Archives For systemic epistemology

Author Information: Fabien Medvecky, University of Otago, fabien.medvecky@otago.ac.nz.

Medvecky, Fabien. “Institutionalised Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 15-20.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46m

A graffiti mural that was, and may even still be, on Maybachufer Strasse in Kreuzberg, Berlin.
Image by Igal Malis via Flicker / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to Matheson, Jonathan, and Valerie Joly Chock. “Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 1-9.

In a recent paper, I argued that science communication, the “umbrella term for the research into and the practice of increasing public understanding of and public engagement with science”, is epistemically unjust (Medvecky, 2017). Matheson and Chock disagree. Or at least, they disagree with enough of the argument to conclude that “while thought provoking and bold, Medvecky’s argument should be resisted” (Matheson & Chock, 2019). This has provided me with an opportunity to revisit some of my claims, and more importantly, to make explicit those claims that I had failed to make clear and present in the original paper. That’s what this note will do.

Matheson and Chock’s concern with the original argument is two-fold. Firstly, they argue that the original argument sinned by overreaching, and secondly, that while there might be credibility excess, such excess should not be viewed as constituting injustice. I’ll begin by outlining my original argument before tackling each of their complaints.

The Original Argument For the Epistemic Injustice of Science Communication

Taking Matheson and Chock’s formal presentation of the original argument, it runs as follows:

1. Science is not a unique and privileged field (this isn’t quite right. See below for clarification)

2. If (1), then science communication creates a credibility excess for science.

3. Science communication creates a credibility excess for science.

4. If (3), then science communication is epistemically unjust.

5. Science communication is epistemically unjust.

The original argument claimed that science was privileged in the way that its communication is institutionalised through policy and practices in a way not granted to other fields, and that fundamentally,

While there are many well-argued reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging with science, these are not necessarily reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging only with science. Focusing and funding only the communication of science as reliable knowledge represents science as a unique and privileged field; as the only reliable field whose knowledge requires such specialized treatment. This uniqueness creates a credibility excess for science as a field. (italic added)

Two clarificatory points are important here. Firstly, while Matheson and Chock run with premise 1, they do express some reservation. And so would I if this were the way I’d spelled it out. But I never suggested that there is nothing unique about science. There undoubtedly is, usually expressed in terms of producing especially reliable knowledge (Nowotny, 2003; Rudolph, 2014).

My original argument was that this isn’t necessarily enough to warrant special treatment when it comes to communication. As I stated then, “What we need is a reason for why reliable knowledge ought to be communicated. Why would some highly reliable information about the reproductive habits of a squid be more important to communicate to the public than (possibly less reliable) information about the structure of interest rates or the cultural habits of Sufis?” (Italic added)

In the original paper, I explicitly claimed, “We might be able to show that science is unique, but that uniqueness does not relate to communicative needs. Conversely, we can provide reasons for communicating science, but these are not unique to science.” (Medvecky, 2017)

Secondly, as noted by Matheson and Chock, the concern in the original argument revolves around “institutionalized science communication; institutionalized in government policies on the public understanding of and public engagement with the sciences; in the growing numbers of academic journals and departments committed to further the enterprise through research and teaching; in requirements set by funding bodies; and in the growing numbers of associations clustering under the umbrella of science communication across the globe.”

What maybe wasn’t made explicit was the role and importance of this institutionalization which is directed by government strategies and associated funding policies. Such policies are designed specifically and uniquely to increase public communication of and public engagement with science (MBIE, 2014).

They may mention that science should be read broadly, such as the UK’s A vision for Science and Society (DIUS, 2008) which states “By science we mean all-encompassing knowledge based on scholarship and research undertaken in the physical, biological, engineering, medical, natural and social disciplines, including the arts and humanities”. Yet the policy also claims that “These activities will deliver a coherent approach to increasing STEM skills, with a focus on improved understanding of the link between labour market needs and business demands for STEM skills and the ability of the education system to deliver flexibly into the 21st century.”

