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Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsasswe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Post-Truths and Inconvenient Facts.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 47-60.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40g

Can one truly refuse to believe facts?
Image by Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If nothing else, Steve Fuller has his ear to the pulse of popular culture and the academics who engage in its twists and turns. Starting with Brexit and continuing into the Trump-era abyss, “post-truth” was dubbed by the OED as its word of the year in 2016. Fuller has mustered his collected publications to recast the debate over post-truth and frame it within STS in general and his own contributions to social epistemology in particular.

This could have been a public mea culpa of sorts: we, the community of sociologists (and some straggling philosophers and anthropologists and perhaps some poststructuralists) may seem to someone who isn’t reading our critiques carefully to be partially responsible for legitimating the dismissal of empirical data, evidence-based statements, and the means by which scientific claims can be deemed not only credible but true. Instead, we are dazzled by a range of topics (historically anchored) that explain how we got to Brexit and Trump—yet Fuller’s analyses of them don’t ring alarm bells. There is almost a hidden glee that indeed the privileged scientific establishment, insular scientific discourse, and some of its experts who pontificate authoritative consensus claims are all bound to be undone by the rebellion of mavericks and iconoclasts that include intelligent design promoters and neoliberal freedom fighters.

In what follows, I do not intend to summarize the book, as it is short and entertaining enough for anyone to read on their own. Instead, I wish to outline three interrelated points that one might argue need not be argued but, apparently, do: 1) certain critiques of science have contributed to the Trumpist mindset; 2) the politics of Trumpism is too dangerous to be sanguine about; 3) the post-truth condition is troublesome and insidious. Though Fuller deals with some of these issues, I hope to add some constructive clarification to them.

Part One: Critiques of Science

As Theodor Adorno reminds us, critique is essential not only for philosophy, but also for democracy. He is aware that the “critic becomes a divisive influence, with a totalitarian phrase, a subversive” (1998/1963, 283) insofar as the status quo is being challenged and sacred political institutions might have to change. The price of critique, then, can be high, and therefore critique should be managed carefully and only cautiously deployed. Should we refrain from critique, then? Not at all, continues Adorno.

But if you think that a broad, useful distinction can be offered among different critiques, think again: “[In] the division between responsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who bear public responsibility, and irresponsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who cannot be held accountable for the consequences, critique is already neutralized.” (Ibid. 285) Adorno’s worry is not only that one forgets that “the truth content of critique alone should be that authority [that decides if it’s responsible],” but that when such a criterion is “unilaterally invoked,” critique itself can lose its power and be at the service “of those who oppose the critical spirit of a democratic society.” (Ibid)

In a political setting, the charge of irresponsible critique shuts the conversation down and ensures political hegemony without disruptions. Modifying Adorno’s distinction between (politically) responsible and irresponsible critiques, responsible scientific critiques are constructive insofar as they attempt to improve methods of inquiry, data collection and analysis, and contribute to the accumulated knowledge of a community; irresponsible scientific critiques are those whose goal is to undermine the very quest for objective knowledge and the means by which such knowledge can be ascertained. Questions about the legitimacy of scientific authority are related to but not of exclusive importance for these critiques.

Have those of us committed to the critique of science missed the mark of the distinction between responsible and irresponsible critiques? Have we become so subversive and perhaps self-righteous that science itself has been threatened? Though Fuller is primarily concerned with the hegemony of the sociology of science studies and the movement he has championed under the banner of “social epistemology” since the 1980s, he does acknowledge the Popperians and their critique of scientific progress and even admires the Popperian contribution to the scientific enterprise.

But he is reluctant to recognize the contributions of Marxists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists who have been critically engaging the power of science since the 19th century. Among them, we find Jean-François Lyotard who, in The Postmodern Condition (1984/1979), follows Marxists and neo-Marxists who have regularly lumped science and scientific discourse with capitalism and power. This critical trajectory has been well rehearsed, so suffice it here to say, SSK, SE, and the Edinburgh “Strong Programme” are part of a long and rich critical tradition (whose origins are Marxist). Adorno’s Frankfurt School is part of this tradition, and as we think about science, which had come to dominate Western culture by the 20th century (in the place of religion, whose power had by then waned as the arbiter of truth), it was its privileged power and interlocking financial benefits that drew the ire of critics.

Were these critics “responsible” in Adorno’s political sense? Can they be held accountable for offering (scientific and not political) critiques that improve the scientific process of adjudication between criteria of empirical validity and logical consistency? Not always. Did they realize that their success could throw the baby out with the bathwater? Not always. While Fuller grants Karl Popper the upper hand (as compared to Thomas Kuhn) when indirectly addressing such questions, we must keep an eye on Fuller’s “baby.” It’s easy to overlook the slippage from the political to the scientific and vice versa: Popper’s claim that we never know the Truth doesn’t mean that his (and our) quest for discovering the Truth as such is given up, it’s only made more difficult as whatever is scientifically apprehended as truth remains putative.

Limits to Skepticism

What is precious about the baby—science in general, and scientific discourse and its community in more particular ways—is that it offered safeguards against frivolous skepticism. Robert Merton (1973/1942) famously outlined the four features of the scientific ethos, principles that characterized the ideal workings of the scientific community: universalism, communism (communalism, as per the Cold War terror), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. It is the last principle that is relevant here, since it unequivocally demands an institutionalized mindset of putative acceptance of any hypothesis or theory that is articulated by any community member.

One detects the slippery slope that would move one from being on guard when engaged with any proposal to being so skeptical as to never accept any proposal no matter how well documented or empirically supported. Al Gore, in his An Inconvenient Truth (2006), sounded the alarm about climate change. A dozen years later we are still plagued by climate-change deniers who refuse to look at the evidence, suggesting instead that the standards of science themselves—from the collection of data in the North Pole to computer simulations—have not been sufficiently fulfilled (“questions remain”) to accept human responsibility for the increase of the earth’s temperature. Incidentally, here is Fuller’s explanation of his own apparent doubt about climate change:

Consider someone like myself who was born in the midst of the Cold War. In my lifetime, scientific predictions surrounding global climate change has [sic.] veered from a deep frozen to an overheated version of the apocalypse, based on a combination of improved data, models and, not least, a geopolitical paradigm shift that has come to downplay the likelihood of a total nuclear war. Why, then, should I not expect a significant, if not comparable, alteration of collective scientific judgement in the rest of my lifetime? (86)

Expecting changes in the model does not entail a) that no improved model can be offered; b) that methodological changes in themselves are a bad thing (they might be, rather, improvements); or c) that one should not take action at all based on the current model because in the future the model might change.

The Royal Society of London (1660) set the benchmark of scientific credibility low when it accepted as scientific evidence any report by two independent witnesses. As the years went by, testability (“confirmation,” for the Vienna Circle, “falsification,” for Popper) and repeatability were added as requirements for a report to be considered scientific, and by now, various other conditions have been proposed. Skepticism, organized or personal, remains at the very heart of the scientific march towards certainty (or at least high probability), but when used perniciously, it has derailed reasonable attempts to use science as a means by which to protect, for example, public health.

Both Michael Bowker (2003) and Robert Proctor (1995) chronicle cases where asbestos and cigarette lobbyists and lawyers alike were able to sow enough doubt in the name of attenuated scientific data collection to ward off regulators, legislators, and the courts for decades. Instead of finding sufficient empirical evidence to attribute asbestos and nicotine to the failing health condition (and death) of workers and consumers, “organized skepticism” was weaponized to fight the sick and protect the interests of large corporations and their insurers.

Instead of buttressing scientific claims (that have passed the tests—in refereed professional conferences and publications, for example—of most institutional scientific skeptics), organized skepticism has been manipulated to ensure that no claim is ever scientific enough or has the legitimacy of the scientific community. In other words, what should have remained the reasonable cautionary tale of a disinterested and communal activity (that could then be deemed universally credible) has turned into a circus of fire-blowing clowns ready to burn down the tent. The public remains confused, not realizing that just because the stakes have risen over the decades does not mean there are no standards that ever can be met. Despite lobbyists’ and lawyers’ best efforts of derailment, courts have eventually found cigarette companies and asbestos manufacturers guilty of exposing workers and consumers to deathly hazards.

