think mass media reliability is what post truth is post to. Then, I suppose, catastrophe does ensue: Only a brief emotional one, similar to losing one’s religion, one’s political piety. Cass Sunstien provides,

“Our main policy claim here is…a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive Infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups.”[14]

Let’s conspire against citizens who worry you might be conspiring against them. Is there anything new here?

Riggio on Post Truth

Like Riggio, I view the existence of political truth as beyond evident. In the face of rhetoric concerning a “post truth” contagion, Riggio counters there is instead a battle for public trust. He’s right. He’s channeling, in fact, Brian Keeley’s classic public trust approach to alternative thought.[15] As with our confidence in science, mainstream media functions the same. But Riggio seems to think it is a new one, and one worth fighting and “winning”. Now what would be winning? As we finally fall asleep at night, we might appreciate this. But not in daylight. There’s no battle for public trust there. Most don’t, but say we do. And that’s a good thing.

Public trust has long ago headed down the yellow brick road with Dorothy in search of a wizard. Lies and compromise are recognized, from all quarters, as our long-term norm. Dorothy’s surprise and the wizard’s protests when he is revealed should hardly surprise. This is the road of the golden calf, representational democracy.

The closer you get to Washington DC, Paris, Beijing, London or the democratic republic of Moscow, the more obvious this perception and reality is. It’s celebrated in transatlantic, transnational airplane conversations that last for hours. It’s palpable before the edifices of any of these capitals’ secular monuments. As palpable before the non-secular: Like standing a few blocks before the Vatican, a previous political model, we can’t really deny it. These edifices now, as they were before, are saturated in farce.[16] Adam Riggio’s impassioned political piece, with his hands on the cold marble, reminds us that being too close to the temple can blind us to its real shape, strength and impressive age. Riggio writes,

[Mainstream media’s behavior] harms their reputation as sources of trustworthy knowledge about the world. Their knowledge of their real inadequacy can be seen in their steps to repair their knowledge production processes. These efforts are not a submission to the propagandistic demands of the Trump Presidency, but an attempt to rebuild real research capacities after the internet era’s disastrous collapse of the traditional newspaper industry.[17]

I see this as idealized media primitivism, “If only we could go back”. It’s absolutely admirable. But was print media ever supposed to be trusted? Print media set the stage for the invasion of Cuba and Mexico. It suppressed the deadly effects of nuclear testing in in the 1950s and 60s and then promulgated apologetics for the same. Between 1963 and 1967 the Vietnam War was, “the good guys shooting the Reds”.[18]  It played a similar role in Central American intervention, as well as the first and second “gulf” wars, fought deep in the desert. Mainstream media has long been superb at helping start wars, but way late to the anti-war party and poor in slowing or ending the same wars they supported. A post truth world hypothesis predicts this. An interesting point, one more interesting the more intense the consequences are. The more seemingly significant a political event—such as bizarre politics or senseless wars—the more normal it is initially portrayed by mainstream media. Eventually damage control follows. Public trust? Not likely. Certainly not well placed.

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5. So a final, fifth suggestion: Our paleo post-truth vision taps on our shoulders: The “new normal” political panic concerning a “post truth” world we find in political conversation and in mass media is an ahistorical and ephemeral protest. Our strange amnesia concerning our wars, the conduct of such and their strange results should be evidence enough. Communist Vietnam, with its victory in 1975, was by 1980 a capitalist country par excellence. An old point, going back to Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane. “I remember the good ole days when we had newspapers” seems an unlikely thesis.

Recall Eastern Europe. While giving a talk on conspiracy theories and media in Romania, one that might be characterized as a post truth position on media reliability in times of extreme crisis, the audience found the remarks welcome but fairly obvious. They doubted we of the West really had a free mainstream media in contrast, but they enjoyed the idea, the way we might enjoy a guest’s puppy; he’s cute. The truth can be toxic in many social and political settings. Good arguments indicate mass media hierarchies react accordingly everywhere. Far from being tempted to promulgate such truths, like afore mentioned hungry dog and baby, they leave toxic investigation alone. Why look? Why bite?


Politicization of knowledge is dubious. “Post Truth” is a political term of abuse, one that will quickly pass; a bear trap that springs on any and all. Just before the first World War, in 1912, Bertrand Russell pointed out that the truth “must be strange” about the most ordinary things, like tables or chairs.[19] Are politics, mass media power, any less strange? Now we all stand, down by the river, awaiting the evening’s usual transactions and gunfire.

We live in the united states of amnesia. In the rush of cotemporary civilization, memories are short, attention fractured and concentration quickly perishes. We just move on. The awesome spectacle of seemingly omnipotent governments and ideologically unified corporate global mass media along with a population driven by consumption and hedonism, might create a sense of futility where subversive narratives are concerned. But then in new form the subversive narratives are reborn and powerfully spread. The growing intensity of this cycle should give us pause. Perhaps the answer does not lie in seeking new, remedial, intellectually sophisticated ways to ignore it, but in addressing our information desert, our scarcity of real epistemic access to the information hierarchy hovering above us. And discovering ways this can be reversed in a world of unprecedented connectivity, so epistemic rationality can play a decisive role.[20]

For some this truth about post truth and its vicious ironies creates a scary place. Here on the edge of the United States, people have learned to live through that edge and embrace it. But in cozy heartlands in the US, Canada and Europe, most prefer to die in the comfort of our TV rooms so we don’t die “out there”, as Cormac McCarthy puts it, “…in all that darkness and all that cold”. But when the long reality of a post trust, post truth world is forcibly brought to their attention by real estate developers, some react, like Dorothy, with rage and despair. This is a mistake.

Social epistemology should embrace a socially borne epistemic skepticism. This is not an airborne toxic event, it is fresh air. Social epistemology might not be about explaining what we know so much as explaining what we don’t and the value of this negative space, its inescapability and benefits: The truth about post trust and truth. Post truth is everywhere, not just here on the border. We can’t land in Washington DC at Ronald Regan international airport and escape it. Welcome to the post-truth border, bienvenidos al frontera, where we all live and always have. Certainty is an enemy of the wise. If thought a virtue, representational democracy is the cure.

This returns us to dogs. Dog-like, though we be, primates can certainly learn to look up in intense interest. At the stars, for instance. I oppose The Wall. And can climb it. We don’t know until we go. The border is just beyond your cellar door. Do you live in Boston? There you are. Once you open up, look up. Don’t circle about in tight illusions. Embrace bright, buzzing, booming confusion.[21] You don’t know my real name.

[1] Local area code.

[2] Chilvers, Ian & Glaves-Smith, John eds., Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[3] The latter are the so called “Winter Texans”. Fleeing the North’s ice and snow, but unwilling to cross the border and venture farther South into Mexico (except for one military controlled, dusty tourist town immediately across the river, wonderfully named “Nuevo Progreso”), they make their home here through fall, winter and spring.

[4] United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on 2013-09-11. Retrieved 2008-01-31.

[5] DPS officers are not all this way. Many are quite compassionate, and increasingly confused by their massive presence here.

[6] “Agingado”; “becoming a gringo”.

[7] President Porfirio Diaz, “Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.”.

[8] See Basham, Lee and Matthew R. X. Dentith. “Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 12-19, and subsequent remarks, Dieguez, Sebastian, Gérald Bronner, Véronique Campion-Vincent, Sylvain Delouvée, Nicolas Gauvrit, Anthony Lantian & Pascal Wagner-Egger. “’They’ Respond: Comments on Basham et al.’s ‘Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 20-39. Basham, Lee. “Pathologizing Open Societies: A Reply to the Le Monde Social Scientists.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 59-68.

[9] While a realist about truth, a situational truth agnosticism does not entail warrant/justification agnosticism. We don’t need to know if something is true to know it is probably true, given our best evidence, or probably not true.

[10] The political fate of Bernie Sanders comes to mind. A fine candidate, and my preferred, he was forced to recant at the Democratic Party Convention in 2016. One recalls the Hindenburg.

[11] The usual US suspects include CNN (“Combat News Network” in 2003-10 and more recently, “Clinton News Network”), NBC (“National Bombing Communications”) and FOX (a bit harder to parody due to the “x”, even though Mr. O’Reilly offered his services).

[12] George W. Bush and William J. Clinton.

[13] Walzer, Michael. “International Justice, War Crimes, and Terrorism: The U.S. Record.” Social Research, 69, no. 4 (winter 2002): 936.

[14] Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”, University of Chicago Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series Paper No. 199 and University of Chicago Law School Law & Economics Research Paper Series Paper No. 387, 2008, 19, reprinted in the Journal of Political Philosophy, 2009.

[15] Keeley, Brian. “Of Conspiracy Theories”, Journal of Philosophy, 96, no. 3 (1999): 109-26. Keeley’s is a classic, but the Public Trust Approach (PTA) he advocates appears to fail on several levels. See the several critiques by Lee Basham, David Coady, Charles Pigden and Matthew R.X. Dentith.