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is explicitly not a broad view of science; it’s specifically restricted to the bio-physical science and associated fields. If science was truly meant broadly, there’d be no need to specify STEM. These policies, including their funding and support, are uniquely aimed at science as found in STEM, and it is this form of institutionalized and institutionally sponsored science communication that is the target of my argument.

With these two points in mind, let me turn to Matheson and Chock’s objections.

The Problem of Overreaching and the Marketplace of Ideas

Matheson and Chock rightly spell out my view when stating that the “fundamental concern is that science communication represents scientific questions and knowledge as more valuable than questions and knowledge in other domains.” What they mistake is what I take issue with. Matheson and Chock claim, “When it comes to scientific matters, we should trust the scientists more. So, the claim cannot be that non-scientists should be afforded the same amount of credibility on scientific matters as scientists”. Of course, who wouldn’t agree with that!

For Matheson and Chock, given their assumption that science communication is equivalent to scientists communicating their science, it follows that it is only reasonable to give special attention to the subject or field one is involved in. As they say,

Suppose that a bakery only sells and distributes baked goods. If there is nothing unique and privileged about baked goods – if there are other equally important goods out there (the parallel of premise (1)) – then Medvecky’s reasoning would have it that the bakery is guilty of a kind of injustice by virtue of not being in the business of distributing those other (equally valuable) goods.

But they’re mistakenly equating science communication with communication by scientists about their science. This suggests both a misunderstanding of my argument and a skewed view of what science communication is.

To tackle the latter first, while some science communication efforts come from scientists, science communication is much broader. Science communication is equally carried out by (non-scientist) journalists, (non-scientist) PR and communication officers, (non-scientist) policy makers, etc. Indeed, some of the most popular science communicators aren’t scientists at all, such as Bill Bryson. So the concern is not with the bakery privileging baked goods, it’s with baked goods being privileged simpliciter.

As discussed in both my original argument and in Matheson and Chock’s reply, my concern revolves around science communication institutionalized through policies and such like. And that’s where the issue is; there is institutionalised science communication, including policy with significant funding such that there can be specific communication, and that such policies exist only for the sciences. Indeed, there are no “humanities communications” governmental policies or funding strategies, for example. Science communication, unlike Matheson and Chock’s idealised bakery, doesn’t operate in anything like a free market.

Let’s take the bakery analogy and its position it in a marketplace a little further (indeed, thinking of science communication and where it sits in the market place of knowledge fits well). My argument is not that a bakery is being unjust by selling only baked goods.

My argument is that if bakeries were the only stores to receive government subsidies and tax breaks, and were, through governments and institutional intervention, granted a significantly better position in the street, then yes, this is unfair. Other goods will fail to have the same level of traction as baked goods and would be unable to compete on a just footing. This is not to say that the bakeries need to sell other goods, but rather, by benefiting from the unique subsidies, baked goods gain a marketplace advantage over goods in other domains, in the same way that scientific knowledge benefits from a credibility excess (ie epistemic marketplace advantage) over knowledge in other domains.

Credibility Excess and Systemic Injustices

The second main objection raised by Matheson and Chock turns on whether any credibility excess science might acquire in this way should be considered an injustice. They rightly point out that “mere epistemic errors in credibility assessments, however, do not create epistemic injustice. While a credibility excess may result in an epistemic harm, whether this is a case of epistemic injustice depends upon the reason why that credibility excess is given.”

Specifically, Matheson and Chock argue that for credibility excess to lead to injustice, this must be systemic and carry across contexts. And according to them, science communication is guilty of no such trespass (or, at the very least, my original argument fails to make the case for such).

Again, I think this comes down to how science communication is viewed. Thinking of science communication in institutionalised ways, as I intended, is indeed systemic. What Matheson and Chock have made clear is that in my original argument, I didn’t articulate clearly enough just how deeply the institutionalisation of science communication is, and how fundamentally linked with assumptions of the epistemic dominance of science this institutionalisation is. I’ll take this opportunity to provide some example of this.