Limits to Belief

If we add to this logic of doubt, which has been responsible for discrediting science and the conditions for proposing credible claims, a bit of U.S. cultural history, we may enjoy a more comprehensive picture of the unintended consequences of certain critiques of science. Citing Kurt Andersen (2017), Robert Darnton suggests that the Enlightenment’s “rational individualism interacted with the older Puritan faith in the individual’s inner knowledge of the ways of Providence, and the result was a peculiarly American conviction about everyone’s unmediated access to reality, whether in the natural world or the spiritual world. If we believe it, it must be true.” (2018, 68)

This way of thinking—unmediated experiences and beliefs, unconfirmed observations, and disregard of others’ experiences and beliefs—continues what Richard Hofstadter (1962) dubbed “anti-intellectualism.” For Americans, this predates the republic and is characterized by a hostility towards the life of the mind (admittedly, at the time, religious texts), critical thinking (self-reflection and the rules of logic), and even literacy. The heart (our emotions) can more honestly lead us to the Promised Land, whether it is heaven on earth in the Americas or the Christian afterlife; any textual interference or reflective pondering is necessarily an impediment, one to be suspicious of and avoided.

This lethal combination of the life of the heart and righteous individualism brings about general ignorance and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” (the view that we endorse what we already believe to be true regardless of countervailing evidence). The critique of science, along this trajectory, can be but one of many so-called critiques of anything said or proven by anyone whose ideology we do not endorse. But is this even critique?

Adorno would find this a charade, a pretense that poses as a critique but in reality is a simple dismissal without intellectual engagement, a dogmatic refusal to listen and observe. He definitely would be horrified by Stephen Colbert’s oft-quoted quip on “truthiness” as “the conviction that what you feel to be true must be true.” Even those who resurrect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts,” quietly admit that his admonishment is ignored by media more popular than informed.

On Responsible Critique

But surely there is merit to responsible critiques of science. Weren’t many of these critiques meant to dethrone the unparalleled authority claimed in the name of science, as Fuller admits all along? Wasn’t Lyotard (and Marx before him), for example, correct in pointing out the conflation of power and money in the scientific vortex that could legitimate whatever profit-maximizers desire? In other words, should scientific discourse be put on par with other discourses?  Whose credibility ought to be challenged, and whose truth claims deserve scrutiny? Can we privilege or distinguish science if it is true, as Monya Baker has reported, that “[m]ore than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments” (2016, 1)?

Fuller remains silent about these important and responsible questions about the problematics (methodologically and financially) of reproducing scientific experiments. Baker’s report cites Nature‘s survey of 1,576 researchers and reveals “sometimes-contradictory attitudes towards reproducibility. Although 52% of those surveyed agree that there is a significant ‘crisis’ of reproducibility, less than 31% think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, and most say that they still trust the published literature.” (Ibid.) So, if science relies on reproducibility as a cornerstone of its legitimacy (and superiority over other discourses), and if the results are so dismal, should it not be discredited?

One answer, given by Hans E. Plesser, suggests that there is a confusion between the notions of repeatability (“same team, same experimental setup”), replicability (“different team, same experimental setup”), and reproducibility (“different team, different experimental setup”). If understood in these terms, it stands to reason that one may not get the same results all the time and that this fact alone does not discredit the scientific enterprise as a whole. Nuanced distinctions take us down a scientific rabbit-hole most post-truth advocates refuse to follow. These nuances are lost on a public that demands to know the “bottom line” in brief sound bites: Is science scientific enough, or is it bunk? When can we trust it?

Trump excels at this kind of rhetorical device: repeat a falsehood often enough and people will believe it; and because individual critical faculties are not a prerequisite for citizenship, post-truth means no truth, or whatever the president says is true. Adorno’s distinction of the responsible from the irresponsible political critics comes into play here; but he innocently failed to anticipate the Trumpian move to conflate the political and scientific and pretend as if there is no distinction—methodologically and institutionally—between political and scientific discourses.

With this cultural backdrop, many critiques of science have undermined its authority and thereby lent credence to any dismissal of science (legitimately by insiders and perhaps illegitimately at times by outsiders). Sociologists and postmodernists alike forgot to put warning signs on their academic and intellectual texts: Beware of hasty generalizations! Watch out for wolves in sheep clothes! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

One would think such advisories unnecessary. Yet without such safeguards, internal disputes and critical investigations appear to have unintentionally discredited the entire scientific enterprise in the eyes of post-truth promoters, the Trumpists whose neoliberal spectacles filter in dollar signs and filter out pollution on the horizon. The discrediting of science has become a welcome distraction that opens the way to radical free-market mentality, spanning from the exploitation of free speech to resource extraction to the debasement of political institutions, from courts of law to unfettered globalization. In this sense, internal (responsible) critiques of the scientific community and its internal politics, for example, unfortunately license external (irresponsible) critiques of science, the kind that obscure the original intent of responsible critiques. Post-truth claims at the behest of corporate interests sanction a free for all where the concentrated power of the few silences the concerns of the many.

Indigenous-allied protestors block the entrance to an oil facility related to the Kinder-Morgan oil pipeline in Alberta.
Image by Peg Hunter via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Two: The Politics of Post-Truth

Fuller begins his book about the post-truth condition that permeates the British and American landscapes with a look at our ancient Greek predecessors. According to him, “Philosophers claim to be seekers of the truth but the matter is not quite so straightforward. Another way to see philosophers is as the ultimate experts in a post-truth world” (19). This means that those historically entrusted to be the guardians of truth in fact “see ‘truth’ for what it is: the name of a brand ever in need of a product which everyone is compelled to buy. This helps to explain why philosophers are most confident appealing to ‘The Truth’ when they are trying to persuade non-philosophers, be they in courtrooms or classrooms.” (Ibid.)

Instead of being the seekers of the truth, thinkers who care not about what but how we think, philosophers are ridiculed by Fuller (himself a philosopher turned sociologist turned popularizer and public relations expert) as marketing hacks in a public relations company that promotes brands. Their serious dedication to finding the criteria by which truth is ascertained is used against them: “[I]t is not simply that philosophers disagree on which propositions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’.” (Ibid.)

Some would argue that the criteria by which propositions are judged to be true or false are worthy of debate, rather than the cavalier dismissal of Trumpists. With criteria in place (even if only by convention), at least we know what we are arguing about, as these criteria (even if contested) offer a starting point for critical scrutiny. And this, I maintain, is a task worth performing, especially in the age of pluralism when multiple perspectives constitute our public stage.

In addition to debasing philosophers, it seems that Fuller reserves a special place in purgatory for Socrates (and Plato) for labeling the rhetorical expertise of the sophists—“the local post-truth merchants in fourth century BC Athens”—negatively. (21) It becomes obvious that Fuller is “on their side” and that the presumed debate over truth and its practices is in fact nothing but “whether its access should be free or restricted.” (Ibid.) In this neoliberal reading, it is all about money: are sophists evil because they charge for their expertise? Is Socrates a martyr and saint because he refused payment for his teaching?

Fuller admits, “Indeed, I would have us see both Plato and the Sophists as post-truth merchants, concerned more with the mix of chance and skill in the construction of truth than with the truth as such.” (Ibid.) One wonders not only if Plato receives fair treatment (reminiscent of Popper’s denigration of Plato as supporting totalitarian regimes, while sparing Socrates as a promoter of democracy), but whether calling all parties to a dispute “post-truth merchants” obliterates relevant differences. In other words, have we indeed lost the desire to find the truth, even if it can never be the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Political Indifference to Truth

One wonders how far this goes: political discourse without any claim to truth conditions would become nothing but a marketing campaign where money and power dictate the acceptance of the message. Perhaps the intended message here is that contemporary cynicism towards political discourse has its roots in ancient Greece. Regardless, one should worry that such cynicism indirectly sanctions fascism.

Can the poor and marginalized in our society afford this kind of cynicism? For them, unlike their privileged counterparts in the political arena, claims about discrimination and exploitation, about unfair treatment and barriers to voting are true and evidence based; they are not rhetorical flourishes by clever interlocutors.

Yet Fuller would have none of this. For him, political disputes are games:

[B]oth the Sophists and Plato saw politics as a game, which is to say, a field of play involving some measure of both chance and skill. However, the Sophists saw politics primarily as a game of chance whereas Plato saw it as a game of skill. Thus, the sophistically trained client deploys skill in [the] aid of maximizing chance occurrences, which may then be converted into opportunities, while the philosopher-king uses much the same skills to minimize or counteract the workings of chance. (23)

Fuller could be channeling here twentieth-century game theory and its application in the political arena, or the notion offered by Lyotard when describing the minimal contribution we can make to scientific knowledge (where we cannot change the rules of the game but perhaps find a novel “move” to make). Indeed, if politics is deemed a game of chance, then anything goes, and it really should not matter if an incompetent candidate like Trump ends up winning the American presidency.

