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Author Information:Erik Baker and Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University, ebaker@g.harvard.edu, oreskes@fas.harvard.edu

Baker, Erik and Naomi Oreskes. “It’s No Game: Post-Truth and the Obligations of Science Studies.”[1] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 1-10.

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

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Image credit: Walt Stoneburner, via flickr

In late April, 2017, the voice of a once-eminent institution of American democracy issued a public statement that embodied the evacuation of norms of truth and mutual understanding from American political discourse that since the 2016 presidential election has come to be known as “post-truth.” We aren’t talking about Donald Trump, whose habitual disregard of factual knowledge is troubling, to be sure, and whose advisor, Kellyanne Conway, made “alternative facts” part of the lexicon. Rather, we’re referring to the justification issued by New York Times opinion page editor James Bennet in defense of his decision to hire columnist Bret Stephens, a self-styled “climate agnostic,” and his spreading talking points of the fossil fuel industry-funded campaign to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change and the integrity of climate scientists.[2] The notion of truth made no appearance in Bennet’s statement. “If all of our columnists and all of our contributors and all of our editorials agreed all the time,” he explained, “we wouldn’t be promoting the free exchange of ideas, and we wouldn’t be serving our readers very well.”[3] The intellectual merits of Stephens’ position are evidently not the point. What counts is only the ability to grease the gears of the “free exchange of ideas.”

Bennet’s defense exemplifies the ideology of the “marketplace of ideas,” particularly in its recent, neoliberal incarnation. Since the 1970s, it has become commonplace throughout much of Europe and America to evince suspicion of attempts to build public consensus about facts or values, regardless of motivation, and to maintain that the role of public-sphere institutions—including newspapers and universities—is simply to place as many private opinions as possible into competition (“free exchange”) with one another.[4] If it is meaningful to talk about a “post-truth” moment, this ideological development is surely among its salient facets. After all, “truth” has not become any more or less problematic as an evaluative concept in private life, with its countless everyday claims about the world. Only public truth claims, especially those with potential to form a basis for collective action, now seem newly troublesome. To the extent that the rise of “post-truth” holds out lessons for science studies, it is not because the discipline has singlehandedly swung a wrecking ball through conventional epistemic wisdom (as some practitioners would perhaps like to imagine[5]), but because the broader rise of marketplace-of-ideas thinking has infected even some of its most subversive-minded work.

Science as Game

In this commentary, we address and critique a concept commonly employed in theoretical science studies that is relevant to the contemporary situation: science as game. While we appreciate both the theoretical and empirical considerations that gave rise to this framework, we suggest that characterizing science as a game is epistemically and politically problematic. Like the notion of a broader marketplace of ideas, it denies the public character of factual knowledge about a commonly accessible world. More importantly, it trivializes the significance of the attempt to obtain information about that world that is as right as possible at a given place and time, and can be used to address and redress significant social issues. The result is the worst of both worlds, permitting neither criticism of scientific claims with any real teeth, nor the possibility of collective action built on public knowledge.[6] To break this stalemate, science studies must become more comfortable using concepts like truth, facts, and reality outside of the scare quotes to which they are currently relegated, and accepting that the evaluation of knowledge claims must necessarily entail normative judgments.[7]

Philosophical talk of “games” leads directly to thoughts of Wittgenstein, and to the scholar most responsible for introducing Wittgenstein to science studies, David Bloor. While we have great respect for Bloor’s work, we suggest that it carries uncomfortable similarities between the concept of science as a game in science studies and the neoliberal worldview. In his 1997 Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions, Bloor argues for an analogy between his interpretation of the later Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning (central to Bloor’s influential writing on science) and the theory of prices of the neoliberal pioneer Ludwig von Mises. “The notion of the ‘real meaning’ of a concept or a sign deserves the same scorn as economists reserve for the outdated and unscientific notion of the ‘real’ or ‘just’ price of a commodity,” Bloor writes. “The only real price is the price paid in the course of real transactions as they proceed von Fall zu Fall. There is no standard outside these transactions.”[8] This analogy is the core of the marketplace of ideas concept, as it would later be developed by followers of von Mises, particularly Friedrich von Hayek. Just as there is no external standard of value in the world of commodities, there is no external standard of truth, such as conformity to an empirically accessible reality, in the world of science.[9] It is “scientism” (a term that von Hayek popularized) to invoke support for scientific knowledge claims outside of the transactions of the marketplace of ideas. Just as, for von Hayek and von Mises, the notion of economic justice falls in the face of the wisdom of the marketplace, so too does the notion of truth, at least as a regulative ideal to which any individual or finite group of people can sensibly aspire.