[16] Not only farce, but a fair share.

[17] Riggio, Adam. “Subverting Reality: We Are Not ‘Post-Truth,’ But in a Battle for Public Trust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 71.

[18] See Hallin, Daniel C. The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

[19] Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1912. Russell continues, “In the following pages I have confined myself in the main to those problems of philosophy in regard to which I thought it possible to say something positive and constructive, since merely negative criticism seemed out of place.”

[20] A paraphrase from, “Conspiracy and Rationality” in Beyond Rationality, Contemporary Issues.Rom Harré and Carl Jenson, eds. Cambridge Scholars, Newcastle (2011): 84-85.

[21] James, William. The Principles of Psychology. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1890, page 462.

Author Information: Dorte Henriksen, Aarhus University,

Henriksen, Dorte. “Reply to Liberman and López Olmedo’s ‘Psychological Meaning of “Coauthorship” Among Scientists’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 20-22.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: aKaMu aDaM, via flickr

The concepts of co-authorship and research collaborations seems both straightforward and at the same time very complicated. Several studies have emphasized that co-authorship practices differ depending on the research field, and this needs to be taking into consideration when examining research communication, collaboration and productivity. The study by Sofia Liberman and Roberto López Olmedo (2017) is a great contribution to the examination and discussion of these concepts. I will discuss their study based on my knowledge from the fields of scientometrics and sociology of science.

Measuring Co-Authorship

The first thing to note is that the authors state that there are different approaches in how scientific studies measures co-authorship, however, without referring to such studies. The co-authorship studies that have come to my attention measure co-authorship through the list of authors named in of byline of the same publication this creates a quantitative measurable link or bond between these researchers. Therefore, the measuring of co-authorship is straightforward.

The problem arises when research collaboration comes into measurement, since scientific studies use different ways of measuring research collaboration. Liberman and López Olmedo point out how “different types of collaborations entails different types of relationships between researchers (…).” Hence, it is problematic to equate co-authorship and research collaboration. Earlier bibliometric studies had a tendency to use co-authorship and research collaboration as synonymous concepts, and some studies still do. The common argument for using co-authorship as a proxy for research collaboration is that it is the best available indicator for quantitative studies of research collaboration, and co-authorship is a reflection of some kind of collaboration.

Hence, co-authorship is what links the researchers together by the publication in the formal or the “outer cycle” of science communication system. Researchers become authors through this link and establish themselves in both the science communication and reward system. The scientific norms in these systems assume that it is possible to identify and assign the individual intellectual responsibility of a piece of scientific work (Biagioli and Galison 2003). The tendency to co-author publications and the general rise in the average number of authors makes it more complicated to identify the individual contribution and necessary to discuss the concept of co-authorship. Not to mention, how this should incorporate into an examination and discussion of how different epistemic cultures affect researchers’ practices of co-authorship.

Liberman and López Olmedo’s study brings interesting aspects about how scientists conceptualize co-authorship, but it is not surprising that research collaboration and teamwork are among the most used words to define co-authorship for all fields, except for chemistry. If one examines co-authorship studies, it will probably be the same words appearing as definer words of such studies. However, the remaining definer words confirm many suggestions from previous studies (e.g. Corley and Sabharwal 2010, Lee and Bozeman 2005). Not to mention, that many of these words correspond to the Mertonian norms of science (Merton 1973), and focuses on how the collaboration and co-authoring improves the research. For example Sharing ideas and work, Richer ideas, and Ideas enrichment all focus on the synergy that collaboration adds to the research process. The words Learning and Knowledge fit the idea that collaborations occur because of needs for experts and educating junior researchers.

A Broader Scope

At the same time, one could question why the researchers use the word Active Participation, since in an ideal world one would expect all collaborators to be actively involved in the research process. Could this be an indication of problems with gift or career authorship? On the other hand, is it just a way of being inclusive, so all who contributed to the research project should be included as co-authors? It could be interesting to go deeper into the meaning of these words and discuss how they reflect certain research cultures. Similarly, the words More publications and productivity corresponds to the often-mentioned problems with publication pressure, where researchers need to spread their work in multiple projects to ensure no zero publishing periods.

The results of Liberman and López Olmedo study would benefit from a greater discussion and references to science communication and sociology of science studies, especially of the included research fields; physics, mathematics, biological sciences and chemistry. For example, multiple studies have concluded that the extent of research collaboration differs across subject fields, thus it affects the researchers’ perception and practices of co-authorship. Birnholtz (2006) interviewed researchers from CERN and found that in high-energy physics the practices of co-authorship do not correspond to the traditional model of authorship. The authorship it-self was a reward for working on a common project, and some admitted they have not even read the articles they were co-authoring.

Lariviere et al. (2016) examined the authorship contribution statements for PLOS ONE articles, and found differences in co-authors’ contributions depending on their field and rank. Physics has an egalitarian view on authorship, so they give all the authors credit for all kinds of contributions, while biomedicine and clinical medicine have a greater division of labor, and have a greater focus on the individuals reward. Chemistry is moderate, where execution and analysis of technical and experimental work, like life sciences, is highly associated with authorship, but often in association with another type of task (writing, designing experiment etc.). Mathematics is a vastly theoretical field with fewer authors on the research articles, which reflects the contribution statements giving equal credit and responsibility for all parts of the research article. The authorship and science cultures studies correspond very well with the results from the Liberman and López Olmedo study, and they enhance the validity of their study.

I was surprised about the results of the study by Liberman and Galán Díaz (2005) of the concept of international collaboration, where the findings show that researchers did not mention co-authorship as a main concept. Therefore, I checked their study and found that international publications were among the main concepts, and I might be over-interpreting, but the link from international collaboration to international publication is co-authorship. Thus, co-authorship is definitely among the mentioned concepts, and in association with the main concepts. Therefore, I think it could be interesting to repeat a similar study using the stimulus word collaboration to explore how researchers conceptualize research collaboration and whether they immediately think of co-authorship. This study would also reveal to what extent there are variability between the definer words for co-authorship, international collaboration and collaboration, as well as between different research fields. There would be a great possibility to do a comparative study based on the collected interview and survey data of these concepts and explore to what extent these concepts semantically overlap.


Biagioli, Mario, and Peter Galison. Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Birnholtz, Jeremy P. “What Does it Mean to be an Author? The Intersection of Credit, Contribution, and Collaboration in Science.”  Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 57, no. 13 (2006): 1758-1770.

Corley, Elizabeth A. and Megina Sabharwal. “Scholarly Collaboration and Productivity Patterns in Public Administration: Analysing Recent Trends.”  Public Administration 88, no. 3 (2010): 627-648.

Lariviere, Vincent, Nadine Desrochers, Benoît Macaluso, Philippe Mongeon, Adèle Paul-Hus, Cassidy R. Sugimoto. “Contributorship and Division of Labor in Knowledge Production.”  Social Studies of Science 46, no. 3 (2016): 417-435.

Lee, Sooho and Barry Bozeman. “The Impact of Research Collaboration on Scientific Productivity.”  Social Studies of Science 35, no. 5 (2005): 673-702.

Liberman, Sofia, and Carlos Robeto Galán Díaz. “Shared Semantic Meaning of the Concept of International Collaboration among Scientists.”  Journal of Information Management and Scientometrics 2, no. 2 (2005): 27-34.

Liberman, Sofia and Roberto López Olmedo. “Psychological Meaning of ‘Coauthorship’ Among Scientists Using the Natural Semantic Networks Technique.”  Social Epistemology 31, no. 2 (2017): 152-164.

Merton, Robert K. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Author Information: Tommaso Bertolotti, University of Pavia, Italy,

Bertolotti, Tommaso “Science-Like Gossip, or Gossip-Like Science?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 15-19.

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Image credit: Megan, via flickr

Richard Feynman is credited for having once quipped that “philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is useful to birds.” Feynman, a Nobel prize laureate, got called the smartest man on Earth. Hearing this, his mother said, “Then I don’t want to think about the others.”

Ornithologists normally won’t teach birds how to fly. But they can tell the rest of us people how to protect birds, how to make our activities less harmful with their respect. They can teach us how to tell a bat from an owl, a butterfly from a hummingbird, and also how to determine whether what is soaring above us is a hawk or a drone. Ornithologists, teaming up with engineers and medical scientist, can directly affect birds by recreating broken beaks, patching up wings, or even teaching them to fly. All of those things couldn’t be achieved without the knowledge carefully gathered by ornithologists.

Today, the analogy between epistemology and ornithology is all the more actual. Science is under attack. Research is being cut most everywhere in the North-Western Hemisphere. Where it is not heavily cut, it is arguably managed by leveraging the Matthew Effect[1] in ways that hardly encourage, for instance, the diversification of Science. Science needs philosophy of science. Philosophy, especially in its epistemological avatar, needs to protect the formidable adversary it was once challenged by. A stern claim that radically collaborative science shows no cause for epistemic alarm seems a quick way of washing one’s hands, thus endorsing Feynman’s mockery.

