Archives For post-truth

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Fuller, Steve. “What are You Playing At? On the Use and Abuse of Games in STS.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 39-49.

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Image credit: PGuiri, via flickr

What follows is an omnibus reply to various pieces that have been recently written in response to Fuller (2017), where I endorsed the post-truth idea of science as a game—an idea that I take to have been a core tenet of science and technology studies (STS) from its inception. The article is organized along conceptual lines, taking on Phillips (2017), Sismondo (2017) and Baker and Oreskes (2017) in roughly that order, which in turn corresponds to the degree of sympathy (from more to less) that the authors have with my thesis.

What It Means to Take Games Seriously

Amanda Phillips (2017) has written a piece that attempts to engage with the issues I raised when I encouraged STS to own the post-truth condition, which I take to imply that science in some deep sense is a ‘game’. What she writes is interesting but a bit odd, since in the end she basically proposes STS’s current modus operandi as if it were a new idea.  But we’ve already seen Phillips’ future, and it doesn’t work. But she’s far from alone, as we shall see.

On the game metaphor itself, some things need to be said. First of all, I take it that Phillips largely agrees with me that the game metaphor is appropriate to science as it is actually conducted. Her disagreement is mainly with my apparent recommendation that STS follow suit. She raises the introduction of the mortar kick into US football, which stays within the rules but threatens player safety. This leads her to conclude that the mortar kick debases/jeopardizes the spirit of the game. I may well agree with her on this point, which she wishes to present as akin to a normative stance appropriate to STS.  However, I cannot tell for sure, just given the evidence she provides. I’d also like to see whether she would have disallowed past innovations that changed the play of the game—and, if so, which ones. In other words, I need a clearer sense of what she takes to be the ‘spirit of the game’, which involves inter alia judgements about tolerable risks over a period of time.

To be sure, judicial decisions normally have this character. Sometimes judges issue ‘landmark decisions’ which may invalidate previous judges’ rulings but, in any case, set a precedent on the basis of which future decisions should be made. Bringing it back to the case at hand, Phillips might say that football has been violating its spirit for a long time and that not only should the mortar kick be prohibited but so too some other earlier innovations. (In US Constitutional law, this would be like the history of judicial interpretation of citizen rights following the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, at least starting with Brown v. Board Education.) Of course, Phillips might instead give a more limited ruling that simply claims that the mortar kick is a step too far in the evolution of the game, which so far has stayed within its spirit. Or, she might simply judge the mortar kick to be within the spirit of the game, full stop. The arguments used to justify any of these decisions would be an exercise in elucidating what the ‘spirit of the game’ means.

I do not wish to be persnickety but to raise a point about what it means to think about science as a game. It means, at the very least, that science is prima facie an autonomous activity in the sense of having clear boundaries. Just as one knows when one is playing or not playing football, one knows when one is or is not doing science.  Of course, the impact

that has on the rest of society is an open question. For example, once dedicated schools and degree programmes were developed to train people in ‘science’ (and here I mean the term in its academically broadest sense, Wissenschaft), especially once they acquired the backing and funding of nation-states, science became the source of ultimate epistemic authority in virtually all policy arenas. This was something that really only began to happen in earnest in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Similarly, one could imagine a future history of football, perhaps inspired by the modern Olympics, in which larger political units acquire an interest in developing the game as a way of resolving their own standing problems that might otherwise be handled with violence, sometimes on a mass scale. In effect, the Olympics would be a regularly scheduled, sublimated version of a world war. In that possible world, football—as one of the represented sports—would come to perform the functions for which armed conflict is now used. Here sports might take inspiration from the various science ‘races’ in which the Cold War was conducted—notably the race to the Moon—was a highly successful version of this strategy in real life, as it did manage to avert a global nuclear war. Its intellectual residue is something that we still call ‘game theory’.

But Phillips’ own argument doesn’t plumb the depths of the game metaphor in this way. Instead she has recourse to something she calls, inspired by Latour (2004), a ‘collective multiplicity of critical thought’. She also claims that STS hasn’t followed Latour on this point. As a matter of fact, STS has followed Latour almost religiously on this point, which has resulted in a diffusion of critical impact. The field basically amplifies consensus where it exists, showing how it has been maintained, and amplifies dissent where it exists, similarly showing how it has been maintained. In short, STS is simply the empirical shadow of the fields it studies. That’s really all that Latour ever meant by ‘following the actors’.

People forget that this is a man who follows Michel Serres in seeing the parasite as a role model for life (Serres and Latour 1995; cf. Fuller 2000: chap. 7). If STS seems ‘critical’, that’s only an unintended consequence of the many policy issues involving science and technology which remain genuinely unresolved. STS adds nothing to settle the normative standing of these matters. It simply elaborates them and in the process perhaps reminds people of what they might otherwise wish to forget or sideline. It is not a worthless activity but to accord it ‘critical’ in any meaningful sense would be to do it too much justice, as Latour (2004) himself realizes.

Have STSers Always Been Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys?

Notwithstanding the French accent and the Inspector Clouseau demeanour, Latour’s modus operandi is reminiscent of ordinary language philosophy, that intellectual residue of British imperialism, which in the mid-twentieth century led many intelligent people to claim that the sophisticated English practiced in Oxbridge common rooms cut the world at the joints. Although Ernest Gellner (1959) provided the consummate take-down of the movement—to much fanfare in the media at the time—ordinary language philosophy persisted well into the 1980s, along the way influencing the style of ethnomethodology that filtered into STS. (Cue the corpus of Michael Lynch.)

Ontology was effectively reduced to a reification of the things that the people in the room were talking about and the relations predicated of them. And where the likes of JL Austin and PF Strawson spoke of ‘grammatical usage’, Latour and his followers refer to ‘semiotic network’, largely to avoid the anthropomorphism from which the ordinary language philosophers had suffered—alongside their ethnocentrism. Nevertheless, both the ordinary language folks and Latour think they’re doing an empirically informed metaphysics, even though they’re really just eavesdropping on themselves and the people in whose company they’ve been recently kept. Latour (1992) is the classic expression of STS self-eavesdropping, as our man Bruno meditates on the doorstop, the seatbelt, the key and other mundane technologies with which he can never quite come to terms, which results in his life becoming one big ethnomethodological ‘breaching experiment’.

All of this is a striking retreat from STS’s original commitment to the Edinburgh School’s ‘symmetry principle’, which was presented as an intervention in epistemology rather than ontology. In this guise STS was seen as threatening rather than merely complementing the established normative order because the symmetry principle, notwithstanding its vaunted neutrality, amounted to a kind of judgemental relativism, whereby ‘winning’ in science was downgraded to a contingent achievement, which could have been—and might still be—reversed under different circumstances. This was the spirit in which Shapin and Schaffer (1985) appeared to be such a radical book: It had left the impression that the truth is no more than the binding outcome of a trial of people and things: that is, a ‘game’ in its full and demystified sense.