But is it really a question of skill and chance? Or, as some political philosophers would argue, is it not a question of the best means by which to bring to fruition the best results for the general wellbeing of a community? The point of suggesting the figure of a philosopher-king, to be sure, was not his rhetorical skills in this conjunction, but instead the deep commitment to rule justly, to think critically about policies, and to treat constituents with respect and fairness. Plato’s Republic, however criticized, was supposed to be about justice, not about expediency; it is an exploration of the rule of law and wisdom, not a manual about manipulation. If the recent presidential election in the US taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of political gamesmanship and focus on experience and knowledge, vision and wisdom.

Out-Gaming Expertise Itself

Fuller would have none of this, either. It seems that there is virtue in being a “post-truther,” someone who can easily switch between knowledge games, unlike the “truther” whose aim is to “strengthen the distinction by making it harder to switch between knowledge games.” (34) In the post-truth realm, then, knowledge claims are lumped into games that can be played at will, that can be substituted when convenient, without a hint of the danger such capricious game-switching might engender.

It’s one thing to challenge a scientific hypothesis about astronomy because the evidence is still unclear (as Stephen Hawking has done in regard to Black Holes) and quite another to compare it to astrology (and give equal hearings to horoscope and Tarot card readers as to physicists). Though we are far from the Demarcation Problem (between science and pseudo-science) of the last century, this does not mean that there is no difference at all between different discourses and their empirical bases (or that the problem itself isn’t worthy of reconsideration in the age of Fuller and Trump).

On the contrary, it’s because we assume difference between discourses (gray as they may be) that we can move on to figure out on what basis our claims can and should rest. The danger, as we see in the political logic of the Trump administration, is that friends become foes (European Union) and foes are admired (North Korea and Russia). Game-switching in this context can lead to a nuclear war.

In Fuller’s hands, though, something else is at work. Speaking of contemporary political circumstances in the UK and the US, he says: “After all, the people who tend to be demonized as ‘post-truth’ – from Brexiteers to Trumpists – have largely managed to outflank the experts at their own game, even if they have yet to succeed in dominating the entire field of play.” (39) Fuller’s celebratory tone here may either bring a slight warning in the use of “yet” before the success “in dominating the entire field of play” or a prediction that indeed this is what is about to happen soon enough.

The neoliberal bottom-line surfaces in this assessment: he who wins must be right, the rich must be smart, and more perniciously, the appeal to truth is beside the point. More specifically, Fuller continues:

My own way of dividing the ‘truthers’ and the ‘post-truthers’ is in terms of whether one plays by the rules of the current knowledge game or one tries to change the rules of the game to one’s advantage. Unlike the truthers, who play by the current rules, the post-truthers want to change the rules. They believe that what passes for truth is relative to the knowledge game one is playing, which means that depending on the game being played, certain parties are advantaged over others. Post-truth in this sense is a recognisably social constructivist position, and many of the arguments deployed to advance ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative science’ nowadays betray those origins. They are talking about worlds that could have been and still could be—the stuff of modal power. (Ibid.)

By now one should be terrified. This is a strong endorsement of lying as a matter of course, as a way to distract from the details (and empirical bases) of one “knowledge game”—because it may not be to one’s ideological liking–in favor of another that might be deemed more suitable (for financial or other purposes).

The political stakes here are too high to ignore, especially because there are good reasons why “certain parties are advantaged over others” (say, climate scientists “relative to” climate deniers who have no scientific background or expertise). One wonders what it means to talk about “alternative facts” and “alternative science” in this context: is it a means of obfuscation? Is it yet another license granted by the “social constructivist position” not to acknowledge the legal liability of cigarette companies for the addictive power of nicotine? Or the pollution of water sources in Flint, Michigan?

What Is the Mark of an Open Society?

If we corral the broader political logic at hand to the governance of the scientific community, as Fuller wishes us to do, then we hear the following:

In the past, under the inspiration of Karl Popper, I have argued that fundamental to the governance of science as an ‘open society’ is the right to be wrong (Fuller 2000a: chap. 1). This is an extension of the classical republican ideal that one is truly free to speak their mind only if they can speak with impunity. In the Athenian and the Roman republics, this was made possible by the speakers–that is, the citizens–possessing independent means which allowed them to continue with their private lives even if they are voted down in a public meeting. The underlying intuition of this social arrangement, which is the epistemological basis of Mill’s On Liberty, is that people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively. The entangled histories of politics, economics and knowledge reveal the difficulties in trying to implement this ideal. Nevertheless, in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified. (109)

To be clear, Fuller not only asks for the “right to be wrong,” but also for the legitimacy of the claim that “people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively.” The first plea is reasonable enough, as humans are fallible (yes, Popper here), and the history of ideas has proven that killing heretics is counterproductive (and immoral). If the Brexit/Trump post-truth age would only usher a greater encouragement for speculation or conjectures (Popper again), then Fuller’s book would be well-placed in the pantheon of intellectual pluralism; but if this endorsement obliterates the silly from the informed conjecture, then we are in trouble and the ensuing cacophony will turn us all deaf.

The second claim is at best supported by the likes of James Surowiecki (2004) who has argued that no matter how uninformed a crowd of people is, collectively it can guess the correct weight of a cow on stage (his TED talk). As folk wisdom, this is charming; as public policy, this is dangerous. Would you like a random group of people deciding how to store nuclear waste, and where? Would you subject yourself to the judgment of just any collection of people to decide on taking out your appendix or performing triple-bypass surgery?

When we turn to Trump, his supporters certainly like that he speaks his mind, just as Fuller says individuals should be granted the right to speak their minds (even if in error). But speaking one’s mind can also be a proxy for saying whatever, without filters, without critical thinking, or without thinking at all (let alone consulting experts whose very existence seems to upset Fuller). Since when did “speaking your mind” turn into scientific discourse? It’s one thing to encourage dissent and offer reasoned doubt and explore second opinions (as health care professionals and insurers expect), but it’s quite another to share your feelings and demand that they count as scientific authority.

Finally, even if we endorse the view that we “collectively” reach the truth, should we not ask: by what criteria? according to what procedure? under what guidelines? Herd mentality, as Nietzsche already warned us, is problematic at best and immoral at worst. Trump rallies harken back to the fascist ones we recall from Europe prior to and during WWII. Few today would entrust the collective judgment of those enthusiasts of the Thirties to carry the day.

Unlike Fuller’s sanguine posture, I shudder at the possibility that “in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified.” This is neither because I worship experts and scorn folk knowledge nor because I have low regard for individuals and their (potentially informative) opinions. Just as we warn our students that simply having an opinion is not enough, that they need to substantiate it, offer data or logical evidence for it, and even know its origins and who promoted it before they made it their own, so I worry about uninformed (even if well-meaning) individuals (and presidents) whose gut will dictate public policy.

This way of unreasonably empowering individuals is dangerous for their own well-being (no paternalism here, just common sense) as well as for the community at large (too many untrained cooks will definitely spoil the broth). For those who doubt my concern, Trump offers ample evidence: trade wars with allies and foes that cost domestic jobs (when promising to bring jobs home), nuclear-war threats that resemble a game of chicken (as if no president before him ever faced such an option), and completely putting into disarray public policy procedures from immigration regulations to the relaxation of emission controls (that ignores the history of these policies and their failures).

Drought and suffering in Arbajahan, Kenya in 2006.
Photo by Brendan Cox and Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Three: Post-Truth Revisited

There is something appealing, even seductive, in the provocation to doubt the truth as rendered by the (scientific) establishment, even as we worry about sowing the seeds of falsehood in the political domain. The history of science is the story of authoritative theories debunked, cherished ideas proven wrong, and claims of certainty falsified. Why not, then, jump on the “post-truth” wagon? Would we not unleash the collective imagination to improve our knowledge and the future of humanity?

