Archives For politics of expertise

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: Stephen John, Cambridge University, sdj22@cam.ac.uk

John, Stephen. “Transparency, Well-Ordered Science, and Paternalism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 30-33.

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

See also:

Image by Sergio Santos and http://nursingschoolsnearme.com, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Should a physician tell you that you have cancer, even if she thinks this would cause you needless distress? Of course she should! How, though, should she convey that news? Imagine three, stylised options. Dr Knowsbest is certain you should have your cancer operated on, so tells you the news in a way which vividly highlights the horrors of cancer, but downplays the risk of an operation.

Dr Neutral, by contrast, simply lists all of the facts about your cancer, your prognosis, your possible treatment options, their likely benefits and risks and so on. Finally, Dr Sensitive reports only those aspects of your condition and those risks of surgery which she judges that you, given your values and interests, would want to know about.

Many Methods to Reveal

We can, I hope, all agree that Dr Knowsbest’s communicative strategies and choices are ethically problematic, because she acts in a paternalistic manner. By contrast, Dr Neutral does not act paternalistically. In this regard, at least, Dr Neutral’s strategies are ethically preferable to Dr Knowsbest’s strategies. What about the choice between Knowsbest and Sensititve? In one sense, Dr Sensitive acts paternalistically, because she controls and structures the flow of information with the aim of improving your well-being.

However, there is an important difference between Dr Sensitive and Dr Knowsbest; the former aims solely to improve your epistemic well-being, such that you can better make a choice which aligns with your own values, whereas the latter aims to influence or override your judgment. Knowsbest’s “moral paternalism” is wrong for reasons which are absent in the case of Sensitive’s “epistemic paternalism” (Ahlstrom-Vij, 2013).

Therefore, plausibly, both the Neutral and Sensitive strategies are ethically preferable to Knowsbest; What, though, of the choice between these two communicative strategies? First, I am not certain that it is even possible to report all the facts in a neutral way (for more, see below.) Second, even if it is possible, Dr Sensitive’s strategy seems preferable; her strategy, if successful, positively promotes – as opposed to merely failing to interfere with – your ability to make autonomous choices.

At least at an abstract, ideal level, then, we have good reason to want informants who do more than merely list facts, but who are sensitive to their audiences’ epistemic situation and abilities and their evaluative commitments; we want experts who “well-lead” us. In my recent paper in Social Epistemology, I argued that that certain widely-endorsed norms for science communication are, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, dangerous (John 2018). We should be against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.

It’s a Bit Provocative

One way of understanding that paper is as following from the abstract ideal of sensitive communication, combined with various broadly sociological facts (for example, about how audiences identify experts). I understand why my article put Moore in mind of a paradigm case of paternalism. However, reflection on the hypothetical example suggests we should also be against “anti-paternalism” as a norm for science communication; not because Knowsbest’s strategy is fine, but, rather, because the term “paternalism” tends to bundle together a wide range of practices, not all of which are ethically problematic, and some of which promote – rather than hinder – audiences’ autonomy.

Beyond the accusation of paternalism, Moore’s rich and provocative response focuses on my scepticism about transparency. While I argued that a “folk philosophy of science” can lead audiences to distrust experts who are, in fact, trustworthy, he uses the example of HIV-AIDS activism to point to the epistemic benefits of holding scientists to account, suggesting that “it is at least possible that the process of engaging with and responding to criticism can lead to learning on both sides and the production, ultimately, of better science”. I agree entirely that such a dynamic is possible; indeed, his example shows it does happen!

However, conceding this possibility does not show that we must endorse a norm of transparency, because, ultimately, the costs may still be greater than the benefits. Much here depends on the mechanisms by which transparency and engagement are enacted. Moore suggests one model for such engagement, via the work of “trust proxies”, such as ACT-UP. As he acknowledges, however, although proxies may be better-placed than lay-people to identify when science is flawed, we now create a new problem for the non-expert: to adapt a distinction from Goldman’s work, we must decide which “putative proxies” are “true proxies” (Goldman, 2001).

Plausibly, this problem is even harder than Goldman’s problem of distinguishing the “true experts” among the “putative experts”; because in the latter case, we have some sense of the credentials and so on which signal experthood. Again, I am tempted to say, then, that it is unclear that transparency, openness or engagement will necessarily lead to better, rather than worse, socio-epistemic outcomes.

Knowledge From Observation and Practice

Does that mean my arguments against transparency are in the clear? No. First, many of the issues here turn on the empirical details; maybe careful institutional design can allow us to identify trustworthy trust-proxies, whose work promotes good science. Second, and more importantly, the abstract model of sensitive communication is an ideal. In practice, it is easy to fail to meet this ideal, in ways which undermine, rather than respect or promote, hearers’ autonomy.

For example, rather than tailor her communication to what her audiences do care about, Dr Sensitive might tailor what she says to what she thinks they ought to care about; as a result, she might leave out information which is relevant to their choices given their values, while including information which is irrelevant. An influential strain in recent philosophy of science suggests that non-epistemic value judgments do and must run deep in practices of justification; as such, even a bald report of what a study showed may, implicitly, encode or endorse value judgments which are not shared by the audience (Douglas, 2000).

Reporting claims when, and only when, they meet a certain confidence level may, for example, implicitly rely on assumptions about the relative disvalue of false positives and false negatives; in turn, it may be difficult to justify such assumptions without appeal to non-epistemic values (John, 2015). As such, even Dr Neutral may be unable to avoid communicating in ways which are truly sensitive to her audience’s values. In short, it may be hard to handover our epistemic autonomy to experts without also handing over our moral autonomy.

This problem means that, for research to be trustworthy, requires more than that the researchers’ claims are true, but that they are claims which are, at least, neutral and, at best, aligned with, audiences’ values. Plausibly, regardless greater engagement and transparency may help ensure such value alignment. One might understand the example of ACT-UP along these lines: activist engagement ensured that scientists did “good science” not only in a narrow, epistemic sense of “good” – more or more accurate data and hypotheses were generated – but in a broader sense of being “well-ordered”, producing knowledge that better reflected the concerns and interests of the broader community (Kitcher, 2003).

Whether engagement improves epistemic outcomes narrowly construed is a contingent matter, heavily dependent on the details of the case. By contrast, engagement may be necessary for science to be “well-ordered”. In turn, transparency may be necessary for such engagement. At least, that is the possibility I would push were I to criticise my own conclusions in line with Moore’s concerns.

A Final Sting

Unfortunately, there is a sting in the tail. Developing effective frameworks for engagement and contestation may require us to accept that scientific research is not, and cannot be, fully “value free”. To the extent that such an assumption is a commitment of our “folk philosophy of science”, then developing the kind of rigorous engagement which Moore wants may do as much to undermine, as promote, our trust in true experts. Moore is surely right that the dynamics of trust and distrust are even more complex than my paper suggested; unfortunately, they might be even more complex again than he suggests.

Contact details: sdj22@cam.ac.uk

References

Ahlstrom-Vij, K. (2013). Epistemic paternalism: a defence. Springer

Douglas, H. (2000). Inductive risk and values in science. Philosophy of science, 67(4), 559-579.

Goldman, A (2001) “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63(1), 85–110.

John, S. (2015). Inductive risk and the contexts of communication. Synthese, 192(1), 79-96.

John, S. (2018). Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty. Social Epistemology, 32(2), 75-87.

Kitcher, P. (2003). Science, truth, and democracy. Oxford University Press.

Author Information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology, mmizrahi@fit.edu

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 41-50.

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

See also:

One of Galileo’s original compasses, on display at the Museo Galileo, a feature of the Instituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence, Italy.
Image by Anders Sandberg via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bernard Wills (2018) joins Christopher Brown (2017, 2018) in criticizing my defense of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 2017b, 2018a). Unfortunately, it seems that Wills did not read my latest defense of Weak Scientism carefully, nor does he cite any of the other papers in my exchange with Brown. For he attributes to me the view that “other disciplines in the humanities [in addition to philosophy] do not produce knowledge” (Wills 2018, 18).