While I have always found this position problematic as an end in itself, it is nonetheless a great opening move to acquire an alternative normative horizon from that offered by the scientific establishment, since it basically amounts to an ‘equal time’ doctrine in an arena where opponents are too easily mischaracterised and marginalised, if not outright silenced by being ‘consigned to the dustbin of history’. Indeed, as Kuhn had recognized, the harder the science, the clearer the distinction between the discipline and its history.

However, this normative animus began to disappear from STS once Latour’s actor-network theory became the dominant school around the time of the Science Wars in the mid-1990s. It didn’t take long before STS had become supine to the establishment, exemplified by Latour (2004)’s uncritical acceptance of the phrase ‘artificially maintained controversies’, which no doubt meets with the approval of Eric Baker and Naomi Oreskes (Baker and Oreskes 2017). For my own part, when I first read Latour (2004), I was reminded of Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase from the same period, albeit in the context of France’s refusal to support the Iraq War: ‘cheese-eating surrender monkey’.

Nevertheless, Latour’s surrender has stood STS in good stead, rendering it a reliable reflector of all that it observes. But make no mistake: Despite the radical sounding rhetoric of ‘missing masses’ and ‘parliament of things’, STS in the Latourian moment follows closely in the footsteps of ordinary language philosophy, which enthusiastically subscribed to the Wittgensteinian slogan of ‘leaving the world alone’. The difference is that whereas the likes of Austin and Strawson argued that our normal ways of speaking contain many more insights into metaphysics than philosophers had previously recognized, Latour et al. show that taking seriously what appears before our eyes makes the social world much more complicated than sociologists had previously acknowledged. But the lesson is the same in both cases: Carry on treating the world as you find it as ultimate reality—simply be more sensitive to its nuances.

It is worth observing that ordinary language philosophy and actor-network theory, notwithstanding their own idiosyncrasies and pretensions, share a disdain for a kind of philosophy or sociology, respectively, that adopts a ‘second order’ perspective on its subject matter. In other words, they were opposed to what Strawson called ‘revisionary metaphysics’, an omnibus phrase that was designed to cover both German idealism and logical positivism, the two movements that did the most to re-establish the epistemic authority of academics in the modern era. Similarly, Latour’s hostility to a science of sociology in the spirit of Emile Durkheim is captured in the name he chose for his chair at Sciences Po, Gabriel Tarde, the magistrate who moved into academia and challenged Durkheim’s ontologically closed sense of sociology every step of the way. In both cases, the moves are advertised as democratising but in practice they’re parochialising, since those hidden nuances and missing masses are supposedly provided by acts of direct acquaintance.

Cue Sismondo (2017), who as editor of the journal Social Studies of Science operates in a ‘Latour Lite’ mode: that is, all of the method but none of the metaphysics. First, he understands ‘post-truth’ in the narrowest possible context, namely, as proposed by those who gave the phenomenon its name—and negative spin—to make it 2016 Oxford English Dictionary word of the year. Of course, that’s in keeping with the Latourian dictum of ‘Follow the agents’. But it is also to accept the agents’ categories uncritically, even if it means turning a blind eye to STS’s own role in promoting the epistemic culture responsible for ‘post-truth’, regardless of the normative value that one ultimately places on the word.

Interestingly, Sismondo is attacked on largely the same grounds by someone with whom I normally disagree, namely, Harry Collins (Collins, Evans, Weinel 2017). Collins and I agree that STS naturally lends itself to a post-truth epistemology, a fact that the field avoids at its peril. However, I believe that STS should own post-truth as a feature of the world that our field has helped to bring about—to be sure, not ex nihilo but by creatively deploying social and epistemological constructivism in an increasingly democratised context. In contrast, while Collins concedes that STS methods can be used even by our political enemies, he calls on STS to follow his own example by using its methods to demonstrate that ‘expert knowledge’ makes an empirical difference to the improvement of judgement in a variety of arenas. As for the politically objectionable uses of STS methods, here Collins and I agree that they are worth opposing but an adequate politics requires a different kind of work from STS research.

In response to all this, Sismondo retreats to STS’s official self-understanding as a field immersed the detailed practices of all that it studies—as opposed to those post-truth charlatans who simply spin words to create confusion. But the distinction is facile and perhaps disingenuous. The clearest manifestation that STS attends to the details of technoscientific practice is the complexity—or, less charitably put, complication—of its own language.  The social world comes to be populated by so many entities, properties and relations simply because STS research is largely in business of naming and classifying things, with an empiricist’s bias towards treating things that appear different to be really different. It is this discursive strategy that results in the richer ontology that one typically finds in STS articles, which in turn is supposed to leave the reader with the sense that the STS researcher has a deeper and more careful understanding of what s/he has studied. But in the end, it is just a discursive strategy, not a mathematical proof. There is a serious debate to be had about whether the field’s dedication to detail—‘ontological inventory work’—is truly illuminating or obfuscating. However, it does serve to establish a kind of ‘expertise’ for STS.

Why Science Has Never Had Need for Consensus—But Got It Anyway

My double question to anyone who wishes to claim a ‘scientific consensus’ on anything is on whose authority and on what basis such a statement is made. Even that great defender of science, Karl Popper, regarded scientific facts as no more than conventions, agreed mainly to mark temporary settlements in an ongoing journey. Seen with a rhetorician’s eye, a ‘scientific consensus’ is demanded only when scientific authorities feel that they are under threat in a way that cannot be dismissed by the usual peer review processes. ‘Science’ after all advertises itself as the freest inquiry possible, which suggests a tolerance for many cross-cutting and even contradictory research directions, all compatible with the current evidence and always under review in light of further evidence. And to a large extent, science does demonstrate this spontaneous embrace of pluralism, albeit with the exact options on the table subject to change. To be sure, some options are pursued more vigorously than others at any given moment. Scientometrics can be used to chart the trends, which may make the ‘science watcher’ seem like a stock market analyst. But this is more ‘wisdom of crowds’ stuff than a ‘scientific consensus’, which is meant to sound more authoritative and certainly less transient.

Indeed, invocations of a ‘scientific consensus’ become most insistent on matters which have two characteristics, which are perhaps necessarily intertwined but, in any case, take science outside of its juridical comfort zone of peer review: (1) they are inherently interdisciplinary; (2) they are policy-relevant. Think climate change, evolution, anything to do with health. A ‘scientific consensus’ is invoked on just these matters because they escape the ‘normal science’ terms in which peer review operates. To a defender of the orthodoxy, the dissenters appear to be ‘changing the rules of science’ simply in order to make their case seem more plausible. However, from the standpoint of the dissenter, the orthodoxy is artificially restricting inquiry in cases where reality doesn’t fit its disciplinary template, and so perhaps a change in the rules of science is not so out of order.

Here it is worth observing that defenders of the ‘scientific consensus’ tend to operate on the assumption that to give the dissenters any credence would be tantamount to unleashing mass irrationality in society. Fortified by the fledgling (if not pseudo-) science of ‘memetics’, they believe that an anti-scientific latency lurks in the social unconscious. It is a susceptibility typically fuelled by religious sentiments, which the dissenters threaten to awaken, thereby reversing all that modernity has achieved.

