Archives For post-truth

Post-Truth Blues? Adam Briggle

SERRC —  December 22, 2016 — 6 Comments

Author Information: Adam Briggle, University of North Texas, Adam.Briggle@unt.edu

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nc

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:

the_blues

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.

post-truth

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 …)