Contra Bloor (and von Hayek), we believe that it is imperative to think outside the sphere of market-like interactions in assessing both commodity prices and conclusions about scientific concepts. The prices of everything from healthcare and housing to food, education and even labor are hot-button political and social issues precisely because they affect people’s lives, sometimes dramatically, and because markets do not, in fact, always values these goods and services appropriately. Markets can be distorted and manipulated. People may lack the information necessary to judge value (something Adam Smith himself worried about). Prices may be inflated (or deflated) for reasons that bear little relation to what people value. And, most obviously in the case of environmental issues, the true cost of economic activity may not be reflected in market prices, because pollution, health costs, and other adverse effects are externalized. There is a reason why Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, has called climate change the “greatest market failure ever seen.”[10] Markets can and do fail. Prices do not always reflect value. Perhaps most important, markets refuse justice and fairness as categories of analysis. As Thomas Piketty has recently emphasized, capitalism typically leads to great inequalities of wealth, and this can only be critiqued by invoking normative standards beyond the values of the marketplace.[11]

External normative standards are indispensable in a world where the outcome of the interactions within scientific communities matter immensely to people outside those communities. This requirement functions both in the defense of science, where appropriate, and the critique of it.[12] The history of scientific racism and sexism, for example, speaks to the inappropriateness of public deference to all scientific claims, and the necessity of principled critique.[13] Yet, the indispensability of scientific knowledge to political action in contemporary societies also demands the development of standards that justify public acceptance of certain scientific claims as definitive enough to ground collective projects, such as the existence of a community-wide consensus or multiple independent lines of evidence for the same conclusion.[14] (Indeed, we regard the suggestion of standards for the organization of scientific communities by Helen Longino as one of the most important contributions of the field of social epistemology.[15])

Although we reject any general equivalency between markets and scientific communities, we agree they are indeed alike in one key way: they both need regulation. As Jürgen Habermas once wrote in critique of Wittgenstein, “language games only work because they presuppose idealizations that transcend any particular language game; as a necessary condition of possibly reaching understanding, these idealizations give rise to the perspective of an agreement that is open to criticism on the basis of validity claims.”[16] Collective problem-solving requires that these sorts of external standards be brought to bear. The example of climate change illustrates our disagreement with Bloor (and von Mises) on both counts in one fell swoop. Though neither of us is a working economist, we nonetheless maintain that it is rational—on higher-order grounds external to the social “game” of the particular disciplines—for governments to impose a price on carbon (i.e., a carbon tax or emissions trading system), in part because we accept that the natural science consensus on climate change accurately describes the physical world we inhabit, and the social scientific consensus that a carbon pricing system could help remedy the market failure that is climate change.[17]

Quietism and Critique

We don’t want to unfairly single out Bloor. The science-as-game view—and its uncomfortable resonances with marketplace-of-ideas ideology—crops up in the work of many prominent science studies scholars, even some who have quarreled publicly with Bloor and the strong programme. Bruno Latour, for example, one of Bloor’s sharpest critics, draws Hayekian conclusions from different methodological premises. While Bloor invokes social forces to explain the outcome of scientific games,[18] Latour rejects the very idea of social forces. Rather, he claims, as Margaret Thatcher famously insisted, that “there is no such thing as ‘the social’ or ‘a society.’”[19] But whereas Thatcher at least acknowledged the existence of family, for Latour there are only monadic actants, competing “agonistically” with each other until order spontaneously emerges from the chaos, just as in a game of Go (an illustration of which graces the cover of his seminal first book Laboratory Life, with Steve Woolgar).[20] Social structures, evaluative norms, even “publics,” in his more recent work, are all chimeras, devoid of real meaning until this networked process has come to fulfillment. If that view might seem to make collective action for wide-reaching social change difficult to conceive, Latour agrees: “Seen as networks, … the modern world … permits scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, miniscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs.”[21] Rather than planning political projects with any real vision or bite—or concluding that a particular status-quo might be problematic, much less illegitimate—one should simply be patient, play the never-ending networked game, and see what happens.[22] But a choice for quietism is a choice nonetheless—“we are condemned to act,” as Immanuel Wallerstein once put it—one that supports and sustains the status quo.[23] Moreover, a sense of humility or fallibility by no means requires us to exaggerate the inevitability of the status quo or yield to the power of inertia.[24]

Latour has at least come clean about his rejection of any aspiration to “critique.”[25] But others who haven’t thrown in the towel have still been led into a similar morass by their commitment to a marketlike or playful view of science. The problem is that, if normative judgments external to the game are illegitimate, analysts are barred from making any arguments for or against particular views or practices. Only criticism of their premature exclusion from the marketplace is permitted. This standpoint interprets Bloor’s famous call for symmetry not so much as a methodological principle in intellectual analysis, but as a demand for the abandonment of all forms of epistemic and normative judgment, leading to the bizarre sight of scholars championing a widely-criticized “scientific” or intellectual cause while coyly refusing to endorse its conclusions themselves. Thus we find Bruno Latour praising the anti-environmentalist Breakthrough Institute while maintaining that he “disagrees with them all the time;” Sheila Jasanoff defending the use of made-to-order “litigation science” in courtrooms on the grounds of a scrupulous “impartiality” that rejects scholarly assessments of intellectual integrity or empirical adequacy in favor of letting “the parties themselves do more of the work of demarcation;” and Steve Fuller defending creationists’ insistence that their views should be taught in American science classrooms while remaining ostensibly “neutral” on the scientific question at issue.[26]

Fuller’s defense of creationism, in particular, shows the way that calls for “impartiality” are often in reality de facto side-taking: Fuller takes rhetorical tropes directly out of the creationist playbook, including his tendentious and anachronistic labelling of modern evolutionary biologists as “Darwinists.” Moreover, despite his explicit endorsement of the game view of science, Fuller refuses to accept defeat for the intelligent design project, either within the putative game of science, or in the American court system, which has repeatedly found the teaching of creationism to be unconstitutional. Moreover, Fuller’s insistence that creationism somehow has still not received a “fair run for its money” reveals that even he cannot avoid importing external standards (in this case fairness) to evaluate scientific results! After all, who ever said that science was fair?