I can’t deny that there are hints of such intent in the ranks of dissenters. One notorious example is the Discovery Institute’s ‘Wedge document’, which projected the erosion of ‘methodological naturalism’ as the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ to return the US to its Christian origins. Nevertheless, the paranoia of the orthodoxy underestimates the ability of modernity—including modern science—to absorb and incorporate the dissenters, and come out stronger for it. The very fact that intelligent design theory has translated creationism into the currency of science by leaving out the Bible entirely from its argumentation strategy should be seen as evidence for this point. And now Darwinists need to try harder to defeat it, which we see in their increasingly sophisticated refutations, which often end up with Darwinists effectively conceding points and simply admitting that they have their own way of making their opponents’ points, without having to invoke an ‘intelligent designer’.

In short, my main objection to the concept of a ‘scientific consensus’ is that it is epistemologically oversold. It is clearly meant to carry more normative force than whatever happens to be the cutting edge of scientific fashion this week. Yet, what is the life expectancy of the theories around which scientists congregate at any given time?  For example, if the latest theory says that the planet is due for climate meltdown within fifty years, what happens if the climate theories themselves tend to go into meltdown after about fifteen years? To be sure, ‘meltdown’ is perhaps too strong a word. The data are likely to remain intact and even be enriched, but their overall significance may be subject to radical change. Moreover, this fact may go largely unnoticed by the general public, as long as the scientists who agreed to the last consensus are also the ones who agree to the next consensus. In that case, they can keep straight their collective story of how and why the change occurred—an orderly transition in the manner of dynastic succession.

What holds this story together—and is the main symptom of epistemic overselling of scientific consensus—is a completely gratuitous appeal to the ‘truth’ or ‘truth-seeking’ (aka ‘veritism’) as somehow underwriting this consensus. Baker and Oreskes’ (2017) argument is propelled by this trope. Yet, interestingly early on even they refer to ‘attempts to build public consensus about facts or values’ (my emphasis). This turn of phrase comports well with the normal constructivist sense of what consensus is. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with trying to align public opinion with certain facts and values, even on the grand scale suggested by the idea of a ‘scientific consensus’. This is the stuff of politics as usual. However, whatever consensus is thereby forged—by whatever means and across whatever range of opinion—has no ‘natural’ legitimacy. Moreover, it neither corresponds to some pre-existent ideal of truth nor is composed of some invariant ‘truth stuff’ (cf. Fuller 1988: chap. 6). It is a social construction, full stop. If the consensus is maintained over time and space, it will not be due to its having been blessed and/or guided by ‘Truth’; rather it will be the result of the usual social processes and associated forms of resource mobilization—that is, a variety of external factors which at crucial moments impinge on the play of any game.

The idea that consensus enjoys some epistemologically more luminous status in science than in other parts of society (where it might be simply dismissed as ‘groupthink’) is an artefact of the routine rewriting of history that scientists do to rally their troops. As Kuhn long ago observed, scientists exaggerate the degree of doctrinal agreement to give forward momentum to an activity that is ultimately held together simply by common patterns of disciplinary acculturation and day-to-day work practices. Nevertheless, Kuhn’s work helped to generate the myth of consensus. Indeed, in my Cambridge days studying with Mary Hesse (circa 1980), the idea that an ultimate consensus on the right representation of reality might serve as a transcendental condition for the possibility of scientific inquiry was highly touted, courtesy of the then fashionable philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who flattered his Anglophone fans by citing Charles Sanders Peirce as his source for the idea. Yet even back then I was of a different mindset.

Under the influence of Foucault, Derrida and social constructivism (which were circulating in more underground fashion), as well as what I had already learned about the history of science (mainly as a student of Loren Graham at Columbia), I deemed the idea of a scientific consensus to reflect a secular ‘god of the gaps’ style of wishful thinking. Indeed I devoted a chapter of my Ph.D. on the ‘elusiveness’ of consensus in science, which was the only part of the thesis that I incorporated in Social Epistemology (Fuller 1988: chap. 9). It is thus very disappointing to see Baker and Oreskes continuing to peddle Habermas’ brand of consensus mythology, even though for many of us it had fallen still born from the presses more than three decades ago.

A Gaming Science Is a Free Science

Baker and Oreskes (2017) are correct to pick up on the analogy drawn by David Bloor between social constructivism’s scepticism with regard to transcendent conceptions of truth and value and the scepticism that the Austrian school of economics (and most economists generally) show to the idea of a ‘just price’, understood as some normative ideal that real prices should be aiming toward. Indeed, there is more than an analogy here. Alfred Schutz, teacher of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann of The Social Construction of Reality fame, was himself a member of the Mises Circle in Vienna, having been trained by him the law faculty. Market transactions provided the original template for the idea of ‘social construction’, a point that is already clear in Adam Smith.

However, in criticizing Bloor’s analogy, Baker and Oreskes miss a trick: When the Austrians and other economists talk about the normative standing of real prices, their understanding of the market is somewhat idealized; hence, one needs a phrase like ‘free market’ to capture it. This point is worth bearing in mind because it amounts to a competing normative agenda to the one that Baker and Oreskes are promoting. With the slow ascendancy of neo-liberalism over the second half of the twentieth century, that normative agenda became clear—namely, to make markets free so that real prices can prevail.

Here one needs to imagine that in such a ‘free market’ there is a direct correspondence between increasing the number of suppliers in the market and the greater degree of freedom afforded to buyers, as that not only drives the price down but also forces buyers to refine their choice. This is the educative function performed by markets, an integral social innovation in terms of the Enlightenment mission advanced by Smith, Condorcet and others in the eighteenth century (Rothschild 2002). Markets were thus promoted as efficient mechanisms that encourage learning, with the ‘hand’ of the ‘invisible hand’ best understood as that of an instructor. In this context, ‘real prices’ are simply the actual empirical outcomes of markets under ‘free’ conditions. Contra Baker and Oreskes, they don’t correspond to some a priori transcendental realm of ‘just prices’.

However, markets are not ‘free’ in the requisite sense as long as the state strategically blocks certain spontaneous transactions, say, by placing tariffs on suppliers other than the officially licensed ones or by allowing a subset of market agents to organize in ways that enable them to charge tariffs to outsiders who want access. In other words, the free market is not simply about lower taxes and fewer regulations. It is also about removing subsidies and preventing cartels. It is worth recalling that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations as an attack on ‘mercantilism’, an economic system not unlike the ‘socialist’ ones that neo-liberalism has tried to overturn with its appeal to the ‘free market’. In fact, one of the early neo-liberals (aka ‘ordo-liberals’), Alexander Rüstow, coined the phrase ‘liberal interventionism’ in the 1930s for the strong role that he saw for the state in freeing the marketplace, say, by breaking up state-protected monopolies (Jackson 2009).