Of course, this is not my view and I affirm no such thing, contrary to what Wills seems to think. I find it hard to explain how Wills could have made this mistake, given that he goes on to quote me as follows: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge” (Mizrahi 2018a, 7; quoted in Wills 2018, 18).

Clearly, the claim ‘Scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge’ entails that there is non-scientific knowledge. If the view I defend entails that there is non-scientific knowledge, then it cannot also be my view that “science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18).

Even if he somehow missed this simple logical point, reading the other papers in my exchange with Brown should have made it clear to Wills that I do not deny the production of knowledge by non-scientific disciplines. In fact, I explicitly state that “science produces scientific knowledge, mathematics produces mathematical knowledge, philosophy produces philosophical knowledge, and so on” (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). Even in my latest reply to Brown, which is the only paper from my entire exchange with Brown that Wills cites, I explicitly state that, if Weak Scientism is true, then “philosophical knowledge would be inferior to scientific knowledge both quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success)” (Mizrahi 2018a, 8).

If philosophical knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively inferior to scientific knowledge, then it follows that there is philosophical knowledge. For this reason, only a rather careless reader could attribute to me the view that “other disciplines in the humanities [in addition to philosophy] do not produce knowledge” (Wills 2018, 18).

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

Right from the start, then, Wills gets Weak Scientism wrong, even though he later writes that, according to Weak Scientism, “there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences” (Wills 2018, 18). He says that he will ignore the quantitative claim of Weak Scientism and focus “on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18). Wills can focus on whatever he wants, of course, but that is not Weak Scientism.

Weak Scientism is not the view that only science produces real knowledge; that is Strong Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). Rather, Weak Scientism is the view that, “Of all the knowledge we have [i.e., there is knowledge other than scientific knowledge], scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017a, 354). In other words, scientific knowledge “is simply the best; better than all the rest” (Mizrahi 2017b, 20). Wills’ criticism, then, misses the mark completely. That is, it cannot be a criticism against Weak Scientism, since Weak Scientism is not the view that “science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18).

Although he deems the quantitative superiority of scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge “a tangential point,” and says that he will not spend time on it, Wills (2018, 18) remarks that “A German professor once told [him] that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone!” Presumably, Wills’ point is that research output in literature exceeds that of scientific disciplines. Instead of relying on gut feelings and hearsay, Wills should have done the required research in order to determine whether scholarly output in literature really does exceed the research output of scientific disciplines.

If we look at the Scopus database, using the data and visualization tools provided by Scimago Journal & Country Rank, we can see that research output in a natural science like physics and a social science like psychology far exceeds research output in humanistic disciplines like literature and philosophy. On average, psychology has produced 15,000 more publications per year than either literature or philosophy between the years 1999 and 2017. Likewise, on average, physics has produced 54,000 more publications per year than either literature or philosophy between the years 1999 and 2017 (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Research output in Literature, Philosophy, Physics, and Psychology from 1999 to 2017 (Source: Scimago Journal & Country Rank)

Contrary to what Wills seems to think or what his unnamed German professor may have told him, then, it is not the case that literary scholars produce more work on Shakespeare or Kafka alone than physicists or psychologists produce. The data from the Scopus database show that, on average, it takes literature and philosophy almost two decades to produce what psychology produces in two years or what physics produces in a single year (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359).

In fact, using JSTOR Data for Research, we can check Wills’ number, as reported to him by an unnamed German professor, to find out that there are 13,666 publications (i.e., journal articles, books, reports, and pamphlets) on Franz Kafka from 1859 to 2018 in the JSTOR database. Clearly, that is not even close to “40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone” in the first half of the 20th Century (Wills 2018, 18). By comparison, as of May 22, 2018, the JSTOR database contains more publications on the Standard Model in physics and the theory of conditioning in behavioral psychology than on Franz Kafka or William Shakespeare (Table 1).

Table 1. Search results for ‘Standard Model’, ‘Conditioning’, ‘William Shakespeare’, and ‘Franz Kafka’ in the JSTOR database as a percentage of the total number of publications, n = 12,633,298 (Source: JSTOR Data for Research)

  Number of Publications Percentage of JSTOR corpus
Standard Model 971,968 7.69%
Conditioning 121,219 0.95%
William Shakespeare 93,700 0.74%
Franz Kafka 13,667 0.1%

Similar results can be obtained from Google Books Ngram Viewer when we compare published work on Shakespeare, which Wills thinks exceeds all published work in other disciplines, for he says that “Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat” (Wills 2018, 18), with published work on a contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616) from another field of study, namely, Galileo (1564-1642). As we can see from Figure 2, from 1700 to 2000, ‘Galileo’ consistently appears in more books than ‘William Shakespeare’ does.

Figure 2. Google Books results for ‘William Shakespeare’ and ‘Galileo’ from 1700 to 2000 (Source: Google Books Ngram Viewer)

Racking Up the Fallacies

Wills continues to argue fallaciously when he resorts to what appears to be a fallacious ad hominem attack against me. He asks (rhetorically?), “Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?” (Wills 2018, 19) It is not clear to me what sort of “privilege” Wills wants to claim that I have, or why he accuses me of colonialism and sexism, since he provides no arguments for these outrageous charges. Moreover, I do not see how this is at all relevant to Weak Scientism. Even if I am somehow “privileged” (whatever Wills means by that), Weak Scientism is either true or false regardless.

After all, I take it that Wills would not doubt his physician’s diagnoses just because he or she is “privileged” for working at a hospital. Whether his physician is “privileged” for working at a hospital has nothing to do with the accuracy of his or her diagnoses. For these reasons, Wills’ ad hominem is fallacious (as opposed to a legitimate ad hominem as a rebuttal to an argument from authority, see Mizrahi 2010). I think that SERRC readers will be better served if we focus on the ideas under discussion, specifically, Weak Scientism, not the people who discuss them.

Speaking of privilege and sexism, however, it might be worth noting that, throughout his paper, Wills refers to me as ‘Mr. Mizrahi’ (rather than ‘Dr. Mizrahi’ or simply ‘Mizrahi’, as is the norm in academic publications), and that he has misspelled my name on more than one occasion (Wills 2018, 18, 22, 24). Studies suggest that addressing female doctors with ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’ rather than ‘Dr.’ might reveal gender bias (see, e.g., Files et al. 2017). Perhaps forms of address reveal not only gender bias but also ethnic or racial bias when people with non-white or “foreign” names are addressed as Mr. (or Ms.) rather than Dr. (Erlenbusch 2018).

Aside from unsubstantiated claims about the amount of research produced by literary scholars, fallacious appeals to the alleged authority of unnamed German professors, and fallacious ad hominem attacks, does Wills offer any good arguments against Weak Scientism? He spends most of his paper (pages 19-22) trying to show that there is knowledge other than scientific knowledge, such as knowledge produced in the fields of “Law and Music Theory” (Wills 2018, 20). This, however, does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism. For, as mentioned above, Weak Scientism is the view that scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge, which means that there is non-scientific knowledge; it’s just not as good as scientific knowledge (Mizrahi 2017a, 356).

The Core of His Concept

Wills finally gets to Weak Scientism on the penultimate page of his paper. His main objection against Weak Scientism seems to be that it is not clear to him how scientific knowledge is supposed to be better than non-scientific knowledge. For instance, he asks, “Better in what context? By what standard of value?” (Wills 2018, 23) Earlier he also says that he is not sure what are the “certain relevant respect” in which scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge (Wills 2018, 18).

Unfortunately, this shows that Wills either has not read the other papers in my exchange with Brown or at least has not read them carefully. For, starting with my first defense of Weak Scientism (2017a), I explain in great detail the ways in which scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Briefly, scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of research output (i.e., more publications) and research impact (i.e., more citations). Scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success (Mizrahi 2017a, 364; Mizrahi 2017b, 11).

Wills tries to challenge the claim that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge by exclaiming, “Does science produce more knowledge that [sic] anything else? Hardly” (Wills 2018, 23). He appeals to Augustine’s idea that one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of [one’s] own existence” (Wills 2018, 23). In response, I would like to borrow a phrase from Brown (2018, 30): “good luck getting that published!”