One of the lessons of postmodernism (at least as told by Lyotard) is that “post-“ does not mean “after,” but rather, “concurrently,” as another way of thinking all along: just because something is labeled “post-“, as in the case of postsecularism, it doesn’t mean that one way of thinking or practicing has replaced another; it has only displaced it, and both alternatives are still there in broad daylight. Under the rubric of postsecularism, for example, we find religious practices thriving (80% of Americans believe in God, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey), while the number of unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics is on the rise. Religionists and secularists live side by side, as they always have, more or less agonistically.

In the case of “post-truth,” it seems that one must choose between one orientation or another, or at least for Fuller, who claims to prefer the “post-truth world” to the allegedly hierarchical and submissive world of “truth,” where the dominant establishment shoves its truths down the throats of ignorant and repressed individuals. If post-truth meant, like postsecularism, the realization that truth and provisional or putative truth coexist and are continuously being re-examined, then no conflict would be at play. If Trump’s claims were juxtaposed to those of experts in their respective domains, we would have a lively, and hopefully intelligent, debate. False claims would be debunked, reasonable doubts could be raised, and legitimate concerns might be addressed. But Trump doesn’t consult anyone except his (post-truth) gut, and that is troublesome.

A Problematic Science and Technology Studies

Fuller admits that “STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public–if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes”:

  1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
  2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.
  3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.
  4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties. (43)

In that sense, then, Fuller agrees that the positive lessons STS wished for the practice of the scientific community may have inadvertently found their way into a post-truth world that may abuse or exploit them in unintended ways. That is, something like “consensus” is challenged by STS because of how the scientific community pretends to get there knowing as it does that no such thing can ever be reached and when reached it may have been reached for the wrong reasons (leadership pressure, pharmaceutical funding of conferences and journals). But this can also go too far.

Just because consensus is difficult to reach (it doesn’t mean unanimity) and is susceptible to corruption or bias doesn’t mean that anything goes. Some experimental results are more acceptable than others and some data are more informative than others, and the struggle for agreement may take its political toll on the scientific community, but this need not result in silly ideas about cigarettes being good for our health or that obesity should be encouraged from early childhood.

It seems important to focus on Fuller’s conclusion because it encapsulates my concern with his version of post-truth, a condition he endorses not only in the epistemological plight of humanity but as an elixir with which to cure humanity’s ills:

While some have decried recent post-truth campaigns that resulted in victory for Brexit and Trump as ‘anti-intellectual’ populism, they are better seen as the growth pains of a maturing democratic intelligence, to which the experts will need to adjust over time. Emphasis in this book has been given to the prospect that the lines of intellectual descent that have characterised disciplinary knowledge formation in the academy might come to be seen as the last stand of a political economy based on rent-seeking. (130)

Here, we are not only afforded a moralizing sermon about (and it must be said, from) the academic privileged position, from whose heights all other positions are dismissed as anti-intellectual populism, but we are also entreated to consider the rantings of the know-nothings of the post-truth world as the “growing pains of a maturing democratic intelligence.” Only an apologist would characterize the Trump administration as mature, democratic, or intelligent. Where’s the evidence? What would possibly warrant such generosity?

It’s one thing to challenge “disciplinary knowledge formation” within the academy, and there are no doubt cases deserving reconsideration as to the conditions under which experts should be paid and by whom (“rent-seeking”); but how can these questions about higher education and the troubled relations between the university system and the state (and with the military-industrial complex) give cover to the Trump administration? Here is Fuller’s justification:

One need not pronounce on the specific fates of, say, Brexit or Trump to see that the post-truth condition is here to stay. The post-truth disrespect for established authority is ultimately offset by its conceptual openness to previously ignored people and their ideas. They are encouraged to come to the fore and prove themselves on this expanded field of play. (Ibid)

This, too, is a logical stretch: is disrespect for the authority of the establishment the same as, or does it logically lead to, the “conceptual” openness to previously “ignored people and their ideas”? This is not a claim on behalf of the disenfranchised. Perhaps their ideas were simply bad or outright racist or misogynist (as we see with Trump). Perhaps they were ignored because there was hope that they would change for the better, become more enlightened, not act on their white supremacist prejudices. Should we have “encouraged” explicit anti-Semitism while we were at it?

Limits to Tolerance

We tolerate ignorance because we believe in education and hope to overcome some of it; we tolerate falsehood in the name of eventual correction. But we should never tolerate offensive ideas and beliefs that are harmful to others. Once again, it is one thing to argue about black holes, and quite another to argue about whether black lives matter. It seems reasonable, as Fuller concludes, to say that “In a post-truth utopia, both truth and error are democratised.” It is also reasonable to say that “You will neither be allowed to rest on your laurels nor rest in peace. You will always be forced to have another chance.”

But the conclusion that “Perhaps this is why some people still prefer to play the game of truth, no matter who sets the rules” (130) does not follow. Those who “play the game of truth” are always vigilant about falsehoods and post-truth claims, and to say that they are simply dupes of those in power is both incorrect and dismissive. On the contrary: Socrates was searching for the truth and fought with the sophists, as Popper fought with the logical positivists and the Kuhnians, and as scientists today are searching for the truth and continue to fight superstitions and debunked pseudoscience about vaccination causing autism in young kids.

If post-truth is like postsecularism, scientific and political discourses can inform each other. When power-plays by ignoramus leaders like Trump are obvious, they could shed light on less obvious cases of big pharma leaders or those in charge of the EPA today. In these contexts, inconvenient facts and truths should prevail and the gamesmanship of post-truthers should be exposed for what motivates it.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

* Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis of Brown University, whose contribution to my critical thinking about this topic has been profound.

References

Theodor W. Adorno (1998/1963), Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press

Kurt Andersen (2017), Fantasyland: How America Went Hotwire: A 500-Year History. New York: Random House

Monya Baker, “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility,” Nature Vol. 533, Issue 7604, 5/26/16 (corrected 7/28/16)

Michael Bowker (2003), Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York: Rodale.

Robert Darnton, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” New York Review of Books Vo. LXV, No. 11 6/28/18, pp. 68-72.

Al Gore (2006), An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Rodale.

Richard Hofstadter (1962), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Jean- François Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robert K. Merton (1973/1942), “The Normative Structure of Science,” The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 267-278.

Hans E. Plesser, “Reproducibility vs. Replicability: A Brief History of Confused Terminology,” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 2017; 11: 76; online: 1/18/18.

Robert N. Proctor (1995), Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books.

James Surowiecki (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

Author Information: Jensen Alex, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida, jonathan.matheson@gmail.com

Alex, Jensen, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson. “Conscientiousness and Other Problems: A Reply to Zagzabski.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 10-13.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Sr

Please refer to:

We’d first like to thank Dr. Zagzebski for engaging with our review of Epistemic Authority. We want to extend the dialogue by offering brief comments on several issues that she raised.

Conscientiousness

In our review we brought up the case of a grieving father who simply could not believe that his son had died despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. This case struck us as a problem case for Zagzebki’s account of rationality. For Zagzebski, rationality is a matter of conscientiousness, and conscientiousness is a matter of using your faculties as best you can to get to truth, where the best guide for a belief’s truth is its surviving conscientious reflection. The problem raised by the grieving father is that his belief that his son is still alive will continuously survive his conscientious reflection (since he is psychologically incapable of believing otherwise) yet it is clearly an irrational belief. In her response, Zagzebski makes the following claims,

(A) “To say he has reasons to believe his son is dead is just to say that a conscientiously self-reflective person would treat what he hears, reads, sees as indicators of the truth of his son’s death. So I say that a reason just is what a conscientiously self-reflective person sees as indicating the truth of some belief.” (57)

and,

(B) “a conscientious judgment can never go against the balance of one’s reasons since one’s reasons for p just are what one conscientiously judges indicate the truth of p.” (57)

These claims about the case lead to a dilemma. Either conscientiousness is to be understood subjectively or objectively, and either way we see some issues. First, if we understand conscientiousness subjectively, then the father seems to pass the test. We can suppose that he is doing the best he can to believe truths, but the psychological stability of this one belief causes the dissonance to be resolved in atypical ways. So, on a subjective construal of conscientiousness, he is conscientious and his belief about his son has survived conscientious reflection.

We can stipulate that the father is doing the best he can with what he has, yet his belief is irrational. Zagzebski’s (B) above seems to fit a subjective understanding of conscientiousness and leads to such a verdict. This is also how we read her in Epistemic Authority more generally. Second, if we understand conscientiousness objectively, then it follows that the father is not being conscientious. There are objectively better ways to resolve his psychic dissonance even if they are not psychologically open to him.