The fact that there is no epistemic alarm, Søren Klausen (2017) concedes, does not imply saying there is no cause for alarm. There can be pragmatic, social, political causes for alarm (although the author seems to take them quite lightly). But what if the pragmatic, social, political causes for alarm are actual, and this in turn has alarming epistemic effect?

Alarmed By Radically Collaborative Science?

Let’s consider gun control: we can say that it’s pointless to engage a moral discourse about weapons because weapons have no volition, and ultimately, it’s people as moral subjects that kill through them. Would it be reasonable to hold that guns don’t cause moral alarm on such bases? In spite of their being morally neutral, if certain things cause morally alarming outcomes, then they give reason to be morally alarmed.

Klausen, against the so-called Georgetown Alarmists, maintains that there is no reason to be alarmed about radically collaborative science. The Georgetown Alarmists, conversely, present an epistemically alarmed view and they issue an epistemologically negative judgement on radically collaborative science. In my view, being alarmed does not entail issuing a negative judgement. If I hear a huge ruckus coming from the ground floor at night, I have the right to be alarmed. It would be reasonable that I go down and check. I am not necessarily justified in going down and blindly fire a full round in the dark. I am epistemically alarmed about radically collaborative science, if only for the pragmatic consequences that seem likely to affect the epistemic procedures of Science. Considering that there is reason to be epistemically alarmed amounts to say “Hey, there is something strange going on there. Let’s pull it over and have a closer look.”

By this, I’m not saying that we must condemn radically collaborative science on epistemic grounds, but we might be at the same time a little more careful before green-lighting it.

Let me start with a minor yet compelling reason why the non-epistemic effects of radically collaborative science might not be neutral from an epistemological point of view and hence cause some kind of epistemic alarm: citation indexes. Citation indexes are the mixed blessing of contemporary academia. Academics care about their h-index, their i-10 index, their Scopus, their Google Scholar index. Like it or not, right or wrong, these indexes rule the academic job market through the world. Even humanities adhered to it, producing indexes that are quite ridiculous compared to their scientific counterparts. How will radically collaborative science impact the indexing? How is this going to affect the job market? This is clearly not an epistemic trait, but since what is at stake are the next generations of scientists and academics, the next prime producers of episteme, this issue is somehow allowed to trigger some epistemic alert.

Let’s now consider some properly epistemic issues: one of the Georgetown Alarmists’ chief reasons for epistemic alarm is that scientific claims are not fully accountable in the framework of radical collaboration. In their view, an epistemically relevant feature of scientific knowledge is that it is accountable. Such accountability has been traditionally enforced in scientific practice, for instance in publications: if Black & White make a claim in a paper, if that claim is proved true or wrong they are held accountable for it. And if they are wrong because of some results they have received from Green and Brown’s paper, Green and Brown will be held epistemically accountable. Such epistemic accountability has tacitly regulated the publishing heuristic according to which it is better to publish fewer accurate papers than many shakier ones.[2]

Science has a kind of a double standard concerning failures and drawbacks: in the finest Popperian spirit, falsifications are sought for, any truth is provisional and errors illuminate the correct path. Science thrives through its mistakes, but scientists don’t. If you are the leader of a important research program and you got it wrong, you won’t be charged nor prosecuted but chances are you won’t get hired again. As said in the Gospel of Matthew (18:7), “[…] it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes”.

A radically collaborative paper may have dozens of authors, some extreme cases have hundreds, including honorary authorship attributions. The authors might even count the programmers who developed a certain data mining or machine learning software, and such software might be credited with a certain authorship, too. What kind of accountability is there left? Claims in the paper are shared between dozens or hundreds of subjects. It doesn’t make sense anymore to look for the accountable origin of this and that claim. This as far as authorship is concerned. What about the accountability relating to references to similarly collaborative outputs?

Epistemic Accountability and Gossip

Klausen interestingly argues that sticking to epistemic accountability as we’ve always known it is somewhat of an old-fashioned feat, inasmuch as it might be desirable, it may make things easier, but it is not an epistemic must for the constitution of scientific knowledge. I say, “fine”. I don’t have any argument in favor of strong accountability. Still, if I accept with Klausen that accountability is a preferable feature that I can actually make without, and not a must, something makes me wonder: How can I tell science from gossip? Let me explain why.

The 1990s marked the turning point in gossip studies, especially as far a new ethical evaluation of gossip was concerned. The edited book Good Gossip is one of the best examples of this new view. A feminist Peircean scholar, Maryann Ayim, contributed to this book with the essay “Knowledge through the Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry”, in which she pointed out the epistemological resemblance between scientific inquiry and gossipy investigations in a social group.

Gossip’s model captures several aspects of Peirce’s notion of a community of investigators. Describing what he sees as the causes of “the triumph of modern science,” Peirce speaks specifically of the scientists’

unreserved discussion with one another … each being fully informed about the work of his neighbour, and availing himself of that neighbour’s results; and thus in storming the stronghold of truth one mounts upon the shoulders of another who has to ordinary apprehension failed, but has in truth succeeded by virtue of the lessons of his failure. This is the veritable essence of science” (CP7.51).

If Peirce is right that the unreserved discussions with one another are a cornerstone in the triumph of modern science, then gossip, by its very nature, would appear to be an ideal vehicle for the acquisition of knowledge. Gossips certainly avail themselves of their neighbours’ results, discussing unreservedly and sharing results constitute the very essence of gossip.[3]

Elaborating on the epistemology of gossip together with Lorenzo Magnani,[4] we unfolded Ayim’s seminal insight, showing how the inquiries of gossip can be modeled as abductions: abduction is the prime inferential structure to describe hypothetical reasoning, namely science. One cannot work on gossip without working on rumor, and we took from social epistemologist David Coady this intriguing distinction:

This is one difference between rumor and another form of communication with which it is often confused, gossip. Gossip may well be first-hand. By contrast, no first-hand account of an event can be a rumor, though it may later become.[5]

It can be said that what Coady is referring to is the accountability of gossip. Gossip is, in principle, accountable because gossip traces back to some eye-witnessed even and its inferential elaboration by a specific group of people with their specific background and so on (Bertolotti & Magnani, 2014). Why then do we have a problem with gossip, usually relating to the fact that gossip cannot be trusted because no-one is accountable for it? Because there are two dynamics at play in gossip: the actual dynamic between peers, and the “projected”, subject-less dynamic concerning the group-level. The projected subject instantiated by sentences such as “Oh come on, everybody knows that Joe’s been cheating on his wife for ages!”. When we say things such as “everybody knows” referring to our social group, we mean that those small idle exchanges that are the bricks of gossip leveled up and became as true rumors for the whole group. At group level, a true rumor is a fact. Gossip that makes it all the way up to become common knowledge entertains an ambiguous relation with accountability, akin to the one described by Klausen concerning radically collaborative science. The collaborators’ contribution is sublimated into the radically collaborative accountability, which is indeed different from the accountability in traditional, less collaborative science.

By these considerations, I am not smuggling in a bad company fallacy, suggesting that if radically collaborative science is like gossip then radically collaborative science is bad. I don’t have strong opinion on radically collaborative science, I am careful. I am neither as hostile as the Georgetown Alarmists, nor as permissive as Klausen. I think that scientists might not have any choice but to go with the flow, but philosophers of science might accept the epistemic alarm, unravel it, and then decide whether such alarm was justified or not. There is no need to endorse it too quickly.

If we think of gossip in the evolution of human cognition, gossip is one of the most ancient form of social cognition and social communication, to the point that some argue that language as an adaptation was selected for its capacity to afford gossip.[6]

Gossip is an extremely sophisticated tool for collective inferences, and as such it might have permitted the emergence of hypothesis taking into account multiple causality.[7] At the same time, human beings needed to go beyond gossip and find more rigorous methods to produce and secure knowledge, keeping the latter’s inferential power but leveraging its accuracy and predictive power at the same it. In a speculative gaze, it can be argued that both justice and science developed by and for making people accountable for their claims. Sure, accountability has had its shortcomings (people have been forced to pay with their freedom or their life for some erroneous claim) but the other face of this coin is recognition. Recognition is not an epistemic value, but it is an epistemic drive.

We struggled our way out of gossip by making hypotheses and predictions accountable, and we got to science. Science shaped its own way of producing knowledge, which basically amounts to the world as we know it. Now, if we feel compelled to sacrifice traditional accountability at the altar of our challenges and our current means, it is maybe the epistemically right thing to do, but there is need to be epistemically alert, to think it through, and so help us God.


Ayim, Maryann. “Knowledge Through the Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry.” In Good Gossip edited by Robert F. Goodman & Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, 85–99. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994.