Most obviously, there are nationally funded policies that aim “to develop a culture where the sciences are recognised as relevant to everyday life and where the government, business, and academic and public institutions work together with the sciences to provide a coherent approach to communicating science and its benefits”; policies backed by multi-million dollar investments from governments (DIISRTE, 2009).

Importantly, there are no equivalent for other fields. Yes, there are funds for other fields (funds for research, funds for art, etc), but not funds specifically for communicating these or disseminating their findings. And, there are other markers of the systemic advantages science holds over other fields.

On a very practical, pecuniary level, funding for research is rarely on a playing field. In New Zealand, for example, the government’s Research Degree Completion Funding allocates funds to departments upon students’ successfully completing their thesis. This scheme grants twice as much to the sciences as it does to the social sciences, humanities, and law (Commission, 2016).

In practice, this means a biology department supervising a PhD thesis on citizen science in conservation would, on thesis completion, receive twice the fund that a sociology department supervising the very same thesis would receive. And this simply because one field delivers knowledge under the tag of science, while the other under the banner of the humanities.

At a political level the dominance of scientific knowledge is also evident. While most countries have a Science Advisor to the President or Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, there are no equivalent “Chief Humanities Advisor”. And the list of discrepancies goes on, with institutionalised science communication a key player. Of course, for each of these examples of where science and scientific knowledge benefits over other fields, some argument could be made for why this or that case does indeed require that science be treated differently.

But this is exactly why the credibility excess science benefits from is epistemically unjust; because it’s not simply ‘a case here to be explained’ and ‘a case there to be explained’. It’s systemic and carries across context. And science communication, by being the only institutionalised communication of a specific knowledge field, maintains, amplifies, and reinforces this epistemic injustice.

Conclusion

When I argued that science communication was epistemically unjust, my claim was directed at institutionalised science communication, with all its trimmings. I’m grateful to Matheson and Chock for inviting to re-read my original paper and see where I may have failed to be clear, and to think more deeply about what motivated my thinking.

I want to close on one last point Matheson and Chock brought up. They claimed that it would be unreasonable to expect science communicators to communicate other fields. This was partially in response to my original paper where I did suggest that we should move beyond science communication to something like ‘knowledge communication’ (though I’m not sure exactly what that term should be, and I’m not convince ‘knowledge communication’ is ideal either).

Here, I agree with Matheson and Chock that it would be silly to expect those with expertise in science to be obliged to communicate more broadly about fields beyond their expertise (though some of them do). The obvious answer might be to have multiple branches of communication institutionalised and equally supported by government funding, by advisors, etc: science communication; humanities communication; arts communication; etc. And I did consider this in the original paper.

But the stumbling block is scarce resources, both financially and epistemically. Financially, there is a limit to how much governments would be willing to fund for such activates, so having multiple branches of communication would become a deeply political ‘pot-splitting’ issue, and there, the level of injustice might be even more explicit. Epistemically, there is only so much knowledge that we, humans, can process. Simply multiplying the communication of knowledge for the sake of justice (or whatever it is that ‘science communication’ aims to communicate) may not, in the end, be particularly useful without some concerted and coordinate view as to what the purpose of all this communication was.

In light of this, there is an important question for us in social epistemology: as a society funding and participating in knowledge-distribution, which knowledge should we focus our ‘public-making’ and communication efforts on, and why? Institutionalised science communication initiatives assume that scientific knowledge should hold a special, privileged place in public communication. Perhaps this is right, but not simply on the grounds that “science is more reliable”. There needs to be a better reason. Without one, it’s simply unjust.

Contact details: fabien.medvecky@otago.ac.nz

References

Commission, T. T. E. (2016). Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) User Manual. Wellington, New Zealand: Tertiary Education Commission.

DIISRTE. (2009). Inspiring Australia: A national strategy for engagement with the sciences.  Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

DIUS. (2008). A vision for Science and Society: A consultation on developing a new strategy for the UK: Department for Innovation, Universities, and Skills London.