Seriously, though, the point is that Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research. In terms of research output, scientific disciplines outperform non-scientific disciplines (see Figure 1 and Table 1 above; Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-21). Besides, just as “recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics,” they can also extend our knowledge in other fields as well, including scientific fields. That is, one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the” (Wills 2018, 23) Standard Model in physics or any other scientific theory and/or finding. For this reason, Wills’ objection does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism.

Wills (2018, 23) tries to problematize the notions of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success in an attempt to undermine the claim that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success. But it seems that he misunderstands these notions as they apply to the scientism debate.

As far as instrumental success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) asks, “Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start?” Even if it is true that “craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false. This is because Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12).

Solving the Problem and Explaining the Issue

As far as explanatory success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) writes, “Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist.” There are a couple of problems with this objection. First, explaining and problem solving are not the same thing (Mizrahi and Buckwalter 2014). Second, what makes scientific explanations good explanations are the good-making properties that are supposed to make all explanations (both scientific and non-scientific) good explanations, namely, unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).

I have already made this point several times in my replies to Brown, which Wills does not cite, namely, that Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) is used in both scientific and non-scientific contexts (Mizrahi 2017a, 362). That is, “IBE is everywhere” (Mizrahi 2017b, 20). It’s just that scientific IBEs are better than non-scientific IBEs because they exhibit more of (and to a greater extent) the aforementioned properties that make any explanation a good explanation (Mizrahi 2018b).

As far as predictive success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) asks, “Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily?” There are a few problems with this objection as well. First, even if it is true that “for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false, since Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12).

Second, contrary to what Wills (2018, 24) seems to think, testing predictions in science is not simply a matter of making assertions and then checking to see if they are true. For one thing, a prediction is not simply an assertion, but rather a consequence that follows from a hypothesis plus auxiliary hypotheses (Mizrahi 2015). For another, a prediction needs to be novel such that we would not expect it to be the case except from the vantage point of the theory that we are testing (Mizrahi 2012).

As I have advised Brown (Mizrahi 2018, 17), I would also advise Wills to consult logic and reasoning textbooks, not because they provide support for the claim that “science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions,” as Wills (2018, 23) erroneously thinks, but because they discuss hypothesis testing in science. For Wills’ (2018, 24) remark about Joyce scholars suggests a failure to understand how hypotheses are tested in science.

Third, like Brown (2017, 49), Wills (2018, 23) admits that, just like science, philosophy is in the explanation business. For Wills (2018, 23) says that, “certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science” (emphasis added). But if distinct fields of study have the same aim (i.e., to explain), then their products (i.e., explanations) can be evaluated with respect to similar criteria, such as unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).

In other words, there is no incommensurability here, as Wills seems to think, insofar as both science and philosophy produce explanations and those explanations must exhibit the same good-making properties that make all explanations good explanations (Mizrahi 2018a, 17; 2018b).

“You Passed the Test!”

If Wills (2018, 24) wants to suggest that philosophers should be “testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines,” then I would agree. However, “testing” does not simply mean making assertions and then checking to see if they are true, as Wills seems to think. After all, how would one check to see if assertions about theoretical entities are true? To test a hypothesis properly, one must derive a consequence from it (plus auxiliary assumptions) that would be observed only if the hypothesis (plus the auxiliary assumptions) is true.

Observations and/or experimentation would then indicate to one whether the consequence obtains or not (Mizrahi 2012). Of course, some philosophers have been doing just that for some time now (Knobe 2017). For instance, some experimental philosophers test hypotheses about the alleged intuitiveness of philosophical ideas and responses to thought experiments (see, e.g., Kissinger-Knox et al. 2018). I welcome such empirical work in philosophy.

Contrary to what Wills (2018, 19) seems to think, then, my aim is not to antagonize philosophers. Rather, my aim is to reform philosophy. In particular, as I have suggested in my recent reply to Brown (Mizrahi 2018a, 22), I think that philosophy would benefit from adopting not only the experimental methods of the cognitive and social sciences, as experimental philosophers have done, but also the methods of data science, such as data mining and corpus analysis (see, e.g., Ashton and Mizrahi 2018a and 2018b).

Indeed, the XPhi Replicability Project recently published a report on replication studies of 40 experimental studies according to which experimental studies “successfully replicated about 70% of the time” (Cova et al. 2018). With such a success rate, one could argue that the empirical revolution in philosophy is well under way (see also Knobe 2015). Resistance is futile!

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

Ashton, Z., and Mizrahi, M. “Intuition Talk is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the ‘Received Wisdom’ About Armchair Philosophy.” Erkenntnis 83, no. 3 (2018a): 595-612.

Ashton, Z., and Mizrahi, M. “Show Me the Argument: Empirically Testing the Armchair Philosophy Picture.” Metaphilosophy 49, no. 1-2 (2018b): 58-70.

Brown, C. M. “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s So Bad About Scientism?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 42-54.

Brown, C. M. “Defending Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s Arguments for Weak Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 1-35.

Cova, Florian, Brent Strickland, Angela G Abatista, Aurélien Allard, James Andow, Mario Attie, James Beebe, et al. “Estimating the Reproducibility of Experimental Philosophy.” PsyArXiv, April 21, 2018. doi:10.17605/OSF.IO/SXDAH.

Erlenbusch, V. “Being a Foreigner in Philosophy: A Taxonomy.” Hypatia 33, no. 2 (2018): 307-324.

Files, J. A., Mayer, A. P., Ko, M. G., Friedrich, P., Jenkins, M., Bryan, M. J., Vegunta, S., Wittich, C. M., Lyle, M. A., Melikian, R., Duston, T., Chang, Y. H., Hayes, S. M. “Speaker Introductions at Internal Medicine Grand Rounds: Forms of Address Reveal Gender Bias.” Journal of Women’s Health 26, no. 5 (2017): 413-419.

Google. “Ngram Viewer.” Google Books Ngram Viewer. Accessed on May 21, 2018. https://books.google.com/ngrams.

JSTOR. “Create a Dataset.” JSTOR Data for Research. Accessed on May 22, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/dfr/.

Kissinger-Knox, A., Aragon, P., and Mizrahi, M. “Does Non-Moral Ignorance Exculpate? Situational Awareness and Attributions of Blame and Forgiveness.” Acta Analytica 33, no. 2 (2018): 161-179.

Knobe, J. “Experimental Philosophy.” Philosophy Compass 2, no. 1 (2007): 81-92.

Knobe, J. “Philosophers are Doing Something Different Now: Quantitative Data.” Cognition 135 (2015): 36-38.

Mizrahi, M. “Take My Advice–I Am Not Following It: Ad Hominem Arguments as Legitimate Rebuttals to Appeals to Authority.” Informal Logic 30, no. 4 (2010): 435-456.

Mizrahi, M. “Why the Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism Ultimately Fails.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 43, no. 1 (2012): 132-138.

Mizrahi, M. “Don’t Believe the Hype: Why Should Philosophical Theories Yield to Intuitions?” Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 34, no. 3 (2015): 141-158.

Mizrahi, M. “What’s So Bad about Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017a): 351-367.

Mizrahi, M. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Mizrahi, M. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018a): 7-25.

Mizrahi, M. “The ‘Positive Argument’ for Constructive Empiricism and Inference to the Best Explanation.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science (2018b): https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-018-9414-3.

Mizrahi, M. and Buckwalter, W. “The Role of Justification in the Ordinary Concept of Scientific Progress.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 45, no. 1 (2014): 151-166.

Scimago Journal & Country Rank. “Subject Bubble Chart.” SJR: Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Accessed on May 20, 2018. http://www.scimagojr.com/mapgen.php?maptype=bc&country=US&y=citd.

Wills, B. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

Author Information: Alfred Moore, University of York, UK, alfred.moore@york.ac.uk

Moore, Alfred. “Transparency and the Dynamics of Trust and Distrust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018), 26-32.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3W8

Please refer to:

A climate monitoring camp at Blackheath in London, UK, on the evening of 28 August 2009.
Image by fotdmike via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In 1961 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a survey suggesting that 90% of doctors who diagnosed cancer in their patients would choose not to tell them (Oken 1961). The doctors in the study gave a variety of reasons, including (unsubstantiated) fears that patients might commit suicide, and feelings of futility about the prospects of treatment. Among other things, this case stands as a reminder that, while it is a commonplace that lay people often don’t trust experts, at least as important is that experts often don’t trust lay people.