In short, science studies scholars’ ascetic refusal of standards of good and bad science in favor of emergent judgments immanent to the “games” they analyze has vitiated critical analysis in favor of a weakened proceduralism that has struggled to resist the recent advance of neoliberal and conservative causes in the sciences. It has led to a situation where creationism is defended as an equally legitimate form of science, where the claims of think tanks that promulgate disinformation are equated with the claims of academic scientific research institutions, and corporations that have knowingly suppressed information pertinent to public health and safety are viewed as morally and epistemically equivalent to the plaintiffs who are fighting them. As for Fuller, leaving the question of standards unexamined and/ or implicit, and relying instead on the rhetoric of the “game,” enables him to avoid the challenge of defending a demonstrably indefensible position on its actual merits.

Where the Chips Fall

In diverse cases, key evaluative terms—legitimacy, disinformation, precedent, evidence, adequacy, reproducibility, natural (vis-à-vis supernatural), and yes, truth—have been so relativized and drained of meaning that it starts to seem like a category error even to attempt to refute equivalency claims. One might argue that this is alright: as scholars, we let the chips fall where they may. The problem, however, is that they do not fall evenly. The winner of this particular “game” is almost always status quo power: the conservative billionaires, fossil fuel companies, lead and benzene and tobacco manufacturers and others who have bankrolled think tanks and “litigation science” at the cost of biodiversity, human health and even human lives.[27] Scientists paid by the lead industry to defend their toxic product are not just innocently trying to have their day in court; they are trying to evade legal responsibility for the damage done by their products. The fossil fuel industry is not trying to advance our understanding of the climate system; they are trying to block political action that would decrease societal dependence on their products. But there is no way to make—much less defend—such claims without a robust concept of evidence.

Conversely, the communities, already victimized by decades of poverty and racial discrimination, who rely on reliable science in their fight for their children’s safety are not unjustly trying to short-circuit a process of “demarcation” better left to the adversarial court system.[28] It is a sad irony that STS, which often sees itself as championing the subaltern, has now in many cases become the intellectual defender of those who would crush the aspirations of ordinary people.

Abandoning the game view of science won’t require science studies scholars to reinvent the wheel, much less re-embrace Comtean triumphalism. On the contrary, there are a wide variety of perspectives from the history of epistemology, philosophy of science, and feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonialist theory that permit critique that can be both epistemic and moral. One obvious source, championed by intellectual historians such as James Kloppenberg and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Jürgen Habermas, is the early American pragmatism of John Dewey and William James, a politically constructive alternative to both naïve foundationalism and the textualist rejection of the concept of truth found in the work of more recent “neo-pragmatists” like Richard Rorty.[29] Nancy Cartwright, Thomas Uebel, and John O’Neill have similarly reminded us of the intellectual and political potential in the (widely misinterpreted, when not ignored) “left Vienna Circle” philosophy of Otto Neurath.[30]

In a slightly different vein, Charles Mills, inspired in part by the social science of W.E.B. Du Bois, has insisted on the importance of a “veritistic” epistemological stance in characterizing the ignorance produced by white supremacy.[31] Alison Wylie has emphasized the extent to which many feminist critics of science “are by no means prepared to concede that their accounts are just equal but different alternatives to those they challenge,” but in fact often claim that “research informed by a feminist angle of vision … is simply better in quite conventional terms.”[32] Steven Epstein’s work on AIDS activism demonstrates that social movements issuing dramatic challenges to biomedical and scientific establishments can make good use of unabashed claims to genuine knowledge and “lay” expertise. Epstein’s work also serves as a reminder that moral neutrality is not the only, much less the best, route to rigorous scholarship.[33] Science studies scholars could also benefit from looking outside their immediate disciplinary surroundings to debates about poststructuralism in the analysis of (post)colonialism initiated by scholars like Benita Parry and Masao Miyoshi, as well as the emerging literature in philosophy and sociology about the relationship of the work of Michel Foucault to neoliberalism.[34]

For our own part, we have been critically exploring the implications of the institutional and financial organization of science during the Cold War and the recent neoliberal intensification of privatization in American society.[35] We think that this work suggests a further descriptive inadequacy in the science-as-game view, in addition to the normative inadequacies we have already described. In particular, it drives home the extent to which the structure of science is not constant. From the longitudinal perspective available to history, as opposed to sociological or ethnographic snapshot, it is possible to resolve the powerful societal forces—government, industry, and so on—driving changes in the way science operates, and to understand the way those scientific changes relate to broader political-economic imperatives and transformations. Rather than throwing up one’s hands and insisting that incommensurable particularity is all there is, science studies scholars might instead take a theoretical position that will allow us to characterize and respond to the dramatic transformations of academic work that are happening right now, and from which the humanities are by no means exempt.[36]

Academics must not treat themselves as isolated from broader patterns of social change, or worse, deny that change is a meaningful concept outside of the domain of microcosmic fluctuations in social arrangements. Powerful reactionary forces can reshape society and science (and reshape society through science) in accordance with their values; progressive movements in and outside of science have the potential to do the same. We are concerned that the “game” view of science traps us instead inside a Parmenidean field of homogenous particularity, an endless succession of games that may be full of enough sound and fury to interest scholars but still signify nothing overall.