Matheson, J., & Chock, V. J. (2019). Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice. SERRC, 8(1).

MBIE. (2014). A Nation of Curious Minds: A national strategic plan for science in society.  Wellington: New Zealand Government.

Medvecky, F. (2017). Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Justice. Science and engineering ethics. doi: 10.1007/s11948-017-9977-0

Nowotny, H. (2003). Democratising expertise and socially robust knowledge. Science and Public Policy, 30(3), 151-156. doi: 10.3152/147154303781780461

Rudolph, J. L. (2014). Why Understanding Science Matters:The IES Research Guidelines as a Case in Point. Educational Researcher, 43(1), 15-18. doi: 10.3102/0013189×13520292

Author Information: Valerie Joly Chock & Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida, n01051115@ospreys.unf.edu & j.matheson@unf.edu.

Matheson, Jonathan, and Valerie Joly Chock. “Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 1-9.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44H

Image by sekihan via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Epistemic injustice occurs when someone is wronged in their capacity as a knower.[1] More and more attention is being paid to the epistemic injustices that exist in our scientific practices. In a recent paper, Fabien Medvecky argues that science communication is fundamentally epistemically unjust. In what follows we briefly explain his argument before raising several challenges to it.

Overview

In “Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice”, Fabien Medvecky argues that science communication is fundamentally epistemically unjust. First, let’s get clear on the target. According to Medvecky, science communication is in the business of distributing knowledge – scientific knowledge.

As Medvecky uses the term, ‘science communication’ is an “umbrella term for the research into and the practice of increasing public understanding of and public engagement with science.” (1394) Science communication is thus both a field and a practice, and consists of:

institutionalized science communication; institutionalized in government policies on the public understanding of and public engagement with the sciences; in the growing numbers of academic journals and departments committed to further the enterprise through research and teaching; in requirements set by funding bodies; and in the growing numbers of associations clustering under the umbrella of science communication across the globe. (1395)

Science communication involves the distribution of scientific knowledge from experts to non-experts, so science communication is in the distribution game. As such, Medvecky claims that issues of fair and just distribution arise. According to Medvecky, these issues concern both what knowledge is dispersed, as well as who it is dispersed to.

In examining the fairness of science communication, Medvecky connects his discussion to the literature on epistemic injustice (Anderson, Fricker, Medina). While exploring epistemic injustices in science is not novel, Medvecky’s focus on science communication is. To argue that science communication is epistemically unjust, Medvecky relies on Medina’s (2011) claim that credibility excesses can result in epistemic injustice. Here is José Medina,

[b]y assigning a level of credibility that is not proportionate to the epistemic credentials shown by the speaker, the excessive attribution does a disservice to everybody involved: to the speaker by letting him get away with things; and to everybody else by leaving out of the interaction a crucial aspect of the process of knowledge acquisition: namely, opposing critical resistance and not giving credibility or epistemic authority that has not been earned. (18-19)

Since credibility is comparative, credibility excesses given to members of some group can create epistemic injustice, testimonial injustice in particular, toward members of other groups. Medvecky makes the connection to science communication as follows:

While there are many well-argued reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging with science, these are not necessarily reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging only with science. Focusing and funding only the communication of science as reliable knowledge represents science as a unique and privileged field; as the only reliable field whose knowledge requires such specialized treatment.

This uniqueness creates a credibility excess for science as a field. And since science communication creates credibility excess by implying that concerted efforts to communicate non-science disciplines as fields of reliable knowledge is not needed, then science communication, as a practice and as a discipline, is epistemically unjust. (1400)

While the principle target here is the field of science communication, any credibility excesses enjoyed by the field will trickle down to the practitioners within it. If science is being given a credibility excess, then those engaged in scientific practice and communication are also receiving such a comparative advantage over non-scientists.