So, the objective understanding of conscientiousness does not give the verdict that the grieving father is rational. Zagzebski’s (A) above fits with an objective understanding of conscientiousness. The problem with the objective understanding of conscientiousness is that it is much harder to get a grasp on what it is. Doing the best you can with what you have, has a clear meaning on the subjective level and gives a nice responsibilist account of conscientiousness. However, when we abstract away from the subject’s best efforts and the subject’s faculties, how should we understand conscientiousness? Is it to believe in accordance with what an ideal epistemic agent would conscientiously believe?

To us, while the objective understanding of conscientiousness avoids the problem, it comes with new problems, chief among which is a fleshed out concept of conscientiousness, so understood. In addition, the objective construal of conscientiousness also does not appear to be suited for how Zagzebski deploys the concept in other areas of the book. For instance, regarding her treatment of peer disagreement, Zagzebski claims that each party should resolve the dissonance in a way that favors what they trust most when thinking conscientiously about the matter. The conscientiousness in play here sounds quite subjective, since rational resolution is simply a matter of sticking with what one trusts the most (even if an ideal rational agent wouldn’t be placing their trust in the same states and even when presented evidence to the contrary).

Reasons

Zagzebski distinguishes between 1st and 3rd person reasons, in part, to include things like emotions as reasons. For Zagzebski,

“1st person or deliberative reasons are states of mind that indicate to me that some belief is true. 3rd person, or theoretical reasons, are not states of mind, but are propositions that are logically or probabilistically connected to the truth of some proposition. (What we call evidence is typically in this category)” (57)

We are troubled by the way that Zagzebski employs this distinction. First, it is not clear how these two kinds of reasons are related. Does a subject have a 1st person reason for every 3rd person reason? After all, not every proposition that is logically or probabilistically connected to the truth of a proposition is part of an individuals evidence or is one of their reasons. So, are the 3rd person reasons that one possesses reasons that one has access to by way of a first-person reason? How could a 3rd person reason be a reason that I have if not by way of some subjective connection?

The relation between these two kinds of reasons deserves further development since Zagzebski puts this distinction to a great deal of work in the book. The second issue results from Zagzebski’s claim that, “1st person and 3rd person reasons do not aggregate.” (57)  If 1st and 3rd person reasons do not aggregate, then they do not combine to give a verdict as to what one has all-things-considered reason to believe. This poses a significant problem in cases where one’s 1st and 3rd person reasons point in different directions.

Zagzebski’s focus is on one’s 1st person reasons, but what then of one’s 3rd person reasons? 3rd person reasons are still reasons, yet if they do not aggregate with 1st person reasons, and 1st person reasons are determining what one should believe, it’s hard to see what work is left for 3rd person reasons. This is quite striking since these are the very reasons epistemologists have focused on for centuries.

Zagzebski’s embrace of 1st person reasons is ostensibly a movement to integrate the concepts of rationality and truth with resolutely human faculties (e.g. emotion, belief, and sense-perception) that have largely been ignored by the Western philosophical canon. Her critical attitude toward Western hyper-intellectualism and the rationalist worldview is understandable and, in certain ways, admirable. Perhaps the movement to engage emotion, belief, and sense-perception as epistemic features can be preserved, but only in the broader context of an evidence-centered epistemology. Further research should channel this movement toward an examination of how non-traditional epistemic faculties as 1st person reasons may be mapped to 3rd person reasons in a way is cognizant of self-trust in personal experience —that is, an account of aggregation that is grounded fundamentally in evidence.

Biases

In the final part of her response, Zagzebski claims that the insight regarding prejudice within communities can bolster several of her points. She refers specifically to her argument that epistemic self-trust commits us to epistemic trust in others (and its expansion to communities), as well as her argument about communal epistemic egoism and the Rational Recognition Principle. She emphasizes the importance of communities to regard others as trustworthy and rational, which would lead to the recognition of biases within them—something that would not happen if communities relied on epistemic egoism.

However, biases have staying power beyond egoism. Even those who are interested in widening and deepening their perspective though engaging with others can nevertheless have deep biases that affect how they integrate this information. Although Zagzebski may be right in emphasizing the importance of communities to act in this way, it seems too idealistic to imply that such honest engagement would result in the recognition and correction of biases. While such engagement might highlight important disagreements, Zagzebski’s analysis of disagreement, where it is rational to stick with what you trust most, will far too often be an open invitation to maintain (if not reinforce) one’s own biases and prejudice.

It is also important to note that the worry concerning biases and prejudice cannot be resolved by emphasizing a move to communities given that communities are subject to the same biases and prejudices as individuals that compose them. Individuals, in trusting their own communities, will only reinforce the biases and prejudice of its members. So, this move can make things worse, even if sometimes it can make things better. Zagzebski’s expansion of self-trust to communities and her Rational Recognition Principle commits communities only to recognize others as (prima facie) trustworthy and rational by means of recognizing their own epistemic faculties in those others.

However, doing this does not do much in terms of the disclosure of biases given that communities are not committed to trust the beliefs of those they recognize as rational and trustworthy. Under Zagzebski’s view, it is possible for a community to recognize another as rational and trustworthy, without necessarily trusting their beliefs—all without the need to succumb to communal epistemic egoism. Communities are, then, able to treat disagreement in a way that resolves dissonance for them.

That is, by trusting their beliefs more than those of the other communities. This is so even when recognizing them as rational and trustworthy as themselves because, under Zagzebski’s view communities are justified in maintaining their beliefs over those of others not because of egoistic reasons but because by withstanding conscientious self-reflection, they trust their beliefs more than those of others. Resolving dissonance from disagreement in this way is clearly more detrimental than it is beneficial, especially in the cases of biased individuals and communities, for which this would lead them to keep their biases.

Although, as Zagzebski claims, attention to cases of prejudice within communities may help give more importance to her argument about the extension of self-trust to the communal level, it does not do much in terms of disclosing biases inasmuch as dissonance from disagreement is resolved in the way she proposes. Her proposal leads not to the disclosure of biases as she implies, but to their reinforcement given that biases—although plausibly unaware—is what communities and individuals would trust more in these cases.

Contact details: jonathan.matheson@gmail.com

References

Alex, Jensen, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson. “A Review of Linda Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 29-34.

Zagzebski, Linda T. Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Zagzebski, Linda T. “Trust in Others and Self-Trust: Regarding Epistemic Authority.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 56-59.

Author Information: Raimo Tuomela, University of Helsinki, raimo.tuomela@helsinki.fi

Tuomela, Raimo. “The Limits of Groups: An Author Replies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 28-33.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3QM

Please refer to:

In their critique Corlett and Strobel (2017) discuss my 2013 book Social Ontology and comment on some of my views. In this reply I will respond to their three central criticisms that I here formulate as follows:[1]

(1) Group members are said in my account to be required to ask for the group’s, thus other members’, permission to leave the group, and this seems to go against the personal moral autonomy of the members.

(2) My account does not focus on morally central matters such as personal autonomy, although it should.

(3) My moral notions are based on a utilitarian view of morality.

In this note I will show that claims (1) – (3) are not (properly) justified on closer scrutiny.

Unity Is What’s Missing In Our Lives

Below I will mostly focus on we-mode groups, that is, groups based on we-thinking, we-reasoning, a shared “ethos”, and consequent action as a unified group.[2] Ideally, such we-mode groups are autonomous (externally uncoerced) and hence free to decide about the ethos (viz. the central goals, beliefs, norms, etc.) of their group and to select its position holders in the case of an organized group. Inside the group (one with freely entered members) each member is supposed to be “socially” committed to the others to perform her part of the joint enterprise. (Intentions in general involve commitment to carry out what is intended).

The members of a we-mode group should be able to count on each other not to be let down. The goal of the joint activity typically will not be reached without the other members’ successful part performances (often involving helping). When one enters a we-mode group it is one’s own choice, but if the others cannot be trusted the whole project may be impossible to carry out (think of people building a bridge in their village).

The authors claim that my moral views are based on utilitarianism and hence some kind of maximization of group welfare instead of emphasizing individual autonomy and the moral rights of individuals.[3] This is a complex matter and I will here say only that there is room in my theory both for group autonomy and individual autonomy.  The we-mode account states what it takes for people to act in the we-mode (see Tuomela, 2013, ch. 2). According to my account, the members have given up part of their individual autonomy to the group. From this follows that solidarity to the other members is important. The members of a paradigmatic we-mode group should not let the others down. This is seen as a moral matter.