Far from rendering science studies Whiggish or simply otiose, we believe that a willingness to discriminate, outside of scare quotes, between knowledge and ignorance or truth and falsity is vital for a scholarly agenda that respects one of the insights that scholars like Jasanoff have repeatedly and compellingly championed: in contemporary democratic polities, science matters. In a world where physicists state that genetic inferiority is the cause of poverty among black Americans, where lead paint manufacturers insist that their product does no harm to infants and children, and actresses encourage parents not to vaccinate their children against infectious diseases, an inability to discriminate between information and disinformation—between sense and nonsense (as the logical positivists so memorably put it)—is not simply an intellectual failure. It is a political and moral failure as well.

The Brundtland Commission famously defined “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Like the approach we are advocating here, this definition treats the empirical and the normative as enfolded in one another. It sees them not as constructions that emerge stochastically in the fullness of time, but as questions that urgently demand robust answers in the present. One reason science matters so much in the present moment is its role in determining which activities are sustainable, and which are not. But if scientists are to make such judgments, then we, as science studies scholars, must be able to judge the scientists—positively as well as critically. Lives are at stake. We are not here merely to stand on the sidelines insisting that all we can do is ensure that all voices are heard, no matter how silly, stupid, or nefarious.

[1] We would like to thank Robert Proctor, Mott Greene, and Karim Bschir for reading drafts and providing helpful feedback on this piece.

[2] For an analysis of Stephens’ column, see Robert Proctor and Steve Lyons, “Soft Climate Denial at The New York Times,” Scientific American, May 8, 2017; for the history of the campaign to cast doubt on climate change science, see Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010); for information on the funding of this campaign, see in particular Robert J. Bruelle, “Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations,” Climatic Change 122 (4), 681–694, 2013.

[3] Accessible at https://twitter.com/ErikWemple/status/858737313601507329.

[4] For the recency of the concept, see Stanley Ingber, “The Marketplace of Ideas: A Legitimizing Myth,” Duke Law Journal, February 1984. The significance of the epistemological valorization of the marketplace of ideas to the broader neoliberal project has been increasingly well-understood by historians of neoliberalism; it is an emphasis, for instance, to the approach taken by the contributors to Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds., The Road from Mont Pèlerin (Harvard, 2009), especially Mirowski’s “Postface.”

[5] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry vol. 30 (Winter 2004).

[6] See for instance John Ziman, Public Knowledge: An Essay Concerning the Social Dimension of Science (Cambridge University Press, 1968); as well as the many more recent perspectives we hold up below as exemplary of alternative approaches.

[7] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. “Perspectives on global warming: A Book Symposium with Steven Yearley, David Mercer, and Andy Pitman.” Metascience vol. 21, pp. 531-559, 2012.

[8] David Bloor, Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions (Routledge, 1997), pp. 76-77.

[9] As suggested by Helen Longino in The Future of Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2001) as an alternative to the more vexed notion of “correspondence,” wrought with metaphysical difficulties Longino hopes to skirt. In Austrian economics, this rejection of the search for empirical, factual knowledge initially took the form, in von Mises’ thought, of the ostensibly purely deductive reasoning he called “praxaeology,” which was supposed to analytically uncover the imminent principles governing the economic game. Von Hayek went further, arguing that economics at its most rigorous merely theoretically explicates the limits of positive knowledge about empirical social realities. See, for instance, Friedrich von Hayek, “On Coping with Ignorance,” Ludwig von Mises Lecture, 1978.

[10] Nicholas H. Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[11] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard/Belknap, 2013). In addition to critiquing market outcomes, philosophers have also invoked concepts of justice and fairness to challenge the extension of markets to new domains; see for example Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013) and Harvey Cox, The Market as God (Harvard University Press, 2016). This is also a theme in the Papal Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality, Laudato Si. https://laudatosi.com/watch

[12] For more on this point, see Naomi Oreskes, “Systematicity is Necessary but Not Sufficient: On the Problem of Facsimile Science,” in press, Synthèse.

[13] See among others Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 1990); Londa Schiebinger, Has Feminism Changed Science? (Harvard University Press, 1999); Sandra Harding, Science and Social Inequality: Feminist and Postcolonial Issues (University of Illinois Press, 2006); Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (Routledge, 1989); Evelynn Hammonds and Rebecca Herzig, The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race in the United States from Jefferson to Genomics (MIT Press, 2008).

[14] Naomi Oreskes, “Trust in Science?” Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Princeton University, November 30, 2016; Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?” in Joseph F. C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman, eds., Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren (MIT Press, 2007), pp. 65-99.

[15] Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 1990), and The Future of Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2001).

[16] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (MIT Press, 1984), p. 199.

[17] See, for instance, Naomi Oreskes, “Without government, the market will not solve climate change: Why a meaningful carbon tax may be our only hope,” Scientific American (December 22, 2015), Naomi Oreskes and Jeremy Jones, “Want to protect the climate? Time for carbon pricing,” Boston Globe (May 3, 2017).

[18] Along with a purportedly empirical component that, as Latour has compellingly argued, is “canceled out” out of the final analysis because of its common presence to both parties in a dispute. See Bruno Latour, “For Bloor and Beyond: a Reply to David Bloor’s Anti-Latour,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 30 (1), pp.113-129, March 1998.

[19] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 5; this theme is an emphasis of his entire oeuvre. On Thatcher, see http://briandeer.com/social/thatcher-society.htm and James Meek, Private Island (Verso, 2014).