Bertolotti, Tommaso and Magnani, Lorenzo. “An Epistemological Analysis of Gossip and Gossip-Based Knowledge.” Synthese 191, no. 17 (2014): 4037–4067.

Bertolotti, Tommaso and Lorenzo Magnani. “Gossip as a Model of Inference to Composite Hypotheses.” Pragmatics & Cognition, 22 (2016): 309–324.

Coady, David. What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues. New York: Blackwell, 2012.

Dunbar, Robin. “Gossip in an Evolutionary Perspective.” Review of General Psychology, 8 (2004): 100–110.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “No Cause for Epistemic Alarm: Radically Collaborative Science, Knowledge and Authorship.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 38-61.

Merton, Robert K. “The Matthew Effect in Science.” Science 159 (1968): 56-63.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol 7. Edited by Arthur W. Burks, CP7.51. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

[1] Robert K. Merton “The Matthew Effect in Science” (1968). The expression was coined by sociologist Robert Merton and it refers to a snowball-like, cumulative advantage of the good at stake. It is inspired by the ominous sentence in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew’s Gospel 25:29: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” It is used to indicate how rich people get richer, famous people get more famous, and highly cited papers get even more citations.

[2] In certain disciplinary fields, characterized by lesser degrees of collaboration such as the humanities, the accountability principle is sometimes led to paroxysm, for instance when “the contribution of each author to the paper is to be clearly described.”

[3] Ayim, “Knowledge Through the Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry,” 87.

[4] Bertolotti & Magnani, “An Epistemological Analysis of Gossip and Gossip-Based Knowledge.”

[5] Coady, “What to Believe Now,” 87.

[6] Dunbar, “Gossip in an Evolutionary Perspective.”

[7] Bertolotti and Magnani, “Gossip as a Model of Inference to Composite Hypotheses.”

Author Information: Val Dusek, University of New Hampshire,

Dusek, Val. “Regarding Alternative Scientific Theories: A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 10-14.

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Image credit: Otto Magus, via flickr

Massimo Pigliucci (2017) rejects Paul Feyerabend’s plea for pluralism as unneeded. I claim that there are many cases where viable or valid alternative theories that were rejected.

How much pluralism exists depends on what one counts as pluralism. Also, there is the difference between pluralism within an established field of science, such as professional physics, geology, or biology and pluralism involving theories outside the institutionalized science profession, such as holistic medicine, Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, creationism and intelligent design, or various New Age conceptions.

There certainly have been limits on the permissible alternatives. This does not mean that Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm monopoly” thesis is correct for all subfields of science. There have been periods in the history of science when competing theories openly divided the scientific community. Examples are the opposition between the wave and particle theories of light in the early nineteenth century and Wilhelm Weber’s action at a distance versus Maxwell’s field theory in electromagnetism in the late nineteenth century. However, pluralism has been suppressed in a number of fields during various time periods.

I give six examples of valid or at least respectable alternative theories in physics, biology, and geology, respectively, that were rejected and largely suppressed from discussion in print by the community of professional scientists. I also add the case of one New Age theorist considered beyond the fringe, but with impeccable scientific credentials.

On Felix Ehrenhaft

Feyerabend came to recognize the suppression of alternative views through exposure to two controversies. In Austria Feyerabend attended lectures of Felix Ehrenhaft, who questioned the claim that electrons have unitary charge, showing experiments that he claimed exhibited electrons with fractional charges. His claims were dismissed, largely because the idea of fractional charges was thought ridiculous. (Decades later charges of 1/3 were found in quarks.) The standard experiments concerning the charge of the electron were those of Robert Millikan at Chicago. It has later turned out that Millikan removed from his published reports observations that went against his thesis. One could say, in the manner of Michael Polanyi’s authoritarian and hierarchical view of science, that, as in the cases of Newton and Mendel, there may be fudging or worse going one, but that the genius and intuition of the great scientist gave prophetic insight.

The other area in which Ehrenhaft presented views that were rejected is in his claim that there are magnetic monopoles, that is particles with a magnetic north pole but not a south pole, or vice versa. Here again the notion of monopoles (though not Ehrenhaft’s macroscopic observations) came to be respectable, if not confirmed, with the recognition of the asymmetry in Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism and the consequences of Paul Dirac’s equations for relativistic quantum theory of the electron. Dirac in 1931 derived the existence of monopoles but this did not become a center of interest Post-1950 quantum field theory. In 1974 two physicists using the gauge theory of the electroweak field independently derived monopoles as Moebus-strip-like twists in the relevant fiber bundles. When This field theory is combined with theories of the origin of the universe, one gets the prediction that in the early universe there was asymmetry Though no monopoles have been confirmed the acceptance of the monopole is shown by physicists’ enthusiasm for several apparent observations, one in 1975, immediately after the such as a Spanish one on Valentine’s Day 1982 while no one was in the lab. At my university, the soon discredited discovery led to the college of engineering and physics to call a public meeting to explain the observation of the monopoles, which shortly after was discredited.

On David Bohm

The second controversy that led Feyerabend to point out the lack of pluralism in science is the cases of the decades-long rejection of David Bohm’s alternative version of quantum mechanics with hidden variables. Bohm’s theory is based on a simple mathematical transformation of the standard Schroedinger equation and is logically unexceptionable, but physicists at the time general rejected it as crackpot. Cushing’s fascinating Copenhagen Hegemony and Historical Contingency shows how de Broglie’s alternative, deterministic quantum mechanics was basically shouted down and the big Solvay meeting in 1927, and his approach was not revived until the 1950s with David Bohm and Jean-Paul Vigier. There were two major reasons for the discrediting of their views.

One was John von Neumann’s proof, or supposed proof that deterministic hidden variables are impossible. Most working physicists hadn’t read the proof, and many chemists and solid-state physicists, wouldn’t have understood it, given the highly abstract algebraic formulation of quantum theory in which it is formulated. Yet it was taken on faith because of von Neumann’s superior ability in abstract mathematics. This was until John Bell reexamined it in the early 1960s, and even then it took time for Bell’s critique to sink in in the 1970s and 1980s. Secondly, the Marxism of the two determinists helped discredit their approach.

At the Institute for Advanced Study Oppenheimer accused Bohm of being a “Trotskyite” (as the assembled physicists were mostly ex-orthodox Stalinists) and said “We will refute Bohm by not reading him.” Not all the rejection was that of Marxism. De Broglie was not Marxist, but his 1927 original pilot wave theory was rejected. He kept silent for twenty-five years, until Bohm’s theory appeared, which gave him the courage to revive his original theory. This is just one example, and Bohm was whom Feyerabend defended in his debates with Hanson. Bohm’s alternative wasn’t developed by many until the 1990s and beyond. Even then it remains very much a minority view.

Examples From Biology

There are also examples in biology. One is the claim that there is genetic material in the mitochondria in the cell, different from the main genetic material in the nucleus of the cell. Initially supporters of mitochondrial DNA were accused of being Communists. This was due to the need for militant opposition to Stalinist Lysenkoite biology. Lysenko, a non-scientist agronomist was supported by Stalin because of initial success with improving wheat output and later bogus promises of improving all crops without lengthy, multi-generational breeding and selection of strains. Lysenkoism’s support by Stalin led to the suppression of Mendelian genetics in the USSR, including the Siberian exile or execution of recalcitrant geneticists. In reaction to the Western biologists combatted any suggestion that the simplest nuclear and chromosomal account of genetic material was incomplete. Hence what later was to become accepted theory was rejected.

Another case where an alternative theory has been rejected is Barbara McClintock’s theory of mobile genetic elements or “jumping genes.” Although McClintock’s orthodox work on maize genetics and meticulous experiments within it were respected, her claims that experiments of hers showed that genetic material could migrate around on or among the chromosomes was rejected. Ironically, her theory was only accepted over three decades later, not because of her experiments and observations, but because of results in bacterial genetics within molecular biology. Evelyn Fox Keller’s account, involving, among other things, the rejection of McClintock’s work because she was a woman, and the rejection of her empathetic, non-dominant-manipulative was of doing science, has been later criticized by those who wish to defend the detached and objective portrait of science, such as by Comfort. However, even he accepts much of the story of the rejection of jumping genes.

Continental Drift and Prehistoric Floods

In geology, a classic example of rejection of a superior alternative theory is that of Wegener’s theory of continental drift. When I describe the account of spread and migration of prehistoric creatures such a dinosaurs and early mammals via narrow “land bridges” between the continents, such as between Africa and South America across the Atlantic Ocean that was scientifically accepted until 1967 and that I learned as a child and as a college student, my students laugh and wonder how such a ridiculous theory was believed. Yet the alternative theory of drifting continents was ridiculed and rejected for the first two thirds of the twentieth century. Only when radiometric evidence of sea floor spreading and subduction of continental plates was collected, did Wegener’s theory become accepted. It has been claimed that Wegener’s lack of a physical mechanism for his process prevented geologists from accepting his theory. However, many of the theories accepted by paleontologists were not founded on physical mechanisms, but through qualitative theorizing.