Capitalists defend private ownership only as part of the commodification of capital, which in turn, allows trade to occur. Capitalists are not committed to an especially land-oriented approach to private property, as in feudalism, which through, say, inheritance laws restricts the flow of capital in order to stabilise the social order. To be sure, capitalism requires that traders know who owns what at any given time, which in turn supports clear ownership signals. However, capitalism flourishes only if the traders are inclined to part with what they already own to acquire something else. After all, wealth cannot grow if capital doesn’t circulate. The state thus serves capitalism by removing the barriers that lead people to accept too easily their current status as an adaptive response to situations that they regard as unchangeable. Thus, liberalism, the movement most closely aligned with the emerging capitalist sensibility, was originally called ‘radical’—from the Latin for ‘root’—as it promised to organize society according to humanity’s fundamental nature, the full expression of which was impeded by existing regimes, which failed to allow everyone what by the twentieth century would be called ‘equal opportunity’ in life (Halevy 1928).

I offer this more rounded picture of the normative agenda of free market thinkers because Baker and Oreskes engage in a rhetorical sleight of hand associated with the capitalists’ original foes, the mercantilists. It involves presuming that the public interest is best served by state authorised producers (of whatever). Indeed, when one speaks of the early modern period in Europe as the ‘Age of Absolutism’, this elision of the state and the public is an important part of what is meant. True to its Latin roots, the ‘state’ is the anchor of stability, the stationary frame of reference through which everything else is defined. Here one immediately thinks of Newton, but metaphysically more relevant was Hobbes whose absolutist conception of the state aimed to incarnate the Abrahamic deity in human form, the literal body of which is the body politic.

Setting aside the theology, mercantilism in practice aimed to reinvent and rationalize the feudal order for the emerging modern age, one in which ‘industry’ was increasingly understood as not a means to an end but an end in itself—specifically, not simply a means to extract the fruits of nature but an expression of human flourishing. Thus, political boundaries on maps started to be read as the skins of superorganisms, which by the nineteenth century came to be known as ‘nation-states’. In that case, the ruler’s job was not simply to keep the peace over what had been largely self-managed tracts of land, but rather to ‘organize’ them so that they functioned as a single productive unit, what we now call the ‘economy’, whose first theorization was as ‘physiocracy’. The original mercantilist policy involved royal licenses that assigned exclusive rights to a ‘domain’ understood in a sense that was not restricted to tracts of land, but extended to wealth production streams in general. To be sure, over time these rights were attenuated into privileges and subsidies, which allowed for some competition but typically on an unequal basis.

In contrast, capitalism’s ‘liberal’ sensibility was about repurposing the state’s power to prevent the rise of new ‘path dependencies’ in the form of, say, a monopoly in trade based on an original royal license renewed in perpetuity, which would only serve to reduce the opportunities of successive generations. It was an explicitly anti-feudal policy. The final frontier to this policy sensibility is academia, which has long been acknowledged to be structured in terms of what Robert Merton called the principle of ‘cumulative advantage’, the sources of which are manifold and, to a large extent, mutually reinforcing. To list just a few: (1) state licenses issued to knowledge producers, starting with the Charter of the Royal Society of London, which provided a perpetually protected space for a self-organizing community to do as they will within originally agreed constraints; (2) Kuhn-style paradigm-driven normal science, which yields to a successor paradigm only out of internal collapse, not external competition; (3) the anchoring effect of early academic training on subsequent career advancement, ranging from jobs to grants; (4) the evaluation of academic work in terms of a peer review system whose remit extends beyond catching errors to judging relevance to preferred research agendas; (5) the division of knowledge into ‘fields’ and ‘domains’, which supports a florid cartographic discourse of ‘boundary work’ and ‘boundary maintenance’.

The list could go on, but the point is clear to anyone with eyes to see: Even in these neo-liberal times, academia continues to present its opposition to neo-liberalism in the sort of neo-feudal terms that would have pleased a mercantilist. Lineage is everything, whatever the source of ancestral entitlement. Merton’s own attitude towards academia’s multiple manifestations of ‘cumulative advantage’ seemed to be one of ambivalence, though as a sociologist he probably wasn’t sufficiently critical of the pseudo-liberal spin put on cumulative advantage as the expression of the knowledge system’s ‘invisible hand’ at work—which seems to be Baker and Oreskes’ default position as defenders of the scientific status quo. However, their own Harvard colleague, Alex Csiszar (2017) has recently shown that Merton recognized that the introduction of the scientometrics in the 1960s—in the form of the Science Citation Index—made academia susceptible to a tendency that he had already identified in bureaucracies, ‘goal displacement’, whereby once a qualitative goal is operationalized in terms of a quantitative indicator, there is an incentive to work toward the indicator, regardless of its actual significance for achieving the original goal. Thus, the cumulative effect of high citation counts become surrogates for ‘truth’ or some other indicator-transcendent goal. In this real sense, what is at best the wisdom of the scientific crowd is routinely mistaken for an epistemically luminous scientific consensus.

As I pointed out in Fuller (2017), which initiated this recent discussion of ‘science as game’, a great virtue of the game idea is its focus on the reversibility of fortunes, as each match matters, not only to the objective standing of the rival teams but also to their subjective sense of momentum. Yet, from their remarks about intelligent design theory, Baker and Oreskes appear to believe that the science game ends sooner than it really does: After one or even a series of losses, a team should simply pack it in and declare defeat. Here it is worth recalling that the existence of atoms and the relational character of space-time—two theses associated with Einstein’s revolution in physics—were controversial if not deemed defunct for most of the nineteenth century, notwithstanding the problems that were acknowledged to exist in fully redeeming the promises of the Newtonian paradigm. Indeed, for much of his career, Ernst Mach was seen as a crank who focussed too much on the lost futures of past science, yet after the revolutions in relativity and quantum mechanics his reputation flipped and he became known for his prescience. Thus, the Vienna Circle that spawned the logical positivists was named in Mach’s honour.

Similarly intelligent design may well be one of those ‘controversial if not defunct’ views that will be integral to the next revolution in biology, since even biologists whom Baker and Oreskes probably respect admit that there are serious explanatory gaps in the Neo-Darwinian synthesis.[1] That intelligent design advocates have improved the scientific character of their arguments from their creationist origins—which I am happy to admit—is not something for the movement’s opponents to begrudge. Rather it shows that they learn from their mistakes, as any good team does when faced with a string of losses. Thus, one should expect an improvement in their performance. Admittedly these matters become complicated in the US context, since the Constitution’s separation of church and state has been interpreted in recent times to imply the prohibition of any teaching material that is motivated by specifically religious interests, as if the Founding Fathers were keen on institutionalising the genetic fallacy! Nevertheless, this blinkered interpretation has enabled the likes of Baker and Oreskes to continue arguing with earlier versions of ‘intelligent design creationism’, very much like generals whose expertise lies in having fought the previous war. But luckily, an increasingly informed public is not so easily fooled by such epistemically rearguard actions.


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Csiszar, Alex. “From the Bureaucratic Virtuoso to Scientific Misconduct: Robert K. Merton, Robert and Eugene Garfield, and Goal Displacement in Science.” Paper delivered to annual meeting of the History of Science Society. Toronto: 9-12 November 2017.