Paternalist Distrust

I was put in mind of this stunning example of communicative paternalism while reading Stephen John’s recent paper, “Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.” John makes a case against a presumption of openness in science communication that – although his argument is more subtle – reads at times like a rational reconstruction of a doctor-patient relationship from the 1950s. What is disquieting is that he makes a case that is, at first glance, quite persuasive.

When lay people choose to trust what experts tell them, John argues, they are (or their behaviour can usefully be modelled as though they are) making two implicit judgments. The first, and least controversial, is that ‘if some claim meets scientific epistemic standards for proper acceptance, then [they] should accept that claim’ (John 2018, 77). He calls this the ‘epistemological premise’.

Secondly, however, the lay person needs to be convinced that the ‘[i]nstitutional structures are such that the best explanation for the factual content of some claim (made by a scientist, or group, or subject to some consensus) is that this claim meets scientific “epistemic standards” for proper acceptance’ (John 2018, 77). He calls this the ‘sociological premise.’ He suggests, rightly, I think, that this is the premise in dispute in many contemporary cases of distrust in science. Climate change sceptics (if that is the right word) typically do not doubt that we should accept claims that meet scientific epistemic standards; rather, they doubt that the ‘socio-epistemic institutions’ that produce scientific claims about climate change are in fact working as they should (John 2018, 77).

Consider the example of the so-called ‘climate-gate’ controversy, in which a cache of emails between a number of prominent climate scientists were made public on the eve of a major international climate summit in 2009. The emails below (quoted in Moore 2017, 141) were full of claims that might – to the unitiated – look like evidence of sharp practice. For example:

“I should warn you that some data we have we are not supposed [to] pass on to others. We can pass on the gridded data—which we do. Even if WMO [World Meteorological Organization] agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.”

“You can delete this attachment if you want. Keep this quiet also, but this is the person who is putting in FOI requests for all emails Keith and Tim have written and received re Ch 6 of AR4 We think we’ve found a way around this.”

“The other paper by MM is just garbage. … I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd [sic] from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

As Phil Jones, then director of the Climate Research Unit, later admitted, the emails “do not read well.”[1] However, neither, on closer inspection,[2] did they show anything particularly out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing like corruption or fraud. Most of the controversy, it seemed, came from lay people misinterpreting the backstage conversation of scientists in light of a misleading image of what good science is supposed to look like.

The Illusions of Folk Philosophy of Science

This is the central problem identified in John’s paper. Many people, he suggests, evaluate the ‘sociological premise’ in light of a ‘folk philosophy of science’ that is worlds away from the reality of scientific practice. For this reason, revealing to a non-expert public how the sausage is made can lead not to understanding, ‘but to greater confusion’ (John 2017, 82). And worse, as he suggests happened in the climate-gate case, it might lead people to reject well-founded scientific claims in the mistaken belief that they did not meet proper epistemic standards within the relevant epistemic community. Transparency might thus lead to unwarranted distrust.

In a perfect world we might educate everybody in the theory and practice of modern science. In the absence of such a world, however, scientists need to play along with the folk belief in order to get lay audiences to adopt those claims that are in their epistemic best interests. Thus, John argues, scientists explaining themselves to lay publics should seek to ‘well-lead’ (the benevolent counterpart to mislead) their audience. That is, they should try to bring the lay person to hold the most epistemically sound beliefs, even if this means masking uncertainties, glossing complications, pretending more precision than you know to be the case, and so on.

Although John presents his argument as something close to heresy, his model of ‘well-leading’ speech describes a common enough practice. Economists, for instance, face a similar temptation to mask uncertainties and gloss complications and counter-arguments when engaging with political leaders and wider publics on issues such as the benefits and disadvantages of free trade policies.

As Dani Rodrik puts it:

As a professional economist, as an academic economist, day in and day out I see in seminars and papers a great variety of views on what the effects of trade agreements are, the ambiguous effects of deep integration. Inside economics, you see that there is not a single view on globalization. But the moment that gets translated into the political domain, economists have this view that you should never provide ammunition to the barbarians. So the barbarians are these people who don’t understand the notion of comparative advantage and the gains from trade, and you don’t want… any of these caveats, any of these uncertainties, to be reflected in the public debate. (Rodrik 2017, at c.30-34 mins).

‘Well-leading’ speech seems to be the default mode for experts talking to lay audiences.

An Intentional Deception

A crucial feature of ‘well-leading’ speech is that it has no chance of working if you tell the audience what you are up to. It is a strategy that cannot be openly avowed without undermining itself, and thus relies on a degree of deception. Furthermore, the well-leading strategy only works if the audience already trusts the experts in question, and is unlikely to help – and is likely to actively harm expert credibility – in context where experts are already under suspicion and scrutiny. John thus admits that this strategy can backfire if the audience is made aware of some of the hidden complications, and worse, as was case of in climate-gate, if it seems the experts actively sought to evade demands for transparency and accountability (John 2017, 82).

This puts experts in a bind: be ‘open and honest’ and risk being misunderstood; or engage in ‘well-leading’ speech and risk being exposed – and then misunderstood! I’m not so sure the dilemma is actually as stark as all that, but John identifies a real and important problem: When an audience misunderstands what the proper conduct of some activity consists in, then revealing information about the conduct of the activity can lead them to misjudge its quality. Furthermore, to the extent that experts have to adjust their conduct to conform to what the audience thinks it should look like, revealing information about the process can undermine the quality of the outcomes.

One economist has thus argued that accountability works best when it is based on information about outcomes, and that information about process ‘can have detrimental effects’ (Prat 2005: 863). By way of example, she compares two ways of monitoring fund managers. One way is to look at the yearly returns. The other way (exemplified, in her case, by pension funds), involves communicating directly with fund managers and demanding that they ‘explain their investment strategy’ (Prat 2005, 870). The latter strategy, she claims, produces worse outcomes than those monitored only by their results, because the agents have an incentive to act in a way that conforms to what the principal regards as appropriate rather than what the agent regards as the most effective action.

Expert Accountability

The point here is that when experts are held accountable – at the level of process – by those without the relevant expertise, their judgment is effectively displaced by that of their audience. To put it another way, if you want the benefit of expert judgment, you have to forgo the urge to look too closely at what they are doing. Onora O’Neill makes a similar point: ‘Plants don’t flourish when we pull them up too often to check how their roots are growing: political, institutional and professional life too may not flourish if we constantly uproot it to demonstrate that everything is transparent and trustworthy’ (O’Neill 2002: 19).

Of course, part of the problem in the climate case is that the outcomes are also subject to expert interpretation. When evaluating a fund manager you can select good people, leave them alone, and check that they hit their targets. But how do you evaluate a claim about likely sea-level rise over the next century? If radical change is needed now to avert such catastrophic effects, then the point is precisely not to wait and see if they are right before we act. This means that both the ‘select and trust’ and the ‘distrust and monitor’ models of accountability are problematic, and we are back with the problem: How can accountability work when you don’t know enough about the activity in question to know if it’s being done right? How are we supposed to hold experts accountable in ways that don’t undermine the very point of relying on experts?

The idea that communicative accountability to lay people can only diminish the quality either of warranted trust (John’s argument) or the quality of outcomes (Prat’s argument) presumes that expert knowledge is a finished product, so to speak. After all, if experts have already done their due diligence and could not get a better answer, then outsiders have nothing epistemically meaningful to add. But if expert knowledge is not a finished product, then demands for accountability from outsiders to the expert community can, in principle, have some epistemic value.

Consider the case of HIV-AIDS research and the role of activists in challenging expert ideas of what constituted ‘good science’ in conduct of clinical trials. In this engagement they ‘were not rejecting medical science,’ but were rather “denouncing some variety of scientific practice … as not conducive to medical progress and the health and welfare of their constituency” (Epstein 1996: 2). It is at least possible that the process of engaging with and responding to criticism can lead to learning on both sides and the production, ultimately, of better science. What matters is not whether the critics begin with an accurate view of the scientific process; rather, what matters is how the process of criticism and response is carried out.