[20] Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Routledge, 1979/1986); Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Harvard University Press, 1987). In Laboratory Life this emergence of order from chaos is explicitly analyzed as the outcome of a kind of free market in scientific “credit.” Spontaneous order is one of the foundational themes of Hayekian thought, and the game of Go is an often-employed analogy there as well. See, for instance, Peter Boettke, “The Theory of Spontaneous Order and Cultural Evolution in the Social Theory of F.A. Hayek,” Cultural Dynamics, vol. 3 (1), pp. 61-83, 1990; Gustav von Hertzen, The Spirit of the Game (CE Fritzes AB, 1993), especially chapter 4.

[21] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 47-48; for his revision of the notion of the public, see for example Latour’s Politics of Nature (Harvard University Press, 2004). For a more in-depth discussion of Latour vis-à-vis neoliberalism, see Philip Mirowski, “What Is Science Critique? Part 1: Lessig, Latour,” keynote address to Workshop on the Changing Political Economy of Research and Innovation, UCSD, March 2015.

[22] Our criticism here is not merely hypothetical. Latour’s long-time collaborator Michel Callon and the legal scholar David S. Caudill, for example, have both used Latourian actor-network theory to argue that critics of the privatization of science such as Philip Mirowski are mistaken and analysts should embrace, or at least concede the inevitability of, “hybrid” science that responds strongly to commercial interests. See Michel Callon, “From Science as an Economic Activity to Socioeconomics of Scientific Research,” in Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent, eds. Science Bought and Sold (University of Chicago Press, 2002); and David S. Caudill, “Law, Science, and the Economy: One Domain?” UC Irvine Law Review vol. 5 (393), pp. 393-412, 2015.

[23] Immanuel Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein (The New Press, 2000), p. 432.

[24] Naomi Oreskes, “On the ‘reality’ and reality of anthropogenic climate change,” Climatic Change vol. 119, pp. 559-560, 2013, especially p. 560 n. 4. Many philosophers have made this point. Hilary Putnam, for example, has argued that fallibilism actually demands a critical attitude, one that seeks to modify beliefs for which there is sufficient evidence to believe that they are mistaken, while also remaining willing to make genuine knowledge claims on the basis of admittedly less-than-perfect evidence. See his Realism with a Human Face (Harvard University Press, 1990), and Pragmatism: An Open Question (Oxford, 1995) in particular.

[25] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry vol. 30 (Winter 2004).

[26] “Bruno Latour: Modernity is a Politically Dangerous Goal,” November 2014 interview with Latour by Patricia Junge, Colombina Schaeffer and Leonardo Valenzuela of Verdeseo; Zoë Corbyn, “Steve Fuller : Designer trouble,” The Guardian (January 31, 2006); Sheila Jasanoff, “Representation and Re-Presentation in Litigation Science,” Environmental Health Perspectives 116(1), pp. 123–129, January 2008. Fuller also has a professional relationship with the Breakthrough Institute, but the Institute seems somewhat fonder, in their publicity materials, of their connection with Latour.

[27] Even creationism, it’s worth remembering, is a big-money movement. The Discovery Institute, perhaps the most prominent “intelligent design” advocacy organization, is bankrolled largely by wealthy Republican donors, and was co-founded by notorious Reaganite supply-side economics guru and telecom deregulation champion George Gilder. See Jodi Wilgoren, “Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive,” New York Times, August 21, 2005. Similarly, so-called grassroots anti-tax organizations often had links to the tobacco industry. See http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Americans_for_Tax_Reform_and_Big_Tobacco The corporate exploitation of ambiguity about the contours of disinformation can, of course, also take more anodyne forms, as in manipulative use of phrases like “natural flavoring” on food packaging. We thank Mott Greene for this example.

[28] David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children (University of California Press, 2013). See also Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (University of California Press, 2nd edition 2013); and Stanton Glantz, ed., The Cigarette Papers (University of California Press, 1998).

[29] See James Kloppenburg, “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 83 (1), pp. 100-138, June 1996, which argues that Rorty misrepresents in many ways the core insights of the early pragmatists. See also Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action (Beacon Press, vol. 1 1984, vol. 2 1987); Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981); see also William Rehg’s development of Habermas’s ideas on science in Cogent Science in Context: The Science Wars, Argumentation Theory, and Habermas (MIT Press, 2009).

[30] Nancy Cartwright, Jordi Cat, Lola Fleck, and Thomas Uebel, Otto Neurath: Philosophy between Science and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Thomas Uebel, “Political philosophy of science in logical empiricism: the left Vienna Circle,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 36, pp. 754-773, 2005; John O’Neill, “Unified science as political philosophy: positivism, pluralism and liberalism,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 34, pp. 575-596, 2003.

[31] Charles Mills, “White Ignorance,” in Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, eds., Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford University Press, 2008); see also his recent Black Rights/White Wrongs (Oxford University Press, 2017).

[32] Alison Wylie, Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology (University of California Press, 2002), p. 190. Helen Longino (Science as Social Knowledge, 1999) and Sarah Richardson (Sex Itself, University of Chicago Press, 2013), have made similar arguments about research in endocrinology and genetics.

[33] Steven Epstein, Impure Science (University of California Press, 1996); see especially pp. 13-14.