Another, less famous case of an alternative, valid theory being rejected, despite much descriptive observation in its favor is J Harlen Betz’s theory of humongous prehistoric floods in the American West. Betz in the early 1920s, on the basis of his observations in eastern Washington state that there had been gigantic floods in the area of the Channeled Scablands. He noted that the desert landscape must have been sculpted by massive erosion from what he called the Spokane Flood. Massive ice dams had built up during the Ice Age in around Missoula MT and Spokane WA, which burst and produced a vastly forceful flood over eastern Washington state. For fifty-five years Betz’s theory was rejected as crackpot by the geology profession despite respect for his other work. Again, only by 1967, on the basis of improved knowledge of glaciation and aerial photography of the scablands that Betz’s theory was accepted, praised, and received awards. (One may wonder why both Wegener’s and Betz’s theories were both finally accepted only in 1967. The standard account appeals to further empirical observations, but might it be that the loosening up of thought during the radical and countercultural sixties?)

Now the defender of the claim of tolerance within the scientific community may answer that all these alternative theories were eventually accepted, or at least deemed acceptable, even if several or many decades later.

Morphogenetic Fields

An interesting case of a New Age theory that has been totally rejected by mainstream science and is explicitly associated with the most far out hippie conceptions, drug exploration, and shamanism, is Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphogenetic fields. Unlike much New Age or countercultural theory this theory is propounded by someone with top scientific qualifications. Sheldrake received studied at Harvard, earned a PhD in biology at Cambridge University, was a fellow of Clare College and did research on embryology.

Sheldrake has proposed the reality of “morphic resonance,” in which form is transmitted via action at a distance among crystals and biological organisms. One crystallographer of my acquaintance who was rabidly opposed to New Age thought surprised me by agreeing with Sheldrake and telling a story of such transmission of crystal shape concerning industrial crystal growing.

Again, unlike many New Age theorists, Sheldrake has suggested several simple, easy to perform experiments. One includes having people sit with their backs to the observer with a baffle or board around them so that they cannot see in back of them, and then to guess whether the other subject is looking at them or not. Another is to place video recorders in the house in which a dog has been left alone in the house of its owner, who is away at work. The experiment is to see whether the dog shows heightened activity and agitation when the owner, at her office, begins to get ready to commute home.

The prestigious Nature magazine’s editor Maddox wrote an editorial advocating that Sheldrake’s New Theory of Life should be burned. Even the most adamant defender of the reality of the Popperian or Mertonian openness to alternatives in science would have to admit that this shows some desire to suppress an alternative theory.

Sheldrake has associated himself through video dialogues with Ralph Abraham, a leading theorist of chaos theory, advanced theoretical mechanics, and global analysis, who supports Hindu accounts of the world and notoriously mentioned in the men’s magazine GQ that countercultural drug use had offered a gentle “kiss” to topologists in the 1960s. Also involved in the trialogue was the prematurely deceased Terrence McKenna, far out Amazon psychedelic drug explorer, chemist, and shaman, who found enlightenment dialoging with a grasshopper in the rainforest. These associations, among other, would understandably alienate more buttoned up mainstream scientists, but don’t prejudge the results of his suggested experiments.


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Le Grand, Homer Eugene. Drifting Continents and Shifting Theories. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1988.

Oreskes, Naomi. The Rejection of Continental Drift. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Peat, F. David. Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: A Response to Shaw.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2016): 1-6.

Sheldrake, Rupert. A New Science of Life: The Theory of Morphic Resonance. Park Street Press, 1995.

Sheldrake, Rupert, Terrence McKenna, and Ralph Abraham. The Evolution of Creativity. Monkfish Book Publishing, 2002.

Thompson, Dietrich. “Monopoles Oughtn’t to be a Monopoly.” ScienceNews 109, no. 8 (February 21, 1976): 122-123.

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas,

Frodeman, Robert. “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 42-44.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: J.D. Falk, via flickr

Do we, academically trained and credentialed philosophers, understand what philosophy is? It’s a disquieting question, or would be, if it could be taken seriously. But who can take it seriously? Academic philosophers are the inheritors of more than 100 years of painstaking, peer-reviewed work—to say nothing of centuries of thinking before that. Through these efforts, philosophy has become an area of expertise on a par with other disciplines. The question, then, is silly—or insulting: of course philosophers know their stuff!

But shouldn’t we feel a bit uneasy by this juxtaposition of ‘philosophers’ and ‘know’? We tell our introductory classes that ‘philosopher’ literally means to be a friend or lover of wisdom, rather than to be the actual possessor of it. And that Socrates, the patron saint of philosophy, only claimed to possess ‘Socratic wisdom’—he only knew that he knew nothing. Have we then abandoned our allegiance to Socrates? Or did we never take him seriously? Would philosophers be more candid quoting Hegel, when he noted in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit that his goal was to “lay aside the title ‘love of knowing’ and be actual knowing”? But wouldn’t that mean that philosophers were not really philosophers, but rather sophists?

Two Types of Sophists

The Greeks knew two types of sophists. There were the philosophical sophists, who had skeptical beliefs about the possibilities of knowledge. Protagoras, the most famous of these, claimed that experience is inescapably subjective: the same wind blows both hot and cold depending on the person’s experience. But also, and more simply, sophists were people in the know, or as we say today, experts: people able to instruct young men in skills such as horsemanship, warfare, or public speaking. There are some philosophers today who would place themselves into the first category—for instance, standpoint epistemologists, who sometimes make similar claims in terms of race, class, and gender—but it seems that nearly all philosophers place themselves in the latter category. Philosophers today are experts. Not in philosophy overall, of course, that’s too large of a domain; but in one or another subfield, ethics or logic or the philosophy of language.

It is the subdividing of philosophy that allows philosophers to make claims of expertise. This point was brought home recently in the dustup surrounding Rebecca Tuvel’s Hypatia article “In Defense of Transracialism.” Tuvel’s piece prompted the creation of an Open Letter, which collected more than 800 signatories by the time it was closed. The Letter called on Hypatia to retract publication of her essay. These critics did not merely disagree with her argument; they denied her right to speak on the topic at all. The Letter notes that Tuvel “fails to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions….”

Tuvel’s article and subsequent publishing of the Open Letter have elicited an extended series of commentaries (including no less than two op-eds in the New York Times). The exact criteria for those who wished to censure Tuvel has varied. Some thought her transgression consisted in the insufficient citing of the literature in the field, while others claimed that her identity was not sufficiently grounded in personal experience of racial and/or gender oppression. In both cases, however, criticism turned on assumptions of expertise. Notably, Tuvel also makes claims of expertise, on her departmental website, as being a specialist in both feminism and the philosophy of race, although she has mostly stayed out of the subsequent back and forth.

My concern, then, is not with pros and cons of Tuvel’s essay. It is rather with the background assumption of expertise that all parties seem to share. I admit that I am not an expert in these areas; but my claim is more fundamental than that. I do not view myself as an expert in any area of philosophy, at least as the term is now used. I have been introduced on occasion as an expert in the philosophy of interdisciplinarity, but this usually prompts me to note that I am only an expert in the impossibility of expertise. Widespread claims to the contrary, interdisciplinarity is perhaps the last thing that someone can be an expert in. At least, the claim cannot be that someone knows the literature of the subject, since the point of interdisciplinarity, if it is something more than another route to academic success, is more political than epistemic in nature.

A Change in Philosophy?

The attitudes revealed by L’Affaire Tuvel (and examples can be multiplied at will[1]) suggests that we are looking at something more than simply another shift in the philosophical tides. There has always been a Hegelian or Cartesian element within philosophy, where philosophers have made claims of possessing apodictic knowledge. There has also always been a Socratic (or to pick a more recent example, Heideggerian) cohort who have emphasized the interrogative nature of philosophy. Heidegger constantly stresses the need to live within the question, whether the question concerns being or technology. He notes as well that his answers, such as they are, are true only approximately and for the most part—zunächst und zumeist. In this he follows Aristotle, who in the Ethics 1.3 pointed out that some areas of inquiry are simply not susceptible to either precision or certainty of knowledge. To my mind, this is the condition of philosophy.

Grant, then, that there have always been two camps on the possibility of expertise in philosophy. But I suggest that the balance between these two positions has shifted, as philosophy has become a creature of the university. The modern research university has its own institutional philosophy: it treats all knowledge democratically, as consisting of regional domains on a common plane. There is no hierarchy of the disciplines, no higher or lower knowledge, no more general or specific knowledge. Researchers in philosophy and the humanities see themselves as fellow specialists, rather than as intellectuals of a markedly different type than those in the natural and social sciences.