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

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Sismondo, Sergio. “Not a Very Slippery Slope: A Reply to Fuller.” EASST Review 36, no. 2 (2017):

[1] Surprisingly for people who claim to be historians of science, Baker and Oreskes appear to have fallen for the canard that only Creationists mention Darwin’s name when referring to contemporary evolutionary theory. In fact, it is common practice among historians and philosophers of science to invoke Darwin to refer to his specifically purposeless conception of evolution, which remains the default metaphysical position of contemporary biologists—albeit one maintained with increasing conceptual and empirical difficulty. Here it is worth observing that such leading lights of the Discovery Institute as Stephen Meyer and Paul Nelson were trained in the history and philosophy of science, as was I.

Author Information:Erik Baker and Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University,,

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

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Image credit: Walt Stoneburner, via flickr

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

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

Science as Game

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

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

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

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

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

Quietism and Critique

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

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

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

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

Where the Chips Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Accessible at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Amanda Phillips, Virginia Tech,

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

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Keith Allison, via flickr

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

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

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

Political Post-Truth

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost of Winning

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

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

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


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

Fuller, Steve. “Is STS all Talk and no Walk?” EASST Review 36, no. 1 (2017):

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

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

[1] “Marshall McLuhan on Football 2.0”

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


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

[5] Sorry Boston.

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

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

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Anne McCormack, via flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Truth Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wall of Conspiracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Post Truth?

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

Five Suggestions about Post Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riggio on Post Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[1] Local area code.

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

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

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

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

[6] “Agingado”; “becoming a gringo”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

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

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

Image credit: OZinOH, via flickr

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

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

Who was Andrew Jackson?

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

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

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

Enter Trump

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

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


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

Image credit: Hans Luthart, via flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Author Information: Adam Riggio, New Democratic Party of Canada,

Riggio, Adam. “Subverting Reality: We Are Not ‘Post-Truth,’ But in a Battle for Public Trust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 66-73.

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

Image credit: Cornerhouse, via flickr

Note: Several of the links in this article are to websites featuring alt-right news and commentary. This exists both as a warning for offensive content, as well as a sign of precisely how offensive the content we are dealing with actually is.

An important purpose of philosophical writing for public service is to prevent important ideas from slipping into empty buzzwords. You can give a superficial answer to the meaning of living in a “post-truth” world or discourse, but the most useful way to engage this question is to make it a starting point for a larger investigation into the major political and philosophical currents of our time. Post-truth was one of the many ideas American letters haemorrhaged in the maelstrom of Trumpism’s wake, the one seemingly most relevant to the concerns of social epistemology.

It is not enough simply to say that the American government’s communications have become propagandistic, or that the Trump Administration justifies its policies with lies. This is true, but trivial. We can learn much more from philosophical analysis. In public discourse, the stability of what information, facts, and principles are generally understood to be true has been eroding. General agreement on which sources of information are genuinely reliable in their truthfulness and trustworthiness has destabilized and diverged. This essay explores one philosophical hypothesis as to how that happened: through a sustained popular movement of subversion – subversion of consensus values, of reliability norms about information sources, and of who can legitimately claim the virtues of subversion itself. The drive to speak truth to power is today co-opted to punch down at the relatively powerless. This essay is a philosophical examination of how that happens.

Subversion as a Value and an Act

A central virtue in contemporary democracy is subversion. To be a subversive is to progress society against conservative, oppressive forces. It is to commit acts that transgress popular morality while providing a simultaneous critique of it. As new communities form in a society, or as previously oppressed communities push for equal status and rights, subversion calls attention to the inadequacy of currently mainstream morality to the new demands of this social development. Subversive acts can be publications, artistic works, protests, or even the slow process of conducting your own life publicly in a manner that transgresses mainstream social norms and preconceptions about what it is right to do.

Values of subversiveness are, therefore, politically progressive in their essence. The goal of subversion values is to destabilize an oppressive culture and its institutions of authority, in the name of greater inclusiveness and freedom. This is clear when we consider the popular paradigm case of subversive values: punk rock and punk culture. In the original punk and new wave scenes of 1970s New York and Britain, we can see subversion values in action. Punk’s embrace of BDSM and drag aesthetics subvert the niceties of respectable fashion. British punk’s embrace of reggae music promotes solidarity with people oppressed by racist and colonialist norms. Most obviously, punk enshrined a morality of musical composition through simplicity, jamming, and enthusiasm. All these acts and styles subverted popular values that suppressed all but vanilla hetero sexualities, marginalized immigrant groups and ethnic minorities, denigrated the poor, and esteemed an erudite musical aesthetic.

American nationalist conservatism today has adopted the form and rhetoric of subversion values, if not the content. The decadent, oppressive mainstream the modern alt-right opposes and subverts is a general consensus of liberal values – equal rights regardless of race or gender, an imperative to build a fair economy for all citizens, end police oppressive of marginalized communities, and so on. Alt-right activists push for the return of segregation and even ethnic cleansing of Hispanics from the United States. Curtis Yarvin, the intellectual centre of America’s alt-right, openly calls for an end to democratic institutions and their replacement with government by a neo-cameralist state structure that replaces citizenship with shareholds and reduces all public administration and foreign policy to the aim of profit. Yet because these ideas are a radical front opposing a broadly liberal democratic mainstream culture, alt-right activists declare themselves punk. They claim subversiveness in their appropriation of punk fashion in apparel and hair, and their gleeful offensiveness to liberal sensibilities with their embrace of public bigotry.

Subversion Logics: The Vicious Paradox and Trolling

Alt-right discourse and aesthetic claim to have inherited subversion values because their activists oppose a liberal democratic mainstream whose presumptions include the existence of universal human rights and the encouragement of cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity throughout society. If subversion values are defined entirely according to the act of subverting any mainstream, then this is true. But this would decouple subversion values from democratic political thought. At question in this essay – and at this moment in human democratic civilization – is whether such decoupling is truly possible.

If subversion as an act is decoupled from democratic values, then we can understand it as the act of forcing an opponent into a vicious paradox. One counters an opponent by interpreting their position as implying a hypocritical or self-contradictory logic. The most general such paradox is Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance. Alt-right discourse frames their most bigoted communications as subversive acts of total free speech – an absolutism of freedom that decries as censorship any critique or opposition to what they say. This is true whether they write on a comment thread, through an anonymous Twitter feed, or on a stage at UC Berkeley. We are left with the apparent paradox that a democratic society must, if we are to respect our democratic values without being hypocrites ourselves, accept the rights of the most vile bigots to spread racism, misogyny, anti-trans and heterosexist ideas, Holocaust denial, and even the public release of their opponents’ private information. As Popper himself wrote, the only response to such an argument is to deny its validity – a democratic society cannot survive if it allows its citizens to argue and advocate for the end of democracy. The actual hypocritical stance is free speech absolutism: permitting assaults on democratic society and values in the name of democracy itself.