[34] See for instance Benita Parry, Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique (Routledge, 2004); Masao Miyoshi, “Ivory Tower in Escrow,” boundary 2, vol. 27 (1), pp. 7-50, Spring 2000. On Foucault, see recently Daniel Zamora and Michael C. Behrent, eds., Foucault and Neoliberalism (Polity Press, 2016); but note also the seeds of this critique in earlier works such as Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (MIT Press, 1984) and Nancy Fraser, “Michel Foucault: A ‘Young Conservative’?”, Ethics vol 96 (1), pp. 165-184, 1985, and “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions,” Praxis International, vol. 3, pp. 272-287, 1981.

[35] Naomi Oreskes and John Krige, eds., Science and Technology in the Global Cold War (MIT Press, 2015); Naomi Oreskes, Science on a Mission: American Oceanography in the Cold War (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming); Erik Baker, “The Ultimate Think Tank: Money and Science at the Santa Fe Institute,” manuscript in preparation.

[36] See, for instance, Philip Mirowski, Science-Mart (Harvard University Press, 2010); Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (MIT Press, 2015); Henry Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Books, 2014); Sophia McClennen, “Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Intellectual Engagement,” Works and Days, vols. 26-27, 2008-2009.

Special issue of Social Epistemology on Psychology of Science and Technology (PDF)

Editors:
Greg Feist, San Jose State University, (gregfeist@gmail.com)
Michael E. Gorman, University of Virginia, (meg3cstar@gmail.com)

This special issue calls for papers from any discipline that focuses on the psychological dimensions of science and technology, and can also include book reviews, essays, commentaries, less formal research pieces, and replies to articles published in other journals. Deadline for submissions is February 1 of each year; late manuscripts will automatically be considered for the next year, and can, of course, be labeled In Press if and when they go through review and are accepted. Accepted articles go online and get DOI numbers well before they appear in print about a year after submission.

Psychology of science can include:

  • Cognitive Science: the kind of thinking and problem-solving strategies that are used by scientists and engineers. Here work in history of science and technology can make a great contribution to the psychological understanding of how scientists think and work. Cognitive scientists also have a great deal to contribute here, including computational models of scientific processes that can be tested empirically.
  • Personality: what sorts of people go into science and engineering, and are there personality types that prefer this kind of work and do better at it?
  • Social psychology: the way in which scientists and engineers cooperate and compete with each other, how collaborative teams form,  what kinds of social norms emerge in laboratories, teams, disciplines (normal science) and how are these taught to newcomers and what leads them to change?
  • Sociology: Is science a unique form of human activity, or does it resemble most other human activities in terms of the kinds of norms that are developed and the way controversies are resolved? What are the contents of scientific and technological expertise and what (if anything) distinguishes them from other forms of expertise? (Here the work of the Studies of Expertise and Experience group is especially relevant and welcome in these issues).
  • Anthropology: Here research focuses on immersion in science and engineering groups and communities, to get the perspective of insiders without ‘going native’.
  • Philosophy of science: What makes science and engineering different from other forms of inquiry? What epistemological issues do scientist face? Engineers?
  • Ethics: What constitutes ethical practice in science? In engineering?  Is it field-specific, or are there general norms (like Merton’s) that can cover a wide range of scientific and/or engineering disciplines?
  • Policy: The Science of Science and Innovation Policy community, the Center for Science Policy Outcomes and the Woodrow Wilson Center both do excellent work on what policies and strategies are most likely to produce science and technology outcomes that will at least do no harm and at best improve the future of our species and planet.

There are more communities of expertise than those listed above that could be mentioned. Because of the variety of disciplines that can contribute, we hope authors will remember that their methods and findings need to be described in ways that this broader readership could potentially understand.

For more information on psychology of science, see:

    Feist, G. and Gorman, M.E.  Handbook of the Psychology of Science.  Springer, 2013
    Gorman, M.E. (Editor) (2010) Cognition in science and technology. Topics in Cognitive Science. 1 (4): 675-776; 2 (1): 15-100.
    Gorman, M. E. (2008). Scientific and technological expertise. Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, 1(1), 23-31.
    Feist, G. 2006. The psychology of science and the origins of the scientific mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.
    Gorman, M. E., Tweney, R. D., Gooding, D. C., & Kincannon, A. (Eds.). (2005). Scientific and technological thinking. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    Feist, G., and M. E. Gorman. 1998. The psychology of science: Review and integration of a nascent discipline. Review of General Psychology 2 (1): 3-47.
    R. Shadish & S. Fuller (Eds) (1994) Social psychology of science., New York: Guilford Press: 3-123.

    Tweney, R. D. (1998). Towards a cognitive psychology of science: Recent research and its implications. Current Directions in Psychological Science 7 (5) (October): 150-3.
    Gorman, M. E., Simulating Science: Heuristics and Mental Models in Technoscientific Thinking.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Direct inquiries to either or both of the editors above. Submit manuscripts to: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/tsep20/current

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

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

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Keith Allison, via flickr

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

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

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

Political Post-Truth

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost of Winning

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Sorry Boston.

Author Information: Lyudmila Markova, Russian Academy of Science, markova.lyudmila2013@yandex.ru

Markova, Lyudmila. “Transhumanism in the Context of Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 50-53.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Ingmar Zahorsky, via flickr

Robert Frodeman (2015) and Steve Fuller (2017) discuss the problem of transhumanism in the context of history. This approach to transhumanism—a subject now studied actively by many specialists—clearly shows us the focus of current investigations. A virtual world, created by humans and possessing intelligence, demands a special kind of communication. But we are not the only ones changing. Humans programmed robots to perform calculations at a speed we cannot match.