The Moral Nature of the Act

As to the moral implications of the present approach, when a group is acting intentionally it is as a rule responsible for what it does. But what can be said about the responsibility of a member? Basically, each member is responsible as a group member and also privately morally responsible for the performance of his part. (He could have left the group or expressed his divergent opinion and reasons.) Here we are discussing the properly moral and not only the instrumental or quasi-moral implications of group action and the members.[4]

A member’s exiting a free (autonomous) group is in some cases a matter for the group to deal with. “What sanctions does a group need for quitting members if it endangers the whole endeavor?” Of course the members may exit the group but then they have to be prepared to suffer the (possibly) agreed-upon sanctions for quitting. Corlett and Strobel focus on the requirement of a permission to leave the group (see pp. 43-44 of Tuomela, 2013). It is up to the group to decide about suitable sanctions. E.g. the members may be expected to follow the majority here. (See ch. 5 of Tuomela, 2013).

Furthermore, those who join the group should of course be clear about what kind of group they are joining. If they later on wish to give up their membership they can leave upon taking on the sanctions, if any, that the group has decided upon. My critics rightfully wonder about the expression “permission to leave the group”. My formulations seem to have misleadingly suggested to them that the members are (possibly) trapped in the we-mode group. Note that on p. 44 of my 2013 book I speak of cases where leaving the group harms the other members and propose that sometimes rather mere informing the members might be appropriate.

How can “permission from the group” be best understood? Depending on the case at hand, it might involve asking the individual members if they allow the person in question to leave without sanctions. But this sounds rather silly especially in the case of large groups. Rather, the group may formulate procedures for leaving the group. This would involve institutionalizing the matter and the possible sanctioning system. In the case of paradigmatic autonomous we-mode groups the exit generally is free in the sense that the group itself rather than an external authority decides about procedures for exiting the group (see appendix 1 to chapter 2 of Tuomela, 2013). However, those leaving the group might have to face group-based sanctions if they by their leaving considerably harm the others.

In my account the members of a well-functioning we-mode group can be said somewhat figuratively to have given up part of their autonomy and self-determination to their we-mode group. Solidarity between the members is important: The members should not let the others down – or else the group’s project (viz. the members’ joint project) will not be successful. This is a non-utilitarian moral matter – the members are to keep together not to let each other down. Also for practical reasons it is desirable that the members stick together on penalty of not achieving their joint goal – e.g. building a bridge in their village.

People do retain their personal (moral) autonomy in the above kind of cases where entering and exiting a we-mode group is free (especially free from external authorities) or where, in some cases, the members have to satisfy special conditions accepted by their group. I have suggested elsewhere that dissenting members should either leave the group or try to change the ethos of the group. As said above, in specific cases of ethos-related matters the members may use a voting method, e.g. majority voting, even if the minority may want to challenge the result.[5]

Questions of Freedom

According to Corlett and Strobel, freedom of expression is largely blocked and the notion of individual autonomy is dubious in my account (see p. 9 of their critical paper). As was pointed out above, the members may leave the group freely or via an agreed-upon procedure. Individual autonomy is thwarted to the extent that is needed for performing one’s part, but such performance is the whole point of participation in the first place. Of course the ethos may be discussed along the way and changes may be introduced if the members or e.g. the majority of them or another “suitable” number of them agree. The members enter the group freely, by their own will and through the group’s entrance procedures and may likewise leave the group through collectively agreed-on procedures (if such exist).

As we know, autonomy is a concept much used in everyday life, outside moral philosophy. In my account it is used in “autonomous groups”, in the simple sense that the group can make its own decisions about ethos, division of tasks, conditions for entering and exiting the group without coercion by an external authority. Basically, only the autonomous we-mode group can, through its members’ decision, make rules for how people are allowed to join or leave the group.[6]

Corlett’s and Strobel’s critique that the members in autonomous we-mode groups have no autonomy (in the moral sense) in my account cannot be directed towards the paradigmatic case of groups with free entrance, where the group members decide among themselves what is to be done by whom and how to arrange for the situation of a member wanting to leave the group, maybe in the middle of a critical situation. Of course, a member cannot always do as he chooses in situations of group action. A joint goal is at stake and one’s letting the others down when they have a good reason to count on one would be detrimental to everyone’s goal achievement. Also, letting the others down is at least socially and morally condemnable.

When people have good reason to drop out, having changed their mind or finding that the joint project is morally dubious, they can exit according to the relevant rules (if such exist in the group). The feature criticized by the present authors that “others’ permission is required” is due to my unlucky formulation. What is meant is that in some cases there should be some kind of procedure in the group for leaving. The group members are socially committed to each other to further the ethos, as well as committed to the ethos. The social commitment has, of course, the effect that each member looks to the others for cooperative actions and attitudes and has a good reason to do so.

My critics suggest that the members should seek support from the others – indeed this seems to be what the assumed solidarity of we-mode groups can be taken to provide. However, what they mean could be a procedure to make the ethos more attractive to them and leading to their renewed support of the ethos, instead of pressuring them to stay in a group with an ethos that no longer interests them. Of course, the ethos may be presented in new ways, but there still may be situations where members want to leave and they have a right to leave following the agreed upon procedures. Informing the group in due time, so that the group can find compensating measures, is what a member who quits can and should minimally do. The authors discuss examples where heads of states and corporations want to resign. It is typically possible to resign according e.g.to the group’s exit rules, if such exist.

Follow the Leader

On page 11 the authors criticize the we-mode account for the fact that non-operative members ought to accept what the operative leaders decide. They claim that e.g. a state like the U.S., on the contrary, allows, and in some situations, even asks the citizens to protest. They are, of course, right in their claims concerning special cases. Naturally there will sometimes be situations where protest is called for. The dissidents may then win and the government (or what have you) will change its course of action. Even the ethos of the group may sometimes have to be reformulated.

Gradual development occurs also in social groups and organizations, the ethos evolves often through dissident actions. When the authorized operatives act according to what they deem to be a feasible way, they do what they are chosen to do. If non-operatives protest due to immoral actions of the operatives, they do the right thing morally, but if the operatives act according to the ethos, they are doing their job, although they should have chosen a moral way to achieve the goal. The protest of the non-operatives may have an effect. On the other hand, note that even Mafia groups may act in the we-mode and do so in immoral ways, in accordance to their own agenda.

The authors discuss yet another kind of example of exiting the group, where asking permission would seem out of place: a marriage. If a married couple is taken to be a we-mode group, the parties would have to agree upon exit conditions (if marriage is not an institutionalized and codified concept – what it, nevertheless, usually is). As an institution it is regulated in various ways depending on the culture. The summarized critique by the authors on page 12 has been met this far. It seems that they have been fixated on the formulation that “members cannot leave the group without the permission from the other members.” To be sure, my view is that group members cannot just walk out on the others without taking any measures to ease the detrimental effects of their defection. Whether it is permission, compensation or an excuse, depends on the case. In protesting we have a different story: Dissidents often have good reasons to protest, and sometimes they just want to change the ethos instead of leaving.

It’s Your Prerogative

At the end of their critique the authors suggest that I should include in my account a moral prerogative for the members to seek the support of other group members as a courtesy to other members and the group. I have no objection to that. Once more, the expression “permission to leave the group” has been an unfortunate choice of words. It would have been better e.g. to speak of a member’s being required to inform the others that one has to quit and be ready to suffer possible sanctions for letting the others down and perhaps causing the whole project to collapse.

However, dissidents should have the right to protest. Those who volunteer to join a group with a specific ethos cannot always foresee if the ethos allows for immoral or otherwise unacceptable courses of action. Finally, my phrase “free entrance and exit” may have been misunderstood. As pointed out, the expression refers to the right of the members to enter and exit instead of being forced to join a group and remain there. To emphasize once more, it is in this way that the members of we-mode groups are autonomous.  Also, there is no dictator who steers the ethos formation and choice of position holders. However, although the members may jointly arrange their group life freely, each member is not free to do whatever he chooses when he acts in the we-mode. We-mode acting involves solidary collective acting by the members according to the ethos of the group.

In this note I have responded to the main criticisms (1)-(3) by Corlett and Strobel (2017) and argued that they do not damage my theory at least in a serious way. I wish to thank my critics for their thoughtful critical points.