On 25 April 2012, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) celebrated its 25th anniversary with a protest march through Manhattan’s financial district. The march, held in partnership with Occupy Wall Street, included about 2000 people.
Image by Michael Fleshman via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

We Are Never Alone

This leads me to an important issue that John doesn’t address. One of the most attractive features of his approach is that he moves beyond the limited examples, prevalent in the social epistemology literature, of one lay person evaluating the testimony of one expert, or perhaps two competing experts. He rightly observes that experts speak for collectives and thus that we are implicitly judging the functioning of institutions when we judge expert testimony. But he misses an analogous sociological problem on the side of the lay person. We rarely judge alone. Rather, we use ‘trust proxies’ (MacKenzie and Warren 2012).

I may not know enough to know whether those climate scientists were not doing good science, but others can do that work for me. I might trust my representatives, who have on my behalf conducted open investigations and inquiries. They are not climate scientists, but they have given the matter the kind of sustained attention that I have not. I might trust particular media outlets to do this work. I might trust social movements.

To go back to the AIDS case, ACT-UP functioned for many as a trust proxy of this sort, with the skills and resources to do this sort of monitoring, developing competence but with interests more closely aligned with the wider community affected by the issue. Or I might even trust the judgments of groups of citizens randomly selected and given an opportunity to more deeply engage with the issues for just this purpose (see Gastil, Richards, and Knobloch 2014).

This hardly, on its own, solves the problem of lay judgment of experts. Indeed, it would seem to place it at one remove and introduce a layer of intermediaries. But it is worth attending to these sorts of judgments for at least two reasons. One is because, in a descriptive sense, this is what actually seems to be going on with respect to expert-lay judgment. People aren’t directly judging the claims of climate scientists, and they’re not even judging the functioning of scientific institutions; they’re simply taking cues from their own trusted intermediaries. The second is that the problems and pathologies of expert-lay communication are, in large part, problems with their roots in failures of intermediary institutions and practices.

To put it another way, I suspect that a large part of John’s (legitimate) concern about transparency is at root a concern about unmediated lay judgment of experts. After all, in the climate-gate case, we are dealing with lay people effectively looking over the shoulders of the scientists as they write their emails. One might have similar concerns about video monitoring of meetings: they seem to show you what is going on but in fact are likely to mislead you because you don’t really know what you’re looking at (Licht and Naurin 2015). You lack the context and understanding of the practice that can be provided by observers, who need not themselves be experts, but who need to know enough about the practice to tell the difference between good and bad conduct.

The same idea can apply to transparency of reasoning, involving the demand that actors give a public account of their actions. While the demand that authorities explain how and why they reached their judgments seems to fall victim to the problem of lay misunderstanding, it also offers a way out of it. After all, in John’s own telling of the case, he explains in a convincing way why the first impression (that the ‘sociological premise’ has not been fulfilled) is misleading. The initial scandal initiated a process of scrutiny in which some non-experts (such as the political representatives organising the parliamentary inquiry) engaged in closer scrutiny of the expert practice in question.

Practical lay judgment of experts does not require that lay people become experts (as Lane 2014 and Moore 2017 have argued), but it does require a lot more engagement than the average citizen would either want or have time for. The point here is that most citizens still don’t know enough to properly evaluate the sociological premise and thus properly interpret information they receive about the conduct of scientists. But they can (and do) rely on proxies to do the work of monitoring and scrutinizing experts.

Where does this leave us? John is right to say that what matters is not the generation of trust per se, but warranted trust, or an alignment of trust and trustworthiness. What I think he misses is that distrust is crucial to the possible way in which transparency can (potentially) lead to trustworthiness. Trust and distrust, on this view, are in a dynamic relation: Distrust motivates scrutiny and the creation of institutional safeguards that make trustworthy conduct more likely. Something like this case for transparency was made by Jeremy Bentham (see Bruno 2017).

John rightly points to the danger that popular misunderstanding can lead to a backfire in the transition from ‘scrutiny’ to ‘better behaviour.’ But he responds by asserting a model of ‘well-leading’ speech that seems to assume that lay people already trust experts, and he thus leaves unanswered the crucial questions raised by his central example: What are we to do when we begin from distrust and suspicion? How we might build trustworthiness out of distrust?

Contact details: alfred.moore@york.ac.uk

References

Bruno, Jonathan. “Vigilance and Confidence: Jeremy Bentham, Publicity, and the Dialectic of Trust and Distrust.” American Political Science Review, 111, no. 2 (2017) pp. 295-307.

Epstein, S. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Gastil, J., Richards, R. C., & Knobloch, K. R. “Vicarious deliberation: How the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review influenced deliberation in mass elections.” International Journal of Communication, 8 (2014), 62–89.

John, Stephen. “Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 32, no. 2 (2017) 75-87.

Lane, Melissa. “When the Experts are Uncertain: Scientific Knowledge and the Ethics of Democratic Judgment.” Episteme 11, no. 1 (2014) 97-118.

Licht, Jenny de Fine, and Daniel Naurin. “Open Decision-Making Procedures and Public Legitimacy: An Inventory of Causal Mechanisms”. In Jon Elster (ed), Secrecy and Publicity in Votes and Debates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2015), 131-151.

MacKenzie, Michael, and Mark E. Warren, “Two Trust-Based Uses of Minipublics.” In John Parkinson and Jane Mansbridge (eds.) Deliberative Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2012), 95-124.

Moore, Alfred. Critical Elitism: Deliberation, Democracy, and the Politics of Expertise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Oken, Donald. “What to Tell Cancer Patients: A Study of Medical Attitudes.” Journal of the American Medical Association 175, no. 13 (1961) 1120-1128.

O’Neill, Onora. A Question of Trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Prat, Andrea. The Wrong Kind of Transparency. The American Economic Review 95, no. 3 (2005), 862-877.

[1] In a statement released on 24 November 2009, http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/2009/nov/cruupdate

[2] One of eight separate investigations was by the House of Commons select committee on Science and Technology (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/387/38702.htm).

Author information: Kjartan Koch Mikalsen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, kjartan.mikalsen@ntnu.no.

Mikalsen, Kjartan Koch. “An Ideal Case for Accountability Mechanisms, the Unity of Epistemic and Democratic Concerns, and Skepticism About Moral Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 1-5.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3S2

Please refer to:

Image from Birdman Photos, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

How do we square democracy with pervasive dependency on experts and expert arrangements? This is the basic question of Cathrine Holst and Anders Molander’s article “Public deliberation and the fact of expertise: making experts accountable.” Holst and Molander approach the question as a challenge internal to a democratic political order. Their concern is not whether expert rule might be an alternative to democratic government.

Rather than ask if the existence of expertise raises an “epistocratic challenge” to democracy, they “ask how science could be integrated into politics in a way that is consistent with democratic requirements as well as epistemic standards” (236).[1] Given commitment to a normative conception of deliberative democracy, what qualifies as a legitimate expert arrangement?

Against the backdrop of epistemic asymmetry between experts and laypersons, Holst and Molander present this question as a problem of accountability. When experts play a political role, we need to ensure that they really are experts and that they practice their expert role properly. I believe this is a compelling challenge, not least in view of expert disagreement and contestation. In a context where we lack sufficient knowledge and training to assess directly the reasoning behind contested advice, we face a non-trivial problem of deciding which expert to trust. I also agree that the problem calls for institutional measures.

However, I do not think such measures simply answer to a non-ideal problem related to untrustworthy experts. The need for institutionalized accountability mechanisms runs deeper. Nor am I convinced by the idea that introducing such measures involves balancing “the potential rewards from expertise against potential deliberative costs” (236). Finally, I find it problematic to place moral expertise side-by-side with scientific expertise in the way Holst and Molander do.