Still, we remain certain that robots will never be able to feel a sense of joy or disappointment, of love or hatred. At the same time, it is difficult to deny that robots already know how to express emotions. Often, we prefer to deal with robots—they are generally polite and answer our questions quickly and clearly.

Even though we are unable to produce particular operations at a certain speed, we still use the results of the robots’ work. But the senses remain inaccessible to robots. Yet, they have learned many of the ways humans make their feelings known to others. A common ground is forming among humans and robots. People use techniques for communication with one another and with artificial intellects based on the laws of the virtual world, and artificial intellects use signs of human feelings—which are only signs and nothing more.

As we debate transhumanism as something that either awaits us, or does not, in the future we fail to consider the serious transformations of our current lives. To some extent, we are already trans-humanoids with artificial parts of our body, with the ability to change our genome, with cyber technology, with digital communication and so on. We do not consider these changes as radically transforming our future selves and our current selves. We do not notice to what extent we differ already from our children and, consequently, from the next generation.

Until recently, we relied first on our knowledge of the laws of the material world. We studied nature and our artificial world was material. Now, we study our thinking and our artificial world is not simply material—it can think and it can understand us. Its materiality, then, is of a different type. The situation in society is quite another and, in order to live in it, we have to change ourselves. Perhaps we have not noticed that the process of our becoming transhumanoids has already begun?

We have a philosophical basis for the discussions about transhumanism. It is social epistemology, where some borders disappear and others appear. Steve Fuller frequently refers to the topic of transhumanism in the context of social epistemology.

“Sociality” in Social Epistemology: The Turn in Thinking

As we speak of both the technization of humans and humanization of machines, the border between humans and technology becomes less visible. In social epistemology, the sense of “social” is important for understanding this turn in thinking during the last century. You can find without difficulty (long before the emergence of social epistemology) the adoption of phrases such as the “social” history of science, the “social” organization of scientific institutes, the “social” character of the scientific (and not only scientific) knowledge, “social” character of the work of a scientist and so on. People created science and everything associated with it is connected to our world in one way or another.

Nobody denies the existence of these relations. The problem resides in their interpretation. Even if you want to see the advantage of your position in striving to eliminate traces of the scientists’ work and conditions under which the results were obtained, you have to know what you want to eliminate and why. In social epistemology, on the contrary, sociality remains in scientific knowledge. Still, serious problems follow as a result.

It is important to understand that anything we study acquires human features because we introduce them into it. We comprehend nature (in the broadest sense of this word) not as something opposed, or even hostile, to people. We deal with a thinking world. For example, we want to have a house that protects us from rain and cold. It is enough to know physical characteristics of materials in order to build such a house. But now we can have a “smart” house. This house alerts you when you return home in the evening that there is no kefir in the fridge and the cat needs food you must buy. You like your new car, but you want to have a navigator. We now have driverless cars. And drones are widely used for military and economic purposes. I have listed just a very few cases when robots help us in our daily lives. We are built into this world and we are accustomed to it.

Still, electronics can complicate and hinder our lives. For instance, you drive the most recent Mercedes model. Your car automatically brakes if you follow too closely and your steering wheel turns in an unexpected way. At the same time, if you drive an old car without any electronic equipment, you feel in control of the situation. The behavior of the machine depends entirely on your actions.

Classical and Non-Classical Logic

Thinking in the context of social epistemology is plugged into empirical reality. This fact is considered usually as an abandonment of logic. But this is not so. The fact is that classical logic has exhausted itself. A new logic, radically different from the classical one, is just emerging. What is the difference?

David Hume, one of the founders of the classical philosophy, wrote about the British and French. They are different people, of course, but philosophically they have a common feature—they are humans. Take another example. You are talking to the same person in different situations. In the office, this person is not the same as they are at home or in the street. As a rule, it is not important to you that you deal every time with the same person, this is obvious without any justification. The person is interesting from the point of view of their characteristics as a member of work team or as a family member. Every person manifests themselves in a specific way in a concrete situation. And this fact is taken into account in a new type of logic. This logic is rooted in specific frameworks.

We can see the attention to specific sociality in the formation of social epistemology. It is necessary to understand, in Fuller’s opinion, why scientists receive different results when they generally have the same set of books, the same knowledge, and the same conditions of work. Fuller pays attention to what surrounds the scientist here and now and not in the past. The history and the process of scientific knowledge development is understood by us with our logical means. As a result, they inevitably become some part of our present.

The notion of space becomes more important than the notion of time. Gilles Deleuze wrote about this in his logic. Robert Frodeman identifies his approach as “field philosophy”. This name identifies features of our current thinking. Russian philosopher Merab Mamardashvilly thought that in order to understand emerging scientific knowledge it is necessary that it be considered outside the “arrow of time”.

The former connection between the past and future, in order to deduce a new result from previous knowledge. is not suitable. In the last century, dialog became more widespread. Its logical justification in science was given in the scientific revolution of the beginning of 20th century physics. For us, it is important to notice that quantum mechanics replaced classical physics on the front lines of the development of science. But classical physics was not destroyed and its proponents continue to work and give society useful results. This feature of the non-classical scientific logic is noteworthy: it does not declare its predecessor as not scientific, as not having the ability to decide corresponding problems. Moreover, this new logic needs its predecessor and dialogical communication with it. In the course of this dialog both sides change, trying to improve their positions in the same when two people talk.