Trolling, the chief rhetorical weapon of the alt-right, is another method of subversion, turning an opponent’s actions against herself. To troll is to communicate with statements so dripping in irony that an opponent’s own opposition can be turned against itself. In a simple sense, this is the subversion of insults into badges of honour and vice versa. Witness how alt-right trolls refer to themselves as shitlords, or denounce ‘social justice warriors’ as true fascists. But trolling also includes a more complex rhetorical strategy. For example, one posts a violent, sexist, or racist meme – say, Barack Obama as a witch doctor giving Brianna Wu a lethal injection. If you criticize the post, they respond that they were merely trying to bait you, and mock you as a fragile fool who takes people seriously when they are not – a snowflake. You are now ashamed, having fallen into their trap of baiting earnest liberals into believing in the sincerity of their racism, so you encourage people to dismiss such posts as ‘mere trolling.’ This allows for a massive proliferation of racist, misogynist, anti-democratic ideas under the cover of being ‘mere trolling’ or just ‘for the lulz.’

No matter the content of the ideology that informs a subversive act, any subversive rhetoric challenges truth. Straightforwardly, subversion challenges what a preponderant majority of a society takes to be true. It is an attack on common sense, on a society’s truisms, on that which is taken for granted. In such a subversive social movement, the agents of subversion attack common sense truisms because of their conviction that the popular truisms are, in fact, false, and their own perspective is true, or at least acknowledges more profound and important truths than what they attack. As we tell ourselves the stories of our democratic history, the content of those subversions were actually true. Now that the loudest voices in American politics claiming to be virtuous subversives support nationalist, racist, anti-democratic ideologies, we must confront the possibility that those who speak truth to power have a much more complicated relationship with facts than we often believe.

Fake News as Simply Lies

Fake news is the central signpost of what is popularly called the ‘post-truth’ era, but it quickly became a catch-all term that refers to too many disparate phenomena to be useful. When preparing for this series of articles, we at the Reply Collective discussed the influence of post-modern thinkers on contemporary politics, particularly regarding climate change denialism. But I don’t consider contemporary fake news as having roots in these philosophies. The tradition is regarded in popular culture (and definitely in self-identified analytic philosophy communities) as destabilizing the possibility of truth, knowledge, and even factuality.

This conception is mistaken, as any attentive reading of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Francois Lyotard, or Jean Beaudrillard will reveal that they were concerned – at least on the question of knowledge and truth – with demonstrating that there were many more ways to understand how we justify our knowledge and the nature of facticity than any simple propositional definition in a Tarskian tradition can include. There are more ways to understand knowledge and truth than seeing whether and how a given state of affairs grounds the truth and truth-value of a description. A recent article by Steve Fuller at the Institute of Art and Ideas considers many concepts of truth throughout the history of philosophy more complicated than the popular idea of simple correspondence. So when we ask whether Trumpism has pushed us into a post-truth era, we must ask which concept of truth had become obsolete. Understanding what fake news is and can be, is one productive probe of this question.

So what are the major conceptions of ‘fake news’ that exist in Western media today? I ask this question with the knowledge that, given the rapid pace of political developments in the Trump era, my answers will probably be obsolete, or at least incomplete, by publication. The proliferation of meanings that I now describe happened in popular Western discourse in a mere two months from Election Day to Inauguration Day. My account of these conceptual shifts in popular discourse shows how these shifts of meaning have acquired such speed.

Fake news, as a political phenomenon, exists as one facet of a broad global political culture where the destabilization of what gets to count as a fact and how or why a proposition may be considered factual has become fully mainstream. As Bruno Latour has said, the destabilization of facticity’s foundation is rooted in the politics and epistemology of climate change denialism, the root of wider denialism of any real value for scientific knowledge. The centrepiece of petroleum industry public relations and global government lobbying efforts, climate change denialism was designed to undercut the legitimacy of international efforts to shift global industry away from petroleum reliance. Climate change denial conveniently aligns with the nationalist goals of Trump’s administration, since a denialist agenda requires attacking American loyalty to international emissions reduction treaties and United Nations environmental efforts. Denialism undercuts the legitimacy of scientific evidence for climate change by countering the efficacy of its practical epistemic truth-making function. It is denial and opposition all the way down. Ontologically, the truth-making functions of actual states of affairs on climatological statements remain as fine as they always were. What’s disappeared is the popular belief in the validity of those truth-makers.

So the function of ‘fake news’ as an accusation is to sever the truth-making powers of the targeted information source for as many people who hear the accusation as possible. The accusation is an attempt to deny and destroy a channel’s credibility as a source of true information. To achieve this, the accusation itself requires its own credibility for listeners. The term ‘fake news’ first applied to the flood of stories and memes flowing from a variety of dubious websites, consisting of uncorroborated and outright fabricated reports. The articles and images originated on websites based largely in Russia and Macedonia, then disseminated on Facebook pages like Occupy Democrats, Eagle Rising, and Freedom Daily, which make money using clickthrough-generating headlines and links. Much of the extreme white nationalist content of these pages came, in addition to the content mills of eastern Europe, from radical think tanks and lobby groups like the National Policy Institute. These feeds are a very literal definition of fake news: content written in the form of actual journalism so that their statements appear credible, but communicating blatant lies and falsehoods.

The feeds and pages disseminating these nonsensical stories were successful because the infrastructure of Facebook as a medium incentivizes comforting falsehoods over inconvenient truths. Its News Feed algorithm is largely a similarity-sorting process, pointing a user to sources that resemble what has been engaged before. Pages and websites that depend on by-clickthrough advertising revenue will therefore cater to already-existing user opinions to boost such engagement. A challenging idea that unsettles a user’s presumptions about the world will receive fewer clickthroughs because people tend to prefer hearing what they already agree with. The continuing aggregation of similarity after similarity reinforces your perspective and makes changing your mind even harder than it usually is.

Trolling Truth Itself

Donald Trump is an epically oversignified cultural figure. But in my case for the moment, I want to approach him as the most successful troll in contemporary culture. In his 11 January 2017 press conference, Trump angrily accused CNN and Buzzfeed of themselves being “fake news.” This proposition seems transparent, at first, as a clear act of trolling, a President’s subversive action against critical media outlets. Here, the insulting meaning of the term is retained, but its reference has shifted to cover the Trump-critical media organizations that first brought the term to ubiquity shortly after the 8 November 2016 election. The intention and meaning of the term has been turned against those who coined it.

In this context, the nature of the ‘post-truth’ era of politics appears simple. We are faced with two duelling conceptions of American politics and global social purpose. One is the Trump Administration, with its propositions about the danger of Islamist terror and the size of this year’s live Inauguration audience. The other is the usual collection of news outlets referred to as the mainstream media. Each gives a presentation of what is happening regarding a variety of topics, neither of which is compatible, both of which may be accurate to greater or lesser degrees in each instance. The simple issue is that the Trump Administration pushes easily falsified transparent propaganda such as the lie about an Islamist-led mass murder in Bowling Green, Kentucky. This simple issue becomes an intractable problem because significantly large spaces in the contemporary media economy constitutes a hardening of popular viewpoints into bubbles of self-reinforcing extremism. Thanks to Facebook’s sorting algorithms, there will likely always be a large group of Trumpists who will consider all his administration’s blatant lies to be truth.

This does not appear to be a problem for philosophy, but for public relations. We can solve this problem of the intractable audience for propaganda by finding or creating new paths to reach people in severely comforting information bubbles. There is a philosophical problem, but it is far more profound than even this practically difficult issue of outreach. The possibility conditions for the character of human society itself is the fundamental battlefield in the Trumpist era.