Accountability Mechanisms: More than Non-ideal Remedies

To meet the challenge of epistemic asymmetry combined with expert disagreement, Holst and Molander propose three sets of institutional mechanisms for scrutinizing the work of expert bodies (242-43). First, in order to secure compliance with basic epistemic norms, they propose laws and guidelines that specify investigation procedures in some detail, procedures for reviewing expert performance and for excluding experts with a bad record of accomplishment, as well as sanctions against sloppy work.

Second, in order to review expert judgements, they propose checks in the form of fora comprising peers, experts in other fields, bureaucrats and stakeholders, legislators, or the public sphere. Third, in order to assure that expert groups work under good conditions for inquiry and judgment, they propose organizing the work of such groups in a way that fosters cognitive diversity.

According to Holst and Molander, these measures have a remedial function. Their purpose is to counter the misbehavior of non-ideal experts, that is, experts whose behavior and judgements are biased or influenced by private interests. The measures concern unreasonable disagreement rooted in experts’ over-confidence or partiality, as opposed to reasonable disagreement rooted in “burdens of judgement” (Rawls 1993, 54). By targeting objectionable conduct and reasoning, they reduce the risk of fallacies and the “intrusion of non-epistemic interests and preferences” (242). In this way, they increase the trustworthiness of experts.

As I see it, this is to attribute a too limited role to the proposed accountability mechanisms. While they might certainly work in the way Holst and Molander suggest, it is doubtful whether they would be superfluous if all experts were ideal experts without biases or conflicting interests.

Even ideal experts are fallible and have partial perspectives on reality. The ideal expert is not omniscient, but a finite being who perceives the world from a certain perspective, depending on a range of contingent factors, such as training in a particular scientific field, basic theoretical assumptions, methodological ideals, subjective expectations, and so on. The ideal expert is aware that she is fallible and that her own point of view is just one among many others. We might therefore expect that she does not easily become a victim of overconfidence or confirmation bias. Yet, given the unavoidable limits of an individual’s knowledge and intellectual capacity, no expert can know what the world looks like from all other perspectives and no expert can be safe from misjudgments.

Accordingly, subjecting expert judgements to review and organizing diverse expert groups is important no matter how ideal the expert. There seems to be no other way to test the soundness of expert opinions than to check them against the judgements of other experts, other forms of expertise, or the public at large. Similarly, organizing diverse expert groups seems like a sensible way of bringing out all relevant facts about an issue even in the case of ideal experts. We do not have to suspect anyone of bias or pursuance of self-serving interests in order to justify these kinds of institutional measures.

Image by Birdman Photos via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

No Trade-off Between Democratic and Epistemic Concerns

An important aspect of Holst and Molander’s discussion of how to make experts accountable is the idea that we need to balance the epistemic value of expert arrangements against democratic concerns about inclusive deliberation. While they point out that the mechanisms for holding experts to account can democratize expertise in ways that leads to epistemic enrichment, they also warn that inclusion of lay testimony or knowledge “can result in undue and disproportional consideration of arguments that are irrelevant, obviously invalid or fleshed out more precisely in expert contributions” (244).

There is of course always the danger that things go wrong, and that the wrong voices win through. Yet, the question is whether this risk forces us to make trade-offs between epistemic soundness and democratic participation. Holst and Molander quote Stephen Turner (2003, 5) on the supposed dilemma that “something has to give: either the idea of government by generally intelligible discussion, or the idea that there is genuine knowledge that is known to few, but not generally intelligible” (236). To my mind, this formulation rests on an ideal picture of public deliberation that is not only excessively demanding, but also normatively problematic.

It is a mistake to assume that political deliberation cannot include “esoteric” expert knowledge if it is to be inclusive and open to everyone. If democracy is rule by public discussion, then every citizen should have an equal chance to contribute to political deliberation and will-formation, but this is not to say that all aspects of every contribution should be comprehensible to everyone. Integration of expert opinions based on knowledge fully accessible only to a few does not clash with democratic ideals of equal respect and inclusion of all voices.

Because of specialization and differentiation, all experts are laypersons with respect to many areas where others are experts. Disregarding individual variation of minor importance, we are all equals in ignorance, lacking sufficient knowledge and training to assess the relevant evidence in most fields.[2] Besides, and more fundamentally, deferring to expert advice in a political context does not imply some form of political status hierarchy between persons.

To acknowledge expert judgments as authoritative in an epistemic sense is simply to acknowledge that there is evidence supporting certain views, and that this evidence is accessible to everyone who has time and skill to investigate the matter. For this reason, it is unclear how the observation that political expert arrangements do not always harmonize with democratic ideals warrants talk of a need for trade-offs or a balancing of diverging concerns. In principle, there seems to be no reason why there has to be divergence between epistemic and democratic concerns.

To put the point even sharper, I would like to suggest that allowing alleged democratic concerns to trump sound expert advice is democratic in name only. With Jacob Weinrib (2016, 57-65), I consider democratic law making as essential to a just legal system because all non-democratic forms of legislation are defective arrangements that arbitrarily exclude someone from contributing to the enactment of the laws that regulate their interaction with others. Yet, an inclusive legislative procedure that disregards the best available reasons is hardly a case of democratic self-legislation.

It is more like raving blind drunk. Legislators that ignore state-of-the-art knowledge are not only deeply irrational, but also disrespectful of those bound by the laws that they enact. Need I mention the climate crisis? Understanding democracy as a process of discursive rationalization (Habermas 1996), the question is not what trade-offs we have to make, but how inclusive legislative procedures can be made sufficiently truth sensitive (Christiano 2012). We can only approximate a defensible democratic order by making democratic and epistemic concerns pull in the same direction.

Moral vs Scientific and Technical Expertise

Before introducing the accountability problem, Holst and Molander consider two ideal objections against giving experts an important political role: ‘(1) that one cannot know decisively who the knowers or experts are’ and ‘(2) that all political decisions have moral dimensions and that there is no moral expertise’ (237). They reject both objections. With respect to (1), they convincingly argue that there are indirect ways of identifying experts without oneself being an expert. With respect to (2), they pursue two strategies.

First, they argue that even if facts and values are intertwined in policy-making, descriptive and normative aspects of an issue are still distinguishable. Second, they argue that unless strong moral non-cognitivism is correct, it is possible to speak of moral expertise in the form of ‘competence to state and clarify moral questions and to provide justified answers’ (241). To my mind, the first of these two strategies is promising, whereas the second seems to play down important differences between distinct forms of expertise.

There are of course various types of democratic expert arrangements. Sometimes experts are embedded in public bodies making collectively binding decisions. At other occasions, experts serve an advisory function. Holst and Molander tend to use “expertise” and “expert” as unspecified, generic terms, and they refer to both categories side-by-side (235, 237). However, by framing their argument as an argument concerning epistemic asymmetry and the novice/expert-problem, they indicate that they have in mind moral experts in advisory capacities and as someone in possession of insights known to a few, yet of importance for political decision-making.

I agree that some people are better informed about moral theory and more skilled in moral argumentation than others are, but such expertise still seems different in kind from technical expertise or expertise within empirical sciences. Although moral experts, like other experts, provide action-guiding advice, their public role is not analogous to the public role of technical or scientific experts.

For the public, the value of scientific and technical expertise lies in information about empirical restraints and the (lack of) effectiveness of alternative solutions to problems. If someone is an expert in good standing within a certain field, then it is reasonable to regard her claims related to this field as authoritative, and to consider them when making political decisions. As argued in the previous section, it would be disrespectful and contrary to basic democratic norms to ignore or bracket such claims, even if one does not fully grasp the evidence and reasoning supporting them.

Things look quite different when it comes to moral expertise. While there can be good reasons for paying attention to what specialists in moral theory and practical reasoning have to say, we rarely, if ever, accept their claims about justified norms, values and ends as authoritative or valid without considering the reasoning supporting the claims, and rightly so. Unlike Holst and Molander, I do not think we should accept the arguments of moral experts as defined here simply based on indirect evidence that they are trustworthy (cf. 241).

For one thing, the value of moral expertise seems to lie in the practical reasoning itself just as much as in the moral ideals underpinned by reasons. An important part of what the moral expert has to offer is thoroughly worked out arguments worth considering before making a decision on an issue. However, an argument is not something we can take at face value, because an argument is of value to us only insofar as we think it through ourselves. Moreover, the appeal to moral cognitivism is of limited value for elevating someone to the status of moral expert. Even if we might reach agreement on basic principles to govern society, there will still be reasonable disagreement as to how we should translate the principles into general rules and how we should apply the rules to particular cases.