Today these assumptions are so deeply embedded that no one bothers to note them at all. Few seriously propose that philosophers might have a role to play other than being an expert, or that our job might be to provoke rather than to answer. I, however, want to raise that very possibility. And operating under the assumption that naming the two positions might help rally troops to their respective standards, let the two camps be designated as the Socratics and the Anti-Socratics.

Part of the attraction that Science and Technology Studies (STS) has held for me has been its undisciplined nature, and the faint hope that it could take over the Socratic role that philosophy has largely abandoned. Of course, the debate between the Socratics and Anti-Socratics rages in STS as well, framed in terms of Low and High Church STS, those who resist STS becoming a discipline and those who see it as part of the necessary maturation of the field. I admit to feeling the attractions of High Church STS, and philosophy: expertise has its prerogatives, chief among them the security of speaking to other ‘experts’ rather than taking on the dangerous task of working in the wider world. But I think I will throw my lot in with the Socratics for a while longer.


Aristotle. The Nichomachean Ethics.  Oxford University Press, 2009.

Brubakermay, Rogers. “The Uproar Over ‘Transracialism’.”  New York Times. May 18, 2017.

Frodeman, Robert and Adam Briggle.Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Fuller, Steve and James H. Collier. Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: A New Beginning for Science and Technology Studies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel’s Preface to the “Phenomenology of Spirit”. Translated by Yirmiyahu Yovel. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Schuessler, Jennifer. “A Defense of ‘Transracial’ Identity Roils Philosophy World.” New York Times. May 19, 2017.

Tuvel, Rebecca. “In Defense of Transracialism.” Hypatia 29 March 2017. doi: 10.1111/hypa.12327

[1] See, for instance,

Author Information: Ben Ross, University of North Texas,

Ross, Ben. “Between Poison and Remedy: Transhumanism as Pharmakon.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 23-26.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: Jennifer Boyer, via flickr

As a Millennial, I have the luxury of being able to ask in all seriousness, “Will I be the first generation safe from death by old age?” While the prospects of answering in the affirmative may be dim, they are not preposterous. The idea that such a question can even be asked with sincerity, however, testifies to transhumanism’s reach into the cultural imagination.

But what is transhumanism? Until now, we have failed to answer in the appropriate way, remaining content to describe its possible technological manifestations or trace its historical development. Therefore, I would like to propose an ontology of transhumanism. When philosophers speak of ontologies, they are asking a basic question about the being of a thing—what is its essence? I suggest that transhumanism is best understood as a pharmakon.

Transhumanism as a Pharmakon

Derrida points out in his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy” that while pharmakon can be translated as “drug,” it means both “remedy” and “poison.” It is an ambiguous in-between, containing opposite definitions that can both be true depending on the context. As Michael Rinella notes, hemlock, most famous for being the poison that killed Socrates, when taken in smaller doses induces “delirium and excitement on the one hand,” yet it can be “a powerful sedative on the other” (160). Rinella also goes on to say that there are more than two meanings to the term. While the word was used to denote a drug, Plato “used pharmakon to mean a host of other things, such as pictorial color, painter’s pigment, cosmetic application, perfume, magical talisman, and recreational intoxicant.” Nevertheless, Rinella makes the crucial remark that “One pharmakon might be prescribed as a remedy for another pharmakon, in an attempt to restore to its previous state an identity effaced when intoxicant turned toxic” (237-238). It is precisely this “two-in-one” aspect of the application of a pharmakon that reveals it to be the essence of transhumanism; it can be both poison and remedy.

To further this analysis, consider “super longevity,” which is the subset of transhumanism concerned with avoiding death. As Harari writes in Homo Deus, “Modern science and modern culture…don’t think of death as a metaphysical mystery…for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve.” After all, he declares, “Humans always die due to some technical glitch” (22). These technical glitches, i.e. when one’s heart ceases to pump blood, are the bane of researchers like Aubrey de Grey, and fixing them forms the focus of his “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence.” There is nothing in de Grey’s approach to suggest that there is any human technical problem that does not potentially have a human technical solution. Grey’s techno-optimism represents the “remedy-aspect” of transhumanism as a view in which any problems—even those caused by technology—can be solved by technology.

As a “remedy,” transhumanism is based on a faith in technological progress, despite such progress being uneven, with beneficial effects that are not immediately apparent. For example, even if de Grey’s research does not result in the “cure” for death, his insight into anti-aging techniques and the resulting applications still have the potential to improve a person’s quality of life. This reflects Max More’s definition of transhumanism as “The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” (3).

Importantly, More’s definition emphasizes transcendent enhancement, and it is this desire to be “upgraded” which distinguishes transhumanism. An illustration of the emergence of the upgrade mentality can be seen in the history of plastic surgery. Harari writes that while modern plastic surgery was born during the First World War as a treatment to repair facial injuries, upon the war’s end, surgeons found that the same techniques could be applied not to damaged noses, but to “ugly” ones, and “though plastic surgery continued to help the sick and wounded…it devoted increasing attention to upgrading the healthy” (52). Through its secondary use as an elective surgery of enhancement rather than exclusively as a technique for healing, one can see an example of the evolution of transhumanist philosophy out of medical philosophy—if the technology exists to change one’s face (and they have they money for it), a person should be morphologically free to take advantage of the enhancing capabilities of such a procedure.

However, to take a view of a person only as “waiting to be upgraded” marks the genesis of the “poison-aspect” of transhumanism as a pharmakon. One need not look farther than Martin Heidegger to find an account of this danger. In his 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger suggests that the threat of technology is ge-stell, or “enframing,” the way in which technology reveals the world to us primarily as a stock of resources to be manipulated. For him, the “threat” is not a technical problem for which there is a technical solution, but rather it is an ontological condition from which we can be saved—a condition which prevents us from seeing the world in any other way. Transhumanism in its “poison mode,” then, is the technological understanding of being—a singular way of viewing the world as a resource waiting to be enhanced. And what is problematic is that this way of revealing the world comes to dominate all others. In other words, the technological understanding of being comes to be the understanding of being.

However, a careful reading of Heidegger’s essay suggests that it is not a techno-pessimist’s manifesto. Technology has pearls concealed within its perils. Heidegger suggests as much when he quotes Hölderlin, “But where danger is, grows the saving power also” (333). Heidegger is asking the reader to avoid either/or dichotomous thinking about the essence of technology as something that is either dangerous or helpful, and instead to see it as a two-in-one. He goes to great lengths to point out that the “saving power” of technology, which is to say, of transhumanism, is that its essence is ambiguous—it is a pharmakon. Thus, the self-same instrumentalization that threatens to narrow our understanding of being also has the power to save us and force a consideration of new ways of being, and most importantly for Heidegger, new meanings of being.

Curing Death?

A transhumanist, and therefore pharmacological, take on Heidegger’s admonishment might be something as follows: In the future it is possible that a “cure” for death will threaten what we now know as death as a source of meaning in society—especially as it relates to a Christian heaven in which one yearns to spend an eternity, sans mortal coil. While the arrival of a death-cure will prove to be “poison” for a traditional understanding of Christianity, that same techno-humanistic artifact will simultaneously function as a “remedy,” spurring a Nietzschean transvaluation of values—that is, such a “cure” will arrive as a technological Zarathustra, forcing a confrontation with meaning, bringing news that “the human being is something that must be overcome” and urging us to ask anew, “what have you done to overcome him?” At the very least, as Steve Fuller recently pointed out in an interview, “transhumanism just puts more options on the table for what death looks like. For example, one might choose to die with or without the prospect of future resurrection. One might also just upload one’s mind into a computer, which would be its own special kind of resurrection.” For those sympathetic to Leon Kass’ brand of repugnance, such suggestions are poison, and yet for a transhumanist such suggestions are a remedy to the glitch called death and the ways in which we relate to our finitude.

A more mundane example of the simultaneous danger and saving power of technology might be the much-hyped Google Glass—or in more transhuman terms, having Google Glass implanted into one’s eye sockets. While this procedure may conceal other ways of understanding the spaces and people surrounding the wearer other than through the medium of the lenses, the lenses simultaneously have the power to reveal entirely new layers of information about the world and connect the wearer to the environment and to others in new ways.

With these examples it is perhaps becoming clear that by re-casting the essence of transhumanism as a pharmakon instead of an either/or dichotomy of purely techno-optimistic panacea or purely techno-pessimistic miasma, a more inclusive picture of transhumanist ontology emerges. Transhumanism can be both—cause and cure, danger and savior, threat and opportunity. Max More’s analysis, too, has a pharmacological flavor in that transhumanism, though committed to improving the human condition, has no illusions that, “The same powerful technologies that can transform human nature for the better could also be used in ways that, intentionally or unintentionally, cause direct damage or more subtly undermine our lives” (4).