Contact details: raimo.tuomela@helsinki.fi

References

Corlett, A. and Strobel J., “Raimo Tuomela’s Social Ontology”, Social Epistemology 31, no. 6.  (2017): 1-15

Schmid, H.-B. “On not doing one’s part.” Pp. 287-306, in Psarros, N., Schule-Ostermann, K. (eds.) Facets of Sociality. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag, 2007

Tuomela, R. The Importance of Us: A Philosophical Study of Basic Social Notions. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Tuomela, R. The Philosophy of Sociality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Tuomela, R. Social Ontology, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Tuomela, R. and Mäkelä, P. “Group agents and their responsibility.” Journal of Ethics 20. (2016): 299-316

Tuomela, R. and Tuomela, M. “Acting As a Group Member and Collective Commitment”, Protosociology 18, (2003): 7-65.

[1] Acknowledgement. I wish to thank my wife Dr. Maj Tuomela for important help in writing this paper.

[2] See Tuomela (2007) and (2013) for the above notions.

[3] I speak of utilities only in game-theoretic contexts. (My moral views are closer to pragmatism and functionalism than utilitarianism.)

[4] See e.g. Tuomela-Mäkelä (2016) for a group’s  and group members’ moral responsibility, Also see pp. 37 and 41 of Tuomela (2013) and chapter 10 in Tuomela (2007).

[5] As to dissidents I have discussed the notion briefly in my 1995 book and in a paper published in 2003 with Maj Tuomela (see the references). Furthermore, Hans Bernhard Schmid discusses dissidents in we-mode groups in his article “On not doing one’s part” in Psarros and Schulte-Ostermann (eds.) Facets of Sociality, Ontos Verlag, 2007, pp. 287-306.

[6] Groups that are dependent on an external agent (e.g. a dictator, an owner of a company or an officer commanding an army unit) may lack the freedom to decide about what they should be doing, which positions they should have, and the members may be forced to join a group that they cannot exit from. My notion of “autonomous groups” refers to groups that are free to decide about their own matters, e.g. entrance and exit (possibly including sanctions). Personal moral autonomy in such groups is retained by the possibility to apply for entrance and exit upon taking on possible sanctions, influencing the ethos or protesting. The upshot is that a person functioning in a paradigmatic we-mode group should obey the possible restrictions that the group has set for exiting the group and be willing to suffer agreed upon sanctions. Such a we-mode group is assumed to have coercion-free entrance to the group and also free exit from it – as specified in Appendix 1 to Chapter 2 of my 2013 book. Here is meant that no external authority is coercing people to join and to remain in the group. A completely different matter is the case of a Mafia group and an army unit. The latter may be a unit that cannot be freely entered and exited. Even in these cases people may act in the we-mode. In some non-autonomous groups, like in a business company, the shareholders decide about all central matters and the workers get paid. Members may enter if they are chosen to join and exit only according to specific rules.

Author Information: Jensen Alex, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida, jonathan.matheson@gmail.com

Alex, Jensen, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson. “A Review of Linda Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 29-34.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3J3

Image credit: Oxford Univerity Press

Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief
Linda Zagzebski
Oxford Univerity Press (reprint 2015)
296 pp.

Like with her celebrated Virtues of the Mind, Linda Zagzebski again examines the application of concepts familiar in a different normative domain to the epistemic domain. In this case, the connection is with social and political philosophy and with the concepts of authority and autonomy in particular. The book covers a broad range of contemporary epistemological topics, attempting to gain insights from those is social and political philosophy. In what follows we will briefly summarize the book and raise several points of criticism.

Analyzing the Chapters

Zagzebski makes her own position of the book clear from the outset—that subjects should indeed take beliefs on the authority of others, and in fact must do so to act rationally. However, before this argument is given, she insists that the reader understand why there is such a “strong proclivity” to denying this argument (6). In Chapter 1, Zagzebski follows the historical progression of thought that led to this cultural pattern, arguing that it has led to our modern societies to have a strong emphasis on autonomy and egalitarianism, ultimately diminishing the value of authority outside of oneself.

In chapter 2, Zagzebski develops her account of trust. She defines “trust” as a combination of epistemic, affective, and behavioral components that lead us to believe that our epistemic faculties will get us to the truth, feel trusting towards them in that respect, and treat them respectively (37-8). She argues that this trust is rational upon reflection, relying on her understanding of what it means to be rational, “to do a better job of what we do in any case—what our faculties do naturally” (30). According to her, we naturally try to resolve dissonance, where dissonance equates to internal conflict between a person’s mental states. She concludes that epistemic self-trust is the most rational response to dissonance, including the one produced upon discovery of epistemic circularity: the problem that one has no way of telling whether one’s epistemic faculties are reliably accurate without depending on those same faculties.

Zagzebski moves toward the substance of her argument in her third chapter. She argues that considering how one’s faculties are bound up with both the desire for truth and the belief that they can access the truth, commits one to trusting the faculties of others. This leads into Zagzebski’s principle of “epistemic universalism,” which asserts that another person having some belief itself is a prima facie reason to believe it, given that the other person’s epistemic faculties are in order and that they are epistemically conscientious.

Zagzeski expands the circle of trust to include emotions in Chapter 4. She argues that we have the need to trust in our emotional dispositions, in particular the emotion of admiration, that will then give us another foundational reason for epistemic trust in others (75). In regards to our natural emotion dispositions she says that “we need basic trust in the tendency of our emotion dispositions to produce fitting emotions for the same reason we need basic trust in the tendency of our epistemic faculties to produce true beliefs” (83). It is from this emotion of admiration that we can then conscientiously trust in other epistemic exemplars.

In chapter 5, Zagzebski argues that authority in the epistemic realm is justified. Based on Joseph Raz’s account of political authority, she defines authority as a “normative power that generates reasons for others to do or believe something preemptively” (102). Here a preemptive reason is one that replaces other reasons the subject has and is not simply added to them. Zagzebski proposes an epistemic analogue of Raz’s Preemption Thesis, which states that the fact that an authority has a belief p is a preemptive reason for me to believe p (107). She also formulates epistemic analogues for Raz’s Normal Justification Thesis in order to justify taking a belief on epistemic authority. Zagzebski proposes that the authority of another person’s belief is justified for me when I conscientiously judge that I am more likely to form a true belief and avoid a false belief, or that I am more likely to form a belief that survives my conscientious self-reflection, if I believe what the authority believes than if I try to figure out what to believe myself (110-1).

In the sixth chapter, Zagzebski focuses on the concept of testimony as it relates to epistemic authority, advocating for a trust-model of testimony. On her account, testimony is a contractual “telling” which occurs between a teller and hearer, in which both sides have responsibilities. The teller implicitly requests the hearer’s trust and assumes the associated responsibility. The hearer also has expectations of the teller, especially when a future action is carried out according to the content of the teller’s testimony. Because of this contractual nature, the standard of conscientiousness is higher in testimony than in the general formation of a belief. The authority of testimony is justified both by the fact that believing the testimony will more likely get the truth than self-reliance, as well as the fact that beliefs obtained through testimony are more likely to survive self-reflection than those formed through self-reliance.

Zagzebski turns her attention to epistemic communities in Chapter 7. She argues that epistemic authority in communities can be justified by one’s conscientious judgment that one is more likely to believe the truth, or to get a belief that will survive one’s self-reflection if one believes what “We” (the community) believe rather than if one tries to figure out what to believe by oneself in a way that is independent of “Us.” Here communities are seen as an extended self. Zagzebski would argue that communally acquired beliefs are more likely to survive communal reflection, which follows from her “extended self” argument. Thus, as long as one accepts one’s community as an extended self, one can in this way acquire reasons to believe on the authority of one’s community.

In chapter 8, Zagzebski examines moral epistemic authority and its limitations. Zagzebski sees no reason to deny that there are epistemic exemplars in the moral domain, considering the rejection of moral truth and egalitarianism as possible reasons for rejecting moral authority. She argues that testimony is not an adequate model for most moral learning because of two limitations: (1) testimony lacks motivational force and (2) it does not offer understanding. According to her, the way in which one can get a moral belief from another person has to do with the emotion that grounds such moral judgment. She claims that testimony is able to convey conceptual judgment and relevant similarities to persons or situations that elicit emotional response, but this is not sufficient to produce the emotional response itself (172). It follows then, she argues, that “I do not take a belief on authority; I take an emotion on authority, and the emotion is the ground for my moral belief” (174). The argument gets extended in the following chapter to religious authorities. Applying her earlier argument to this context, she defends the claim that individuals often conscientiously judge that if they believe in accordance with their religious community they will do better, and so often individuals are justified in deferring to their religious community.