So, according to Medvecky, science communication is epistemically unjust to knowers – knowers in non-scientific fields. Since these non-scientific knowers are given a comparative credibility deficit (in contrast to scientific knowers), they are wronged in their capacity as knowers.

The Argument

Medvecky’s argument can be formally put as follows:

  1. Science is not a unique and privileged field.
  2. If (1), then science communication creates a credibility excess for science.
  3. Science communication creates a credibility excess for science.
  4. If (3), then science communication is epistemically unjust.
  5. Science communication is epistemically unjust.

Premise (1) is motivated by claiming that there are fields other than science that are equally important to communicate, popularize, and to have non-specialists engage. Medvecky claims that not only does non-scientific knowledge exists, such knowledge can be just as reliable as scientific knowledge, just as important to our lives, and just as in need of translation into layman’s terms. So, while scientific knowledge is surely important, it is not alone in this claim.

Premise (2) is motivated by claiming that science communication falsely represents science as a unique and privileged field since the concerns of science communication lie solely within the domain of science. By only communicating scientific knowledge, and failing to note that there are other worthy domains of knowledge, science communication falsely presents itself as a privileged field.

As Medvecky puts it, “Focusing and funding only the communication of science as reliable knowledge represents science as a unique and privileged field; as the only reliable field whose knowledge requires such specialised treatment.” (1400) So, science communication falsely represents science as special. Falsely representing a field as special in contrast to other fields creates a comparative credibility excess for that field and the members of it.

So, science communication implies that other fields are not as worthy of such engagement by falsely treating science as a unique and privileged field. This gives science and scientists a comparative credibility excess to these other disciplines and their practitioners.

(3) follows validly from (1) and (2). If (1) and (2) are true, science communication creates a credibility excess for science.

Premise (4) is motivated by Medina’s (2011) work on epistemic injustice. Epistemic injustice occurs when someone is harmed in their capacity as a knower. While Fricker limited epistemic injustice (and testimonial justice in particular) to cases where someone was given a credibility deficit, Medina has forcefully argued that credibility excesses are equally problematic since credibility assessments are often comparative.

Given the comparative nature of credibility assessments, parties can be epistemically harmed even if they are not given a credibility deficit. If other parties are given credibility excesses, a similar epistemic harm can be brought about due to comparative assessments of credibility. So, if science communication gives science a credibility excess, science communication will be epistemically unjust.

(5) follows validly from (3) and (4). If (3) and (4) are true, science communication is epistemically unjust.

The Problems

While Medvecky’s argument is provocative, we believe that it is also problematic. In what follows we motivate a series of objections to his argument. Our focus here will be on the premises that most directly relate to epistemic injustice. So, for our purposes, we are willing to grant premise (1). Even granting (1), there are significant problems with both (2) and (4). Highlighting these issues will be our focus.

We begin with our principle concerns regarding (2). These concerns are best seen by first granting that (1) is true – granting that science is not a unique and privileged field. Even granting that (1) is true, science communication would not create a credibility excess. First, it is important to try and locate the source of the alleged credibility excess. Science communicators do deserve a higher degree of credibility in distributing scientific knowledge than non-scientists. When it comes to scientific matters, we should trust the scientists more. So, the claim cannot be that non-scientists should be afforded the same amount of credibility on scientific matters as scientists.

The problem might be thought to be that scientists enjoy a credibility excess in virtue of their scientific credibility somehow carrying over to non-scientific fields where they are less credible. While Medvecky does briefly consider such an issue, this too is not his primary concern in this paper.[2] Medvecky’s fundamental concern is that science communication represents scientific questions and knowledge as more valuable than questions and knowledge in other domains. According to Medvecky, science communication does this by only distributing scientific knowledge when this is not unique and privileged (premise (1)).

But do you represent a domain as more important or valuable just because you don’t talk about other domains? Perhaps an individual who only discussed science in every context would imply that scientific information is the only information worth communicating, but such a situation is quite different than the one we are considering.