Perhaps, then, More might agree that as a pharmakon, transhumanism is a Schrödinger’s cat always in a state of superposition—both alive and dead in the box. In the Copenhagen interpretation, a system stops being in a superposition of states and becomes either one or the other when an observation takes place. Transhumanism, too, is observer-dependent. For Ray Kurzweil, looking in the box, the cat is always alive with the techno-optimistic possibility of download into silicon and the singularity is near. For Ted Kaczynski, the cat is always dead, and it is worth killing in order to prevent its resurrection. Therefore, what the foregoing analysis suggests is that transhumanism is a drug—it is both remedy and poison—with the power to cure or the power to kill depending on who takes it. If the essence of transhumanism is elusive, it is precisely because it is a pharmakon cutting across categories ordinarily seen as mutually exclusive, forcing an ontological quest to conceptualize the in-between.


Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” In Dissemination, translated by Barbara Johnson, 63-171. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Fuller, Steve. “Twelve Questions on Transhumanism’s Place in the Western Philosophical Tradition.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 19 April 2017.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. HarperCollins, 2017.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell. Harper & Row, 1977.

More, Max. “The Philosophy of Transhumanism,” In The Transhumanist Reader, edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More, 3-17. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Rinella, Michael A. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Fuller, Steve. “Counterfactuals in the White House:  A Glimpse into Our Post-Truth Times.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 1-3.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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May Day 2017 was filled with reporting and debating over a set of comments that US President Trump made while visiting Andrew Jackson’s mansion, the ‘Hermitage’, now a tourist attraction in Nashville, Tennessee. Trump said that had Jackson been deployed, he could have averted the US Civil War. Since Jackson had died about fifteen years before the war started, Trump was clearly making a counterfactual claim. However, it is an interesting claim—not least for its responses, which were fast and furious. They speak to the nature of our times.  Let me start with the academic response and then move to how I think about the matter. A helpful compendium of the responses is here.

Jim Grossman of the American Historical Association spoke for all by claiming that Trump ‘is starting from the wrong premise’. Presumably, Grossman means that the Civil War was inevitable because slavery is so bad that a war over it was inevitable. However well he meant this comment, it feeds into the anti-expert attitude of our post-truth era. Grossman seems to disallow Trump from imagining that preserving the American union was more important than the end of slavery—even though that was exactly how the issue was framed to most Americans 150 years ago. Scholarship is of course mainly about explaining why things happened the way they did. However, there is a temptation to conclude that it necessarily had to happen that way. Today’s post-truth culture attempts to curb this tendency. In any case, once the counterfactual door is open to other possible futures, historical expertise becomes more contestable, perhaps even democratised. The result may be that even when non-experts reach the same conclusion as the experts, it may be for importantly different reasons.

Who was Andrew Jackson?

Andrew Jackson is normally regarded as one of the greatest US presidents, whose face is regularly seen on the twenty-dollar banknote. He was the seventh president and the first one who was truly ‘self-made’ in the sense that he was not well educated, let alone oriented towards Europe in his tastes, as had been his six predecessors. It would not be unfair to say that he was the first President who saw a clear difference between being American and being European. In this respect, his self-understanding was rather like that of the heroes of Latin American independence. He was also given to an impulsive manner of public speech, not so different from the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Jackson volunteered at age thirteen to fight in the War of Independence from Britain, which was the first of many times when he was ready to fight for his emerging nation. Over the past fifty years much attention has been paid to his decimation of native American populations at various points in his career, both military and presidential, as well as his support for slavery. (Howard Zinn was largely responsible, at least at a popular level, for this recent shift in focus.) To make a long and complicated story short, Jackson was rather consistent in acting in ways that served to consolidate American national identity, even if that meant sacrificing the interests of various groups at various times—groups that arguably never recovered from the losses inflicted on them.

Perhaps Jackson’s most lasting positive legacy has been the current two-party—Democratic/Republican—political structure. Each party cuts across class lines and geographical regions. This achievement is now easy to underestimate—as the Democratic Party is now ruing. The US founding fathers were polarized about the direction that the fledgling nation should take, precisely along these divides. The struggles began in Washington’s first administration between his treasury minister Alexander Hamilton and his foreign minister Thomas Jefferson—and they persisted. Both Hamilton and Jefferson oriented themselves to Europe, Hamilton more in terms of what to imitate and Jefferson in terms of what to avoid. Jackson effectively performed a Gestalt switch, in which Europe was no longer the frame of reference for defining American domestic and foreign policy.

Enter Trump

Now enter Donald Trump, who says Jackson could have averted the Civil War, which by all counts was one of the bloodiest in US history, with an estimated two million lives in total lost. Jackson was clearly a unionist but also clearly a slaveholder. So one imagines that Jackson would have preserved the union by allowing slaveholding, perhaps in terms of some version of the ‘states rights’ or ‘popular sovereignty’ doctrine, which gives states discretion over how they deal with economic matters. It’s not unreasonable that Jackson could have pulled that off, especially because the economic arguments for allowing slavery were stronger back then than they are now normally remembered.

The Nobel Prize winning economic historian Robert Fogel explored this point quite thoroughly more than forty years ago in his controversial Time on the Cross. It is not a perfect work, and its academic criticism is quite instructive about how one might improve exploring a counterfactual world in which slavery would have persisted in the US until it was no longer economically viable. Unfortunately, the politically sensitive nature of the book’s content has discouraged any follow-up. When I first read Fogel, I concluded that over time the price of slaves would come to approximate that of free labour considered over a worker’s lifetime. In other words, a slave economy would evolve into a capitalist economy without violence in the interim. Slaveholders would simply respond to changing market conditions. So, the moral question is whether it would have made sense to extend slavery over a few years before it would end up merging with what the capitalist world took to be an acceptable way of being, namely, wage labour. Fogel added ballast to his argument by observing that slaves tend to live longer and healthier lives than freed Blacks.

Moreover, Fogel’s counterfactual was not fanciful. Some version of the states rights doctrine was the dominant sentiment in the US prior to the Civil War. However, there were many different versions of the doctrine which could not rally around a common spokesperson. This allowed the clear unitary voice for abolition emanating from the Christian dissenter community in the Northern states to exert enormous force, not least on the sympathetic and ambitious country lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who became their somewhat unlikely champion. Thus, 1860 saw a Republican Party united around Lincoln fend off three Democrat opponents in the general election.

None of this is to deny that Lincoln was right in what he did. I would have acted similarly. Moreover, he probably did not anticipate just how bloody the Civil War would turn out to be—and the lasting scars it would leave on the American psyche. But the question on the table is not whether the Civil War was a fair price to pay to end slavery. Rather, the question is whether the Civil War could have been avoided—and, more to the point of Trump’s claim, whether Jackson would have been the man to do it. The answer is perhaps yes. The price would have been that slavery would have been extended for a certain period before it became economically unviable for the slaveholders.

It is worth observing that Fogel’s main target seemed to be Marxists who argued that slavery made no economic sense and that it persisted in the US only because of racist ideology.  Fogel’s response was that slaveholders probably were racist, but such a de facto racist economic regime would not have persisted as long as it did, had both sides not benefitted from the arrangement. In other words, the success of the anti-slavery campaign was largely about the triumph of aspirational ideas over actual economic conditions. If anything, its success testifies to the level of risk that abolitionists were willing to assume on behalf of American society for the emancipation of slaves. Alexis de Tocqueville was only the most famous of foreign US commentators to notice this at the time. Abolitionists were the proactionaries of their day with regard to risk. And this is how we should honour them now.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of social epistemology at the University of Warwick. His latest book is The Academic Caesar: University Leadership is Hard (Sage).


Note: The following piece appeared under the title of ‘Free speech is not just for academics’ in the 27 April 2017 issue of Times Higher Education and is reprinted here with permission from the publisher.

Image credit: barnyz, via flickr

Is free speech an academic value? We might think that the self-evident answer is yes. Isn’t that why “No platforming” controversial figures usually leave the campus involved with egg on its face, amid scathing headlines about political correctness gone mad?

However, a completely different argument can be made against universities’ need to defend free speech that bears no taint of political correctness. It is what I call the “Little Academia” argument. It plays on the academic impulse to retreat to a parochial sense of self-interest in the face of external pressures.

The master of this argument for the last 30 years has been Stanley Fish, the American postmodern literary critic. Fish became notorious in the 1980s for arguing that a text means whatever its community of readers thinks it means. This seemed wildly radical, but it quickly became clear – at least to more discerning readers – that Fish’s communities were gated.

This seems to be Fish’s view of the university more generally. In a recent article in the US Chronicle of Higher Education,Free Speech Is Not an Academic Value”, written in response to the student protests at Middlebury College against the presence of Charles Murray, a political economist who takes race seriously as a variable in assessing public policies, Fish criticised the college’s administrators for thinking of themselves as “free-speech champions”. This, he said, represented a failure to observe the distinction between students’ curricular and extracurricular activities. Regarding the latter, he said, administrators’ correct role was merely as “managers of crowd control”.