The accusation “You are fake news!” of Trump’s January press conference delivered a tactical subversion, rendering the original use of the term impossible. The moral aspects of this act of subversion appeared a few weeks later, in a 7 February interview Trump Administration communications official Sebastian Gorka did with Michael Medved. Gorka’s words first appear to be a straightforward instance of authoritarian delegitimizing of opposition, as he equates ‘fake news’ with opposition to President Trump. But Gorka goes beyond this simple gesture to contribute to a re-valuation of the values of subversion and opposition in our cultural discourse. He accuses Trump-critical news organizations of such a deep bias and hatred of President Trump and Trumpism that they themselves have failed to understand and perceive the world correctly. The mainstream media have become untrustworthy, says Gorka, not merely because many of their leaders and workers oppose President Trump, but because those people no longer understand the world as it is. That conclusion is, as Breitbart’s messaging would tell us, the reason to trust the mainstream media no longer is their genuine ignorance. And because it was a genuine mistake about the facts of the world, that accusation of ignorance and untrustworthiness is actually legitimate.

Real Failures of Knowledge

Donald Trump, as well as the political movements that backed his Presidential campaign and the anti-EU side of the Brexit referendum, knew something about the wider culture that many mainstream analysts and journalists did not: they knew that their victory was possible. This is not a matter of ideology, but a fact about the world. It is not a matter of interpretive understanding or political ideology like the symbolic meanings of a text, object, or gesture, but a matter of empirical knowledge. It is not a straightforward fact like the surface area of my apartment building’s front lawn or the number of Boeing aircraft owned by KLM. Discovering such a fact as the possibility conditions and likelihood of an election or referendum victory involving thousands of workers, billions of dollars of infrastructure and communications, and millions of people deliberating over their vote or refusal to vote is a massively complicated process. But it is still an empirical process and can be achieved to varying levels of success and failure. In the two most radical reversals of the West’s (neo)liberal democratic political programs in decades, the press as an institution failed to understand what is and is not possible.

Not only that, these organizations know they have failed, and know that their failure harms their reputation as sources of trustworthy knowledge about the world. Their knowledge of their real inadequacy can be seen in their steps to repair their knowledge production processes. These efforts are not a submission to the propagandistic demands of the Trump Presidency, but an attempt to rebuild real research capacities after the internet era’s disastrous collapse of the traditional newspaper industry. Through most of the 20th century, the news media ecology of the United States consisted of a hierarchy of local, regional, and inter/national newspapers. Community papers reported on local matters, these reports were among the sources for content at regional papers, and those regional papers in turn provided source material for America’s internationally-known newsrooms in the country’s major urban centres. This information ecology was the primary route not only for content, but for general knowledge of cultural developments beyond those few urban centres.

With the 21st century, it became customary to read local and national news online for free, causing sales and advertising revenue for those smaller newspapers to collapse. The ensuing decades saw most entry-level journalism work become casual and precarious, cutting off entry to the profession from those who did not have the inherited wealth to subsidize their first money-losing working years. So most poor and middle class people were cut off from work in journalism, removing their perspectives and positionality from the field’s knowledge production. The dominant newspaper culture that centred all content production in and around a local newsroom persisted into the internet era, forcing journalists to focus their home base in major cities. So investigation outside major cities rarely took place beyond parachute journalism, visits by reporters with little to no cultural familiarity with the region. This is a real failure of empirical knowledge gathering processes. Facing this failure, major metropolitan news organizations like the New York Times and Mic have begun building a network of regional bureaus throughout the now-neglected regions of America, where local independent journalists are hired as contractual workers to bring their lived experiences to national audiences.

America’s Democratic Party suffered a similar failure of knowledge, having been certain that the Trump campaign could never have breached the midwestern regions – Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania – that for decades have been strongholds of their support in Presidential elections. I leave aside the critical issue of voter suppression in these states to concentrate on a more epistemic aspect of Trump’s victory. This was the campaign’s unprecedented ability to craft messages with nuanced detail. Cambridge Analytica, the data analysis firm that worked for both Trump and, provided the power to understand and target voter outreach with almost individual specificity. This firm derives incredibly complex and nuanced data sets from the Facebook behaviour of hundreds of millions of people, and is the most advanced microtargeting analytics company operating today. They were able to craft messages intricately tailored to individual viewers and deliver them through Facebook advertising. So the Trump campaign has a legitimate claim to have won based on superior knowledge of the details of the electorate and how best to reach and influence them.

Battles Over the Right to Truth

With this essay, I have attempted an investigation that is a blend of philosophy and journalism, an examination of epistemological aspects of dangerous and important contemporary political and social phenomena and trends. After such a mediation, I feel confident in proposing the following conclusions.

1) Trumpist propaganda justifies itself with an exclusive and correct claim to reliability as a source of knowledge: that the Trump campaign was the only major information source covering the American election that was always certain of the possibility that they could win. That all other media institutions at some point did not understand or accept the truth of Trump’s victory being possible makes them less reliable than the Trump team and Trump personally.

2) The denial of a claim’s legitimacy as truth, and of an institution’s fidelity to informing people of truths, has become such a powerful weapon of political rhetoric that it has ended all cross-partisan agreement on what sources of information about the wider world are reliable.

3) Because of the second conclusion, journalism has become an unreliable set of knowledge production techniques. The most reliable source of knowledge about that election was the analysis of mass data mining Facebook profiles, the ground of all Trump’s public outreach communications. Donald Trump became President of the United States with the most powerful quantitative sociology research program in human history.

4) This is Trumpism’s most powerful claim to the mantle of the true subversives of society, the virtuous rebel overthrowing a corrupt mainstream. Trumpism’s victory, which no one but Trumpists themselves thought possible, won the greatest achievement of any troll. Trumpism has argued its opponent into submission, humiliated them for the fact of having lost, then turned out to be right anyway.

The statistical analysis and mass data mining of Cambridge Analytica made Trump’s knowledge superior to that of the entire journalistic profession. So the best contribution that social epistemology as a field can make to understanding our moment is bringing all its cognitive and conceptual resources to an intense analysis of statistical knowledge production itself. We must understand its strengths and weaknesses – what statistical knowledge production emphasizes in the world and what escapes its ability to comprehend. Social epistemologists must ask themselves and each other: What does qualitative knowledge discover and allow us to do, that quantitative knowledge cannot? How can the qualitative form of knowledge uncover a truth of the same profundity and power to popularly shock an entire population as Trump’s election itself?

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,


Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

Please refer to:


Image credit: Der Robert, via flickr

The Oxford Dictionary made ‘post-truth’ word of the year for 2016. Here is the definition, including examples of usage:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief:

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’

In STS terms, this definition is clearly ‘asymmetrical’ because it is pejorative, not neutral. It is a post-truth definition of ‘post-truth’. It is how those dominant in the epistemic power game want their opponents to be seen. In my recent symmetrical exposition of ‘post-truth’ for the Guardian, I suggested that the Oxford Dictionary’s definition speaks the lion’s truth, which tries to create as much moral and epistemic distance as possible from whatever facsimile of the truth the fox might be peddling. Thus, the fox—but not the lion—is portrayed as distorting the facts and appealing to emotion. Yet, the lion’s truth appears to the fox as simplistically straightforward and heavy-handed, often delivered in a fit of righteous indignation. Indeed, this classic portrayal of the lion/fox divide may better apply to the history of science than the history of politics.