That is why I do not agree with <a href="http://” target=”_blank”>Justin Cruickshank (2015) when he writes that Karl Popper’s idea of a fallibilism is connected in some way with dialog. For Popper, the main aim is to criticize and, in the end, to destroy to falsify a theory, in order replace it with a new theory. As a result, dialog becomes impossible because for it we need to have at least two interlocutors or theories. For Popper, an ideal situation is when we deal with one person, a winner. In Russia, the topic of dialog was studied by Mikhail Bakhtin and Vladimir Bibler.

Context

Dialog is one of the forms of communication between different events in the history. If we consider, as an ideal, all studied events from the point of view of their common characteristics, we then deal with one person and we have nobody for dialog. The differing conditions of a scientist’s, or any other person’s, work is not taken into consideration. We have classical thinking—one subject, one object, one logic.

As I understand Ilya Kasavin (2017), he does not investigate the construction of Kara-Kum Canal as an inference from the Peter the Great’s plan. A connection exists between these two projects. Yet, each of them is considered as unique, as having its own context. So, it is not correct to ask Kasavin: “What traces and records were left of the project imagined by Peter the Great, how were they interpreted and reinterpreted over the course of hundreds the years, and how, if at all, did they influence Stalin’s project?” (Bakhurst and Sismondo, 2017). The “arrow of time” as a coherent chain of events from Peter the Great to Stalin exists. But it is not important in the frame of non-classical thinking to study first, and in all detail, this chain for the understanding the situation with the construction of Kara-Kum Canal.

The same may be said about the emergence of transhumanism as a scientific area. It is created in the context that is formed from the outside world by choosing those elements which would be able to help us to comprehend some problem. One of the most important features of the context is the presence of both ideal elements (the past scientific knowledge, for instance), and the material elements in world existing around us. Context, as a whole, is the beginning of a new result when we think, and it is not surprising that we have a notion of transhumanism containing the ability of thinking and material carrier of a thought. Robotics corresponds to this understanding of transhumanism and that helps us to see the border between human and robot as less defined.

Conclusion

We see the current signs of human transformation which were seemingly impossible just a few decades ago. Even those who are against such changes do not object to them when they seek medical help or when they have the opportunity to facilitate their everyday life. In many cases, then, radical changes go against our will and we do not protest against them.

We are creating our artificial world on the basis of the knowledge not only of the material world, but also of our thinking. We put this knowledge into the surrounding world in the process of investigation, and we cannot imagine it without the ability to think. The world is becoming able to think, to understand us, to answer our questions.

As our thinking becomes different, we notice its turn. It is directed not at nature, at the world around us, but at humans. At the same time, nature acquires certain human characteristics. This turn is the basis of many serious problems connected initially with notions of the truth and objectivity of scientific knowledge. But these problems are not the topic of this comment.

References  

Bakhurst, David and Sergio Sismondo. “Commentary on Ilya Kasavin’s ‘Towards a Social Philosophy of Science: Russian Prospects’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 20-23.

Cruickshank, Justin. “Anti-Authority: Comparing Popper and Rorty on the Dialogic Development of Beliefs and Practices.” Social Epistemology 29, no. 1 (2015): 73-94.

Frodeman, Robert. “Anti-Fuller: Transhumanism and the Proactionary Imperative.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 4 (2015): 38-43.

Fuller, Steve. “Twelve Questions on Transhumanism’s Place in the Western Philosophical Tradition.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 19 April 2017. http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3yl.

Kasavin, Ilya. “Towards a Social Philosophy of Science: Russian Prospects.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 1 (2017): 1-15.

Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College/University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, labasham@southtexascollege.edu

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: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Eu

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?

Conclusion

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, dh@ps.au.dk

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: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Df

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.

References

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@unipv.it

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3D0

Please refer to:

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.

References

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, valdusek@aol.com

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

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

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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.

References

Bohm, David. Causality and Chance in Modern Physics. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

Bohm, David. Wholeness and Implicate Order. London: Routledge 2002.

Dusek, Val, The Holistic Inspirations of Physics: The Underground History of Electromagnetic Theory. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Ehrenhaft, Felix, and Leo Banet. “The Magnetic Ion.” Science 96 (Sept. 4, 1942): 228-229.

“Felix Ehrenhaft.” Physics Today 5, no. 5 (1952): 37. http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.3067599

Fox Keller, Evelyn. A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1983.

Frankel, Ken: “Magnetic Monopole Search, Past and Present.” Physics Today 70, no. 6 (2017).13

Frankel, Henry. “The Continental Drift Debate.” In Resolution of Scientific Controversies: Theoretical Perspectives on Closure, edited by H. Tristram Engelhardt and Arthur L. Caplan, 312-373. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1985.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.

Holton, Gerald. The Scientific Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

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, Robert.Frodeman@unt.edu

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

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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.

References

Aristotle. The Nichomachean Ethics.  Oxford University Press, 2009. https://goo.gl/XCOhe9

Brubakermay, Rogers. “The Uproar Over ‘Transracialism’.”  New York Times. May 18, 2017. https://goo.gl/Qz9BKs https://goo.gl/sTwej9

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. https://goo.gl/sTwej9

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

[1] See, for instance, https://goo.gl/QiTyOw.

Author Information: Ben Ross, University of North Texas, benjamin.ross@my.unt.edu

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: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3zU

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.

References

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. http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3yl.

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.