In other words, a university is a gated community designed to protect the freedom only of those who wish to pursue discipline-based inquiries: namely, professional academics. Students only benefit when they behave as apprentice professional academics. They are generously permitted to organise extracurricular activities, but the university’s official attitude towards these is neutral, as long as they do not disrupt the core business of the institution.

The basic problem with this picture is that it supposes that academic freedom is a more restricted case of generalised free expression. The undertow of Fish’s argument is that students are potentially freer to express themselves outside of campus.

To be sure, this may be how things look to Fish, who hails from a country that already had a Bill of Rights protecting free speech roughly a century before the concept of academic freedom was imported to unionise academics in the face of aggressive university governing boards. However, when Wilhelm von Humboldt invented the concept of academic freedom in early 19th century Germany, it was in a country that lacked generalised free expression. For him, the university was the crucible in which free expression might be forged as a general right in society. Successive generations engaged in the “freedom to teach” and the “freedom to learn”, the two becoming of equal and reciprocal importance.

On this view, freedom is the ultimate transferable skill embodied by the education process. The ideal received its definitive modern formulation in the sociologist Max Weber’s famous 1917 lecture to new graduate students, “Science as a Vocation”.

What is most striking about it to modern ears is his stress on the need for teachers to make space for learners in their classroom practice. This means resisting the temptation to impose their authority, which may only serve to disarm the student of any choice in what to believe. Teachers can declare and justify their own choice, but must also identify the scope for reasonable divergence.

After all, if academic research is doing its job, even the most seemingly settled fact may well be overturned in the fullness of time. Students need to be provided with some sense of how that might happen as part of their education to be free.

Being open about the pressure points in the orthodoxy is complicated because, in today’s academia, certain heterodoxies can turn into their own micro-orthodoxies through dedicated degree programmes and journals. These have become the lightning rods for debates about political correctness.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is clear. Fish is wrong. Academic freedom is not just for professional academics but for students as well. The honourable tradition of independent student reading groups and speaker programmes already testifies to this. And in some contexts they can count towards satisfying formal degree requirements. Contra Little Academia, the “extra” in extracurricular should be read as intending to enhance a curriculum that academics themselves admit is neither complete nor perfect.

Of course, students may not handle extracurricular events well. But that is not about some non-academic thing called ‘crowd control’. It is simply an expression of the growth pains of students learning to be free.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Steve Fuller holds the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of more than twenty books, the next of which is Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (Anthem).


Note: This article originally appeared in the EASST Review 36(1) April 2017 and is republished below with the permission of the editors.

Image credit: Hans Luthart, via flickr

STS talks the talk without ever quite walking the walk. Case in point: post-truth, the offspring that the field has been always trying to disown, not least in the latest editorial of Social Studies of Science (Sismondo 2017). Yet STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public—if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes:

1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.

2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.

3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.

4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties.

What is perhaps most puzzling from a strictly epistemological standpoint is that STS recoils from these tropes whenever such politically undesirable elements as climate change deniers or creationists appropriate them effectively for their own purposes. Normally, that would be considered ‘independent corroboration’ of the tropes’ validity, as these undesirables demonstrate that one need not be a politically correct STS practitioner to wield the tropes effectively. It is almost as if STS practitioners have forgotten the difference between the contexts of discovery and justification in the philosophy of science. The undesirables are actually helping STS by showing the robustness of its core insights as people who otherwise overlap little with the normative orientation of most STS practitioners turn them to what they regard as good effect (Fuller 2016).

Of course, STSers are free to contest any individual or group that they find politically undesirable—but on political, not methodological grounds. We should not be quick to fault undesirables for ‘misusing’ our insights, let alone apologize for, self-censor or otherwise restrict our own application of these insights, which lay at the heart of Latour’s (2004) notorious mea culpa. On the contrary, we should defer to Oscar Wilde and admit that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. STS has enabled the undesirables to raise their game, and if STSers are too timid to function as partisans in their own right, they could try to help the desirables raise their game in response.

Take the ongoing debates surrounding the teaching of evolution in the US. The fact that intelligent design theorists are not as easily defeated on scientific grounds as young earth creationists means that when their Darwinist opponents leverage their epistemic authority on the former as if they were the latter, the politics of the situation becomes naked. Unlike previous creationist cases, the judgement in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board (in which I served as an expert witness for the defence) dispensed with the niceties of the philosophy of science and resorted to the brute sociological fact that most evolutionists do not consider intelligent design theory science. That was enough for the Darwinists to win the battle, but will it win them the war? Those who have followed the ‘evolution’ of creationism into intelligent design might conclude that Darwinists act in bad faith by not taking seriously that intelligent design theorists are trying to play by the Darwinists’ rules. Indeed, more than ten years after Kitzmiller, there is little evidence that Americans are any friendlier to Darwin than they were before the trial. And with Trump in the White House…?

Thus, I find it strange that in his editorial on post-truth, Sismondo extols the virtues of someone who seems completely at odds with the STS sensibility, namely, Naomi Oreskes, the Harvard science historian turned scientific establishment publicist. A signature trope of her work is the pronounced asymmetry between the natural emergence of a scientific consensus and the artificial attempts to create scientific controversy (e.g. Oreskes and Conway 2011). It is precisely this ‘no science before its time’ sensibility that STS has been spending the last half-century trying to oppose. Even if Oreskes’ political preferences tick all the right boxes from the standpoint of most STSers, she has methodologically cheated by presuming that the ‘truth’ of some matter of public concern most likely lies with what most scientific experts think at a given time. Indeed, Sismondo’s passive aggressive agonizing comes from his having to reconcile his intuitive agreement with Oreskes and the contrary thrust of most STS research.

This example speaks to the larger issue addressed by post-truth, namely, distrust in expertise, to which STS has undoubtedly contributed by circumscribing the prerogatives of expertise. Sismondo fails to see that even politically mild-mannered STSers like Harry Collins and Sheila Jasanoff do this in their work. Collins is mainly interested in expertise as a form of knowledge that other experts recognize as that form of knowledge, while Jasanoff is clear that the price that experts pay for providing trusted input to policy is that they do not engage in imperial overreach. Neither position approximates the much more authoritative role that Oreskes would like to see scientific expertise play in policy making. From an STS standpoint, those who share Oreskes’ normative orientation to expertise should consider how to improve science’s public relations, including proposals for how scientists might be socially and materially bound to the outcomes of policy decisions taken on the basis of their advice.

When I say that STS has forced both established and less than established scientists to ‘raise their game’, I am alluding to what may turn out to be STS’s most lasting contribution to the general intellectual landscape, namely, to think about science as literally a game—perhaps the biggest game in town. Consider football, where matches typically take place between teams with divergent resources and track records. Of course, the team with the better resources and track record is favoured to win, but sometimes it loses and that lone event can destabilise the team’s confidence, resulting in further losses and even defections. Each match is considered a free space where for ninety minutes the two teams are presumed to be equal, notwithstanding their vastly different histories. Francis Bacon’s ideal of the ‘crucial experiment’, so eagerly adopted by Karl Popper, relates to this sensibility as definitive of the scientific attitude. And STS’s ‘social constructivism’ simply generalizes this attitude from the lab to the world. Were STS to embrace its own sensibility much more wholeheartedly, it would finally walk the walk.


Fuller, Steve. ‘Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective December, 2016:

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.

Oreskes, Naomi and Erik M. Conway Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

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

Call for Papers: “Charting trans and posthumanist imaginaries in future-making”
(see Panel 53:

Science in Public Conference, University of Sheffield 10th-12th July, 2017
Emilie Whitaker, University of Salford,

The call for papers closes April 18, 2017.

Posthumanism and transhumanism are two emerging cultural movements that use recent developments in science and technology to challenge, in rather different ways, conventional conceptions of the human condition. Originally seen as more aligned with science fiction than science fact, they now straddle the divide, helped along with increasing media attention and capital investment. Whilst posthumanism continues to be theoretically explored within the social sciences and humanities, transhumanism remains an outlier to the academy. This is despite developments in science and technology which decouple traditional understandings of human/non- human action, agency, labour and capital. In this respect, both trans and posthumanism come very well adapted to our ‘post-truth’ times. We welcome submissions on this general theme, including the following topics:

  • Post- vs trans- humanist projections of the future of humanity, both utopic and dystopic
  • The appeal to post- and trans- humanist ideas and images in the general culture
  • Scientific bases – or not – for post- and trans- humanist knowledge claims
  •  The influence – or not – of post- and trans- humanist views on public policy
  • The place of capitalism in post- and trans- humanist imaginaries
  • The place of post- and trans- humanism in the academy: Do they bridge the ‘˜two cultures’?
  • How trans and post humanism conceive of the place of democracy in guiding the future
  • Exploration of how science communication invokes, borrows or rejects trans and posthumanist tropes.

We welcome ‘alternative’ contributions – for example, short pieces of prose or extracts of speculative near-future fiction – as well as empirically-based findings papers. We are also particularly keen to support early career researchers.