For better or worse, STS recoiled from the post-truth worldview in 2004, when Bruno Latour famously waved the white flag in the Science Wars, which had been raging for nearly fifteen years—starting with the post-Cold War reassessment of public funding for science. Latour’s terms of surrender were telling. After all, he was the one who extended the symmetry principle from the Edinburgh School’s treatment of all human factors—regardless of whether we now deem them to have been ‘good’ and ‘bad’—to include all non-human factors as well. However, Latour hadn’t anticipated that symmetry applied not only to the range of objects studied but also the range of agents studying them.

Somewhat naively, Latour seemed to think that a universalization of the symmetry principle would make STS the central node in a universal network of those studying ‘technoscience’. Instead, everyone started to apply the symmetry principle for themselves, which led to rather cross-cutting networks and unexpected effects, especially once the principle started to be wielded by creationists, climate sceptics and other candidates for an epistemic ‘basket of deplorables’. And by turning symmetry to their advantages, the deplorables got results, at least insofar as the balance of power has gradually tilted more in their favour—again, for better or worse.

My own view has always been that a post-truth world is the inevitable outcome of greater epistemic democracy. In other words, once the instruments of knowledge production are made generally available—and they have been shown to work—they will end up working for anyone with access to them. This in turn will remove the relatively esoteric and hierarchical basis on which knowledge has traditionally acted as a force for stability and often domination. The locus classicus is the Republic, in which Plato promotes what in the Middle Ages was called a ‘double truth’ doctrine – one for the elites (which allows them to rule) and one for the masses (which allows them to be ruled).

Of course, the cost of making the post-truth character of knowledge so visible is that it also exposes a power dynamics that may become more intense and ultimately destructive of the social order. This was certainly Plato’s take on democracy’s endgame. In the early modern period, this first became apparent with the Wars of Religion that almost immediately broke out in Europe once the Bible was made readily available. (Francis Bacon and others saw in the scientific method a means to contain any such future conflict by establishing a new epistemic mode of domination.) While it is possible to defer democracy by trying to deflect attention from the naked power dynamics, as Latour does, with fancy metaphysical diversions and occasional outbursts in high dudgeon, those are leonine tactics that only serve to repress STS’s foxy roots. In 2017, we should finally embrace our responsibility for the post-truth world and call forth our vulpine spirit to do something unexpectedly creative with it.

The hidden truth of Aude sapere (Kant’s ‘Dare to know’) is Audet adipiscitur (Thucydides’ ‘Whoever dares, wins’).

Post-Truth Blues? Adam Briggle

SERRC —  December 22, 2016 — 6 Comments

Author Information: Adam Briggle, University of North Texas,


Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

Please refer to:


Image credit: Tim, via flickr

I think that 2017 might find social epistemologists busy reckoning with the fallout from the word of the year in 2016: post-truth. The definition for post-truth is: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The Oxford English Dictionary online gives this example: “in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.”

Bruno Latour might snidely conclude that “we have always been post-truth,” because there never was such a thing as objectivity and cherry-picking data is a game as old as data. Steve Fuller wrote something similar in a recent column. Daniel Sarewitz might as well just say “No duh! We have long suffered from an ‘excess of objectivity’!”

Finally, the world has bought what we have been selling! Oh…hmmm …

Now, maybe it is just my weak stomach, but I am feeling queasy with sellers’ remorse. If all expertise is just institutionalized power, then forget the fourth branch of government—CIA, DOE, EPA, Economic Council of Advisors, Department of Education—all of it is suspect and subject to revision. It strikes me as eerily similar to the conditions in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany that prompted Robert K. Merton to articulate the normative structure of science. Or maybe it is better thought of as “the problem of extension:” Perhaps someone other than a nuclear physicist can run the DOE, given that it is tangled up in all sorts of non-technical aspects of society, but Rick Perry?

I wonder if some of us might whistle a guilty tune under our breath, turn around and start re-assembling some of the structures we had earlier pulled apart.

Deconstructing such wooly myths like ‘objective facts’ I wonder if the social epistemology crowd might feel a bit of sellers’ remorse on this score.


Image credit: Mike Licht, via flickr

Editor’s Note: The following is a slightly abridged version of Steve Fuller’s article “Science has always been a bit ‘post-truth’” that appeared in The Guardian on 15 December 2016.

Even today, more than fifty years after its first edition, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions remains the first port of call to learn about the history, philosophy or sociology of science. This is the book famous for talking about science as governed by ‘paradigms’ until overtaken by ‘revolutions’.

Kuhn argued that the way that both scientists and the general public need to understand the history of science is ‘Orwellian’. He is alluding to 1984, in which the protagonist’s job is to rewrite newspapers from the past to make it seem as though the government’s current policy is where it had been heading all along. In this perpetually airbrushed version of history, the public never sees the U-turns, switches of allegiance and errors of judgement that might cause them to question the state’s progressive narrative. Confidence in the status quo is maintained and new recruits are inspired to follow in its lead. Kuhn claimed that what applies to totalitarian 1984 also applies to science united under the spell of a paradigm.

What makes Kuhn’s account of science ‘post-truth’ is that truth is no longer the arbiter of legitimate power but rather the mask of legitimacy that is worn by everyone in pursuit of power. Truth is just one more – albeit perhaps the most important – resource in a power game without end. In this respect, science differs from politics only in that the masks of its players rarely drop.

The explanation for what happens behind the masks lies in the work of the Italian political economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), devotee of Machiavelli, admired by Mussolini and one of sociology’s forgotten founders. Kuhn spent his formative years at Harvard in the late 1930s when the local kingmaker, biochemist Lawrence Henderson, not only taught the first history of science courses but also convened an interdisciplinary ‘Pareto Circle’ to get the university’s rising stars acquainted with the person he regarded as Marx’s only true rival.

For Pareto, what passes for social order is the result of the interplay of two sorts of elites, which he called, following Machiavelli, ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’. The lions acquire legitimacy from tradition, which in science is based on expertise rather than lineage or custom. Yet, like these earlier forms of legitimacy, expertise derives its authority from the cumulative weight of intergenerational experience. This is exactly what Kuhn meant by a ‘paradigm’ in science – a set of conventions by which knowledge builds in an orderly fashion to complete a certain world-view established by a founding figure – say, Newton or Darwin. Each new piece of knowledge is anointed by a process of ‘peer review’.

As in 1984, the lions normally dictate the historical narrative. But on the cutting room floor lies the activities of the other set of elites, the foxes. In today’s politics of science, they are known by a variety of names, ranging from ‘mavericks’ to ‘social constructivists’ to ‘pseudoscientists’. Foxes are characterised by dissent and unrest, thriving in a world of openness and opportunity. (Read more …)