Accordingly, we should not expect acceptance of the conclusions of moral experts in the same way we should expect acceptance of the conclusions of scientific and technical expertise. To the contrary, we should scrutinize such conclusions critically and try to make up our own mind. This is, after all, more in line with the enlightenment motto at the core of modern democracy, understood as government by discussion: “Have courage to make use of your own understanding!” (Kant 1996 [1784], 17).

Contact details: kjartan.mikalsen@ntnu.no

References

Christiano, Thomas. “Rational Deliberation among Experts and Citizens.” In Deliberative Systems: Deliberative Democracy at the Large Scale, ed. John Parkinson and Jane Mansbridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Facts and Norms.

Holst, Cathrine, and Anders Molander. “Public deliberation and the fact of expertise: making experts accountable.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 3 (2017): 235-250.

Kant, Immanuel. Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology, History, and Edcucation, ed. Günther Zöller and Robert B. Louden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Turner, Stephen. Liberal Democracy 3.0: Civil Society in an Age of Experts. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2003.

Weinrib, Jacob. Dimensions of Dignity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[1] All bracketed numbers without reference to author in the main text refer to Holst and Molander (2017).

[2] This also seems to be Kant’s point when he writes that human predispositions for the use of reason “develop completely only in the species, but not in the individual” (2007 [1784], 109).

Author information: Jeroen Van Bouwel, Ghent University, Belgium, jeroen.vanbouwel@ugent.be; Michiel Van Oudheusden, SKC-CEN Belgian Nuclear Research Centre and University of Leuven, Belgium.

Van Bouwel, Jeroen and and Michiel Van Oudheusden. “Beyond Consensus? A Reply to Alan Irwin.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 48-53.

The pdf of the article includes specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Pq

Please refer to:

Image from Alex Brown via Flickr

 

We are grateful to Alan Irwin for his constructive response, “Agreeing to Differ?” to our paper and, notwithstanding differences between his view and ours, we agree with many of his comments. In this short rejoinder, we zoom in on the three main issues Irwin raises. We also use this opportunity to highlight and further develop some of our ideas.

The three issues Irwin brings up are:

How to understand consensus? Rather than, or along with, a thin ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sense of consensus as mutual agreement, one could adopt a thick conception of consensus, implying “faith in the common good and commitment to building a shared culture” (Irwin 2017). The thick sense (as enacted in Danish culture) suggests that disagreement is an integral part of consensus. Therefore, we would do well to pay more attention to conflict handling and disagreement within consensus-oriented discourse.

Why are so many public participation activities consensus-driven? We should question the institutional and political contexts within which consensus-seeking arises and how these contexts urge us to turn away from conflict and disagreement. And, why do public participation activities persist at all, given all the criticism they receive from various sides?

Should we not value the art of closure, of finding ways to make agreements, particularly in view of the dire state of world politics today?

These are legitimate questions and concerns, and Irwin is right to point them out. However, we believe some of the concepts discussed in our paper are helpful in addressing them. Let us start with the first issue Irwin raises, which we will link to the concept of meta-consensus.

Meta-Consensus

It is indeed helpful to draw a distinction between the thinner Anglo-Saxon sense of consensus and the thicker sense of consensus as faith in the common good, as Irwin suggests. In the latter sense, disagreement and dissensus can be seen as part of the consensus. We fully agree with Irwin that consensus and dissensus should be thought together rather than presented only in terms of contradiction and opposition. This is why we analytically distinguish a (simple) consensus from a meta-consensus.

As we sketch in our article, at the simple level, we might encounter disagreement and value pluralism, whereas at the meta-level, the meta-consensus provides a common ground for participation by explicitly or implicitly laying out the rules of engagement, the collective ways to handle conflict, and how to close or disclose discussion. The meta-consensus also impinges on the scope of issues that is opened to discussion, who may or may not participate, the stopping rules, the structure of interaction, and the rationales and procedures that guide participation in general.

We have sought to put this meta-consensus center stage by comparing and contrasting how it is enacted in, or through, two participation cases (participatory TA and the NIH consensus conference). In this way, we seek to give due attention to the common ground that enables and constrains consensus and dissensus formation, and to different institutional designs impinging on participation, without insisting on the necessity of a simple consensus or the need for closure.

Drawing attention to the meta-consensus that governs participation may help to facilitate more reflexive modes of engagement that can be opened to joint discussion rather than imposed on participants. It should also help participants to better understand when and why they are in disagreement and determine courses of action when this is the case. As such, it may contribute to “building a shared culture” by facilitating and by establishing a shared adhesion to the principles of inclusion, mutual listening, and respect (cf. Horst and Irwin 2010; Irwin 2017). However, we believe it is equally important to emphasize that there is always the possibility of dissensus, irreconciliation, and further conflict.

As we see it, entertaining this possibility is an important prerequisite or condition for genuine participation, as it creates an open and contested space in which participants can think, and engage, as adversaries. Thus, we concur with Irwin that consensus and dissensus both have a place in public participatory exercises (and in the public sphere more generally). However, when we are faced with a choice between them (as with fundamental disputes, such as those over abortion or human enhancement), we must carefully consider how, whether, and why we seek (dis)agreement. This is not to argue against consensus-seeking, but to insist on the importance of constructing and sustaining an agonistic, contestable order within participation.

Different Democratic Models of Participation

Irwin appropriately proposes to reflect more on the institutional and political contexts in which participation is organized. The question why we aim for consensus in public participation activities, as well as the broader question of why public participation activities persist at all, do indeed deserve more attention. We have not addressed these questions in our paper, but we do think being more explicit about the aims of participation is an integral part of the approach that we are advocating. In order to discuss and choose among the different democratic models of participation (aggregative, deliberative, participatory, and agonistic), it is imperative that we understand their political, economic, and social purposes or roles and make these explicit.

Similarly, we may ask how the models serve different aims within specific institutional and political contexts. Here, the notion of political culture springs to mind, as in our region (Flanders) and country (Belgium), conflicts and divisions between groups are often managed through social concertation between trade unions, employers’ organizations, and governments. This collective bargaining approach both challenges and complements more participatory modes of decision making (Van Oudheusden et al. 2015). As mentioned earlier, we do not consider this issue in our paper but it is well worthy of further reflection and consideration.

Irwin also wonders whether policy makers might think our concepts and models of participation miss the point as many of them see it. It is an interesting question (we wonder whether Irwin has any particular cases in mind), but one thing we can do is to insist that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to participation. Different options are available, as each participation model has strengths and weaknesses. It seems important to us to attend to these strengths and weaknesses, as the models designate roles and responsibilities (e.g. by specifying who is included in participation and how), foresee how the collective should interact and indicate what kinds of results may ensue from participatory practice. By juxtaposing them, we get a better picture of how problems, contexts, and challenges are framed and handled differently within each participatory setting. As making trade-offs between approaches is at the heart of policymaking, we invite policy makers (and decision makers more broadly) to explore these settings with us, and carefully consider how they embed multiple social and techno-scientific values and orientations.

Disclosure

As Irwin rightly notes in his reply, we do not propose one final alternative to existing practice but entertain the possibility of mobilizing more than one model of democracy in participation. This implies that we also allow for a consensual approach when it is warranted. However, in developing ideals that contrast with consensus, we open onto disclosure and a more agonistic appraisal of participation, thereby abandoning the ideal, and appeal, of final closure. In response to this move, Irwin wonders whether we should not value the art of closure, especially in these times. While we agree on the dire state of world politics, we are not convinced that replacing closure by disclosure would aggravate the present situation. Perhaps the contrary is true. What if the quest for consensus brought us to this situation in the first place?