In Chapter 10, Zagzebski turns to the contemporary debate concerning peer disagreement. As she diagnoses the debate, it is primarily a conflict between the competing values of egalitarianism and self-reliance. Zagzebski sees steadfast views of disagreement overvaluing self-reliance and stronger conciliatory views overvaluing egalitarianism, and finds both mistaken. Her own take on the debate is to construe peer disagreement as a conflict within self-trust, where one finds dissonance amongst the things that she trusts (her opinion, her peer’s opinion, etc.). Given this, and her preceding argument, Zagzebski’s recommendation is to resolve the dissonance in a way that favors what one trusts the most when thinking conscientiously about the matter. There is thus no universal response to disagreement. How any given disagreement is to be handled will depend upon the particular details of the case, in particular, which psychic states the subject trusts the most. For instance, one’s trust in a particular belief may be stronger than one’s trust in what appears to be evidence to the contrary, in which case it would be rational to resolve the dissonance while maintaining one’s belief.

In the final chapter of Epistemic Authority, the author primarily seeks to elucidate her notion of autonomy, ultimately to defend the claim that autonomy is not compromised by her model of epistemic authority. Autonomy is the primary property and function of Zagzebski’s “executive self,” which seeks to eliminate psychic dissonance through self-reflection. Zagzebski claims that conscientious judgment and self-reflection are the most reliable ways of avoiding epistemic dissonance —that being conscientious is the best one can do. She maintains that we should trust in the connection between rationality (as manifest in the act of conscientious self-reflection) and actually being right, because self-reflection is the only way we can assess if our beliefs have survived (which in turn is the only way we can get the truth).

Assessing Epistemic Authority

We turn now to a critical assessment of the book.

One general concern is with Zagzebski’s account of rationality and epistemic justification, which is central to her overall argument. She claims that, “rationality is a property we have when we do what we do naturally, only we do a better job of it” (30), and of central importance here is our natural desire to achieve a harmonious self. (31) Dissonance amongst our psychic states (beliefs, desires, emotions, etc.) is thus to be avoided, and a conscientious judgment about what states will harmoniously survive our self-reflection is what justifies those states. A problem for this account is that it is not sufficiently truth connected.

Zagzebski attempts to adequately connect her account to truth through the achievement of psychic harmony. She claims that, “the ultimate test of whether my faculties have succeeded in fitting their objects is that they fit each other.” (230) Such a coherentist account, however, is fraught with well-known problems. There are many ways of having harmonious states that are nothing close to truth conducive. The problem comes from the fact that harmony can be achieved in more than one way. In fact, any state can be protected so long as one is able to make accommodations elsewhere. Zagzebski recognizes this fact, and claims that some ways of resolving dissonance are better than others, but these preferential ways are simply those that one conscientiously judges to not create future dissonance. Such an account simply doubles down on trusting harmony and can be seen to give the wrong verdicts.

For instance, consider a father whose son is away at war. Suppose that the father then is given a substantial body of information that his son has been killed. However, the father simply cannot come to believe that his son has died. It is psychologically impossible for him, and he recognizes this fact. In terms of planning his psychic future then the belief that his son is alive will clearly be part of the picture. He can be certain that this state will survive his reflection (even his conscientious reflection) since he recognizes it to be psychologically immovable. Thus, his only paths to harmony are to distrust and abandon all states in conflict with that belief. It is apparent, however, that such a course of action is not to be recommended, and the remaining belief that his son is well is not justified for him. Sometimes, doing one’s best is not good enough. This holds in epistemology as well. While the father ought not be faulted for his belief, it is not justified for him.

A related issue concerns the role of reasons on Zagzebski’s account. From the outset, Zagzebski’s account centers around trust. The motivation for this seems to be that there is no non-circular defense of the reliability of one’s faculties. However, it is not clear what Zagzebski makes of such epistemic circularity. It might be thought that it is implied to be defective, but if so, it would be nice to hear more about the problem since many epistemologists have defended some kind of circularity. Adding to the confusion, however, is Zagzebski’s claim that she, and others, have “strong circular reasons to trust her epistemic faculties” (93). If such circular justification is possible, then the motivation for the role of trust is diminished. In addition, a large portion of the book is dedicated to arguments that individuals have various kinds of prima facie reasons (i.e. to believe what others believe, to trust others as I trust myself, to trust those who are conscientious).

While the arguments for these principles are quite plausible, there are several reasons to be unsatisfied. First, missing from the account is anything about the strength of these reasons or what kind of considerations would defeat these reasons. Without this further information, it is unclear what to make of these reasons and how they affect our overall outlook. Second, it is difficult to see what role these reasons can play in Zagzebski’s overall account of rationality and justification. Since, for her, rationality and justification are a matter of one’s conscientious judgments, the role of reasons seems to drop out entirely.

One’s reasons may influence their conscientious judgments, but they needn’t, and when one’s conscientious judgments go against their reasons, on Zagzebski’s view they ought to go with their judgment. For instance, in applying her account to the epistemic significance of disagreement, Zagzebski’s proposal is to resolve the dissonance resulting from discovered disagreement in accordance with what one conscientiously accords the most trust. However, on her account, significant errors regarding what one conscientiously trusts have no role to play in terms of what the subject is justified in believing. Many will see this as a significant cost since misplaced trust is not without epistemic consequences. A final concern with Zagzebski’s account of reasons concerns her preemption thesis.

Zagzebksi claims that, “the fact that the authority has a belief p is a reason for me to believe p that replaces my other reasons relevant to believing p and is not simply added to them” (107). This thesis raises some questions (i.e. where do those reasons go and can they ever return?) as well as some problems. One problem concerns ability. It is unclear how one would be able to comply with this principle and replace their current reasons. A deeper problem, however, concerns the consequences of compliance. If one looses their own reasons on an issue, they could lose information critical to both the future evaluation of the putative authority and the relevant claim. This seems to allow for a dangerous way for a putative authority to maintain its authority because the other reasons in the domain have been replaced and are no longer relevant.

Zagzebski also fails to consider cases in which an epistemic authority abuses his/her authoritative status. For instance, a noticeable gap in the book is the lack of attention paid to the problem of epistemic injustice. Perhaps even more worrisome is that Zagzebski’s account appears to actually exacerbate the problem of epistemic injustice. Prejudices can be, and often are, unintended. That is to say that a prejudiced person is likely unable to recognize his/her own prejudices. Further, biases are sticky—they don’t change easily.

Given all of this, it appears that the best way to avoid future dissonance is by adjusting the states that conflict with the biases. While such and accommodation of biases might be the most effective route to harmony, it is surely not the rational course of action. When biases survive reflection, the subject’s conscientious judgment is informed by prejudices that are both unfair and unfounded. Thus, Zagzebski’s account can be both epistemically and morally defective. Epistemically, because the hearer would miss out on a truth that, according to Zagzebski, he/she is naturally interested in acquiring (33), and morally, because an epistemic injustice could be inflicted on a person/community as a result. The apparent rational survival of biases affects our ability to accurately trust others and recognize epistemic authorities.

This problem only seems to get worse when applied to epistemic communities. Consider intergroup bias and groupthink—a community is very likely to acquire and entrench beliefs that confirm the community’s group identity, while simultaneously believing that it is thinking conscientiously. The epistemic opacity which was concerning at the individual level is only aggravated at the community level.

For Zagzebski, the community itself was formed out of chains of individual conscientious judgments, meaning that both individual and group distortions are compounded upon one another in any given community. If the gender bias survives a community’s reflection, then, under Zagzebski’s account, the community could be justified in trusting the belief that a female scientist is distrustful even when there is evidence against such belief and/or against the bias itself. This would lead to community reinforcement and distancing from others given that the community would trust the way in which they acquire beliefs (which includes trusting the bias even when they fail to recognize it) and distrust those communities that acquire beliefs in a way they don’t trust (without the bias). This appears to be highly problematic.

Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority will no doubt play a role in shaping a number of the contemporary epistemological debates. Her connections drawn to political philosophy provide a novel way of viewing a number of epistemological problems. While we find a number of problems with Zagzebki’s final account, Epistemic Authority will be of value for anyone interested in engaging in these debates.