As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues, in a world of consensual politics (also characterized as neoliberal, de-politicized or post-political, or in Mouffe’s words as a “politics of the center”), many voters turn to populists to voice their dissatisfaction (Mouffe 2005: 228). Populists build on this dissatisfaction, publicly presenting themselves as the only real alternative to the status quo. Thus, consensual politics contributes to hardening the opposition between those who are in (the establishment) and those who are out (the outsiders). In this antagonistic relation, the insiders carry the blame for the present state of affairs.

This tension is exacerbated through the blurring of the boundaries between the political left and right, as conflicts can no longer be expressed through the traditional democratic channels hitherto provided by party politics. Thus, well-intentioned attempts by “Third Way” thinkers, among others, to transcend left/right oppositions eventually give rise to antagonism, with populists (and other outsiders) denouncing the search for common ground. Instead, these outsiders seek to conquer more ground, to annex or colonize, typically at the expense of others.

Whether one agrees with Mouffe’s analysis of recent political developments or not, it is instructive to consider her vision of radical, agonistic (rather than antagonistic) politics. Contrary to antagonists, agonistic pluralists do seek some form of common ground; albeit a contested one that is negotiated politically. In this way, agonists “domesticate” antagonism, so that opposing parties confront each other as adversaries who respect the right to differ, rather than as enemies who seek to obliterate one another. Thus, an agonistic democracy enables a confrontation among adversaries – for instance, among liberal-conservative, social-democratic, neo-liberal and radical-democratic factions. A common ground (or meta-consensus) is established between these adversaries through party identification around clearly differentiated positions and by offering citizens a choice between political alternatives.

To reiterate, antagonistic democracy is characterised by the lack of a shared contested symbolic space (in other words, a meta-consensus) and the lack of agonistic channels through which grievances can be legitimately expressed. This lack emerges when there is too much consensus and consensus-seeking, as is arguably now the case in many (but not all) Western democracies. We therefore need to be explicit about the many aspects and different possible democratic models of participation. Rather than emphasize the need for more consensus and for closure, we would do well to engage with the notions of dissensus and disclosure.

This, in our mind, seems to be a more fruitful venue to sort out various political problems in the long run than attaching to the ideal of consensus and consensus-seeking. Disclosure keeps the channels open. It is a form of opening joint discussion on the various models of participation, not with the aim of inciting endless debate but of making the most of them by reflectively probing their strengths and weaknesses in specific situations and contexts. Rather than aiming for closure beyond plurality, it urges us to articulate what is at stake, for whom, and why, and what types of learning emerge in and through participation. It should also increase our understanding of what “game” – participatory model – we are enacting.

Beyond Consensus?

At the end of his response, Irwin raises the very pertinent question as to whether we need more disclosure now around climate change. For Irwin, “certain consensual ideals seem more important” (Irwin 2017). There are many aspects to Irwin’s big question, but let us pick out a couple and start sketching an answer.

First, calling for a consensual approach or a consensus regarding climate change risks backfiring. A demand for consensus in science may lead to more doubt mongering (cf. Oreskes & Conway 2010), not so much because of disagreement among scientists, but due to external pressures from various lobby or pressure groups that gain from manufacturing controversy (e.g. industry players and environmental NGOs). A lack of scientific consensus (within a framework that emphasizes the importance of achieving a scientific consensus) might, in turn, be used by politicians to undercut or criticize science or policies based on scientific evidence and consensus. Even the slightest doubt about a claimed consensus may erode public trust in climate science and scientists, as was the case in 2009 with Climategate.

Second, the demand for consensus in science might also set too high expectations for scientists (neglecting constraints on all sides, such as lack of time, scientific pluralism, and so on) and suggest that dissent in science is a marker of science failing to deliver.

Third, granting too much importance to scientific consensus risks silencing legitimate dissent (e.g. controversial alternative theories), whereas dissent and controversies also drive science and innovation. (There are, as we all know, many important scientific discoveries, paradigms, and theories that were for a long time ignored or suppressed because they went against the prevailing consensus.)

We are thus led to say that seeking a consensus on climate change does not result in effective policies and policymaking. Taking to heart Irwin’s plea “to imagine the kinds of closure which might be fruitfully established,” we think it is important to ask if closure here necessarily unfolds with consensus seeking, and if so, how consensus is best understood. Finding ways to break the antagonism invoked by a (depoliticized) scientific consensus on climate change may ultimately be more fruitful to forge long-term durable solutions among particular groups of actors, something that might be done by publicly disclosing the divergent agendas, stakes, and power mechanisms at play in “climate change.” (A scientific consensus does not tell us what to do about climate change anyway.)

Seen in this way, and again drawing on Mouffe, an agonistic constellation might have to be put in place, where disclosure challenges, or even breaks, the sterile opposition between outsiders and insiders. This is because disclosure requires that insiders clearly distinguish and differentiate their policies from one another, which urges them to develop real alternatives to existing problems. Ideally, these alternatives would embed a diversity of values around climate change and engender solutions that make use of the best available science without threatening a group’s core values (cf. Bolsen, Druckman & Cook 2015).

To give some quick examples, a first example could center on reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by adjusting consumption patterns; a second could insist on private enterprise-driven geo-engineering to mitigate global warming and its effects (e.g. technology to deflect heat away from the earth’s surface); a third alternative on making cash from carbon by emission-trading systems; a fourth on moving to Mars, etc.

Whichever political options are decided on, we again emphasize the importance of questioning the rationales and processes of consensus-seeking, which to our mind, are too often taken for granted. Creating a more agonistic setting might change the current stalemate around climate change (and related wicked problems), by re-imagining the relationships between insider and outsider groups, by insisting that different alternatives are articulated and heard, and by publicly disclosing the divergent agendas, stakes, and power mechanisms in the construction of problems and their solutions.

Conclusion

Thanks in large part to Alan Irwin’s thoughtful and carefully written response to our article, we are led to reflect on, and develop, the concepts of meta-consensus, disclosure, and democratic models of participation. We are also led to question the ideals of consensus and dissensus, as well as the processes that drive and sustain them, and to find meaningful and productive ways to disclose our similarities and differences. By highlighting different models of democracy and how these models are enacted in participation, we want to encourage reflection upon the different implications of participatory consensus-seeking. We hope our article and our conversation with Irwin facilitates further reflection of this kind, to the benefit of participation scholars, practitioners, and decision makers.

References

Bolsen, Toby; James Druckman, and Fay Lomax Cook. “Citizens’, Scientists’ and Policy Advisors’ Beliefs about Global Warming.” Annals of the AAPSS 658 (2015): 271-295.

Horst, Maja; and Alan Irwin. “Nations at Ease with Radical Knowledge: on Consensus, Consensusing and False Consensusness.” Social Studies of Science 40, no. 1 (2010): 105-126.

Irwin, Alan. 2017. “Agreeing to Differ? A Response to Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 11-14.

Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. London: Bloomsbury Press.

Mouffe, Chantal. “The Limits of John Rawls’ Pluralism.” Politics, Philosophy and Economics 4, no. 2 (2005): 221-31.

Van Bouwel, Jeroen and Michiel Van Oudheusden. 2017. “Participation Beyond Consensus? Technology Assessments, Consensus Conferences and Democratic Modulation.” Social Epistemology 31(6): 497-513.

Van Oudheusden, Michiel, Charlier, Nathan, Rosskamp, Benedikt & Pierre Delvenne. 2015. “Broadening, Deepening, and Governing Innovation: Flemish Technology Assessment in Historical and Socio-Political Perspective.” Research Policy 44(10): 1877-1886.”

Author Information: Stephen Turner, University of South Florida, turner@usf.edu

Turner, Stephen. “Thinking Epistemically about Experts and Publics: A Response to Selinger.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 9 (2014): 36-43.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1B3

Please refer to:

Evan Selinger’s review nicely captures the main concerns of my collection of essays, The Politics of Expertise. He raises an important question that is touched on in several essays but not fully developed: the problem of getting expert knowledge possessed by academics into something like public discussion or the public domain. This is of course only a part of the problem of expertise and the larger problem of knowledge in society. But it can be approached in more detail than was done in the book, in terms of the basic ideas of the book, and I will try to do that here. Much of what I will say deals with issues I have addressed in other places, so I will, rather tiresomely, cite myself, for those who wish more elaboration.  Continue Reading…