For one thing, science communication occurs within a given context, not across all contexts. Further, since that context is expressly about communicating science, it is hard to see how one could reasonably infer that knowledge in other domains is less valuable. Let’s consider an analogy.

Philosophy professors tend to only talk about philosophy during class (or at least let’s suppose). Should students in a philosophy class conclude that other domains of knowledge are less valuable since the philosophy professor hasn’t talked about developments in economics, history, biology, and so forth during class? Given that the professor is only talking about philosophy in one given context, and this context is expressly about communicating philosophy, such inferences would be unreasonable.

A Problem of Overreach

We can further see that there is an issue with (2) because it both overgeneralizes and is overly demanding. Let’s consider these in turn. If (2) is true, then the problem of creating credibility excesses is not unique to science communication. When it comes to knowledge distribution, science communication is far from the only practice/field to have a narrow and limited focus regarding which knowledge it distributes.

So, if there are multiple fields worthy of such engagement (granting (1)), any practice/field that is not concerned with distributing all such knowledge will be guilty of generating a similar credibility excess (or at least trying to). For instance, the American Philosophical Association (APA) is concerned with distributing philosophical knowledge and knowledge related to the discipline of philosophy. They exclusively fund endeavors related to philosophy and public initiatives with a philosophical focus. If doing so is sufficient for creating a credibility excess, given that other fields are equally worthy of such attention, then the APA is creating a credibility excess for the discipline of philosophy. This doesn’t seem right.

Alternatively, consider a local newspaper. This paper is focused on distributing knowledge about local issues. Suppose that it also is involved in the community, both sponsoring local events and initiatives that make the local news more engaging. Supposing that there is nothing unique or privileged about this town, Medvecky’s argument for (2) would have us believe that the paper is creating a credibility excess for the issues of this town. This too is the wrong result.

This overgeneralization problem can also be seen by considering a practical analogy. Suppose that a bakery only sells and distributes baked goods. If there is nothing unique and privileged about baked goods – if there are other equally important goods out there (the parallel of premise (1)) – then Medvecky’s reasoning would have it that the bakery is guilty of a kind of injustice by virtue of not being in the business of distributing those other (equally valuable) goods.

The problem is that omissions in distribution don’t have the implications that Medvecky supposes. The fact that an individual or group is not in the business of distributing some kind of good does not imply that those goods are less valuable.

There are numerous legitimate reasons why one may employ limitations regarding which goods one chooses to distribute, and these limitations do not imply that the other goods are somehow less valuable. Returning to the good of knowledge, focusing on distributing some knowledge (while not distributing other knowledge), does not imply that the other knowledge is less valuable.

This overgeneralization problem leads to an overdemanding problem with (2). The overdemanding problem concerns what all would be required of distributors (whether of knowledge or more tangible goods) in order to avoid committing injustice. If omissions in distribution had the implications that Medvecky supposes, then distributors, in order to avoid injustice, would have to refrain from limiting the goods they distribute.

If (2) is true, then science communication must fairly and equally distribute all knowledge in order to avoid injustice. And, as the problem of creating credibility excesses is not unique to science communication, this would apply to all other fields that involve knowledge distribution as well. The problem here is that avoiding injustice requires far too much of distributors.

An Analogy to Understand Avoiding Injustice

Let’s consider the practical analogy again to see how avoiding injustice is overdemanding. To avoid injustice, the bakery must sell and distribute much more than just baked goods. It must sell and distribute all the other goods that are as equally important as the baked ones it offers. The bakery would, then, have to become a supermarket or perhaps even a superstore in order to avoid injustice.

Requiring the bakery to offer a lot more than baked goods is not only overly demanding but also unfair. The bakery does not count with the other goods it is required to offer in order to avoid injustice. It may not even have the means needed to get these goods, which may itself be part of its reason for limiting the goods it offers.

As it is overdemanding and unfair to require the bakery to sell and distribute all goods in order to avoid injustice, it is overdemanding and unfair to require knowledge distributors to distribute all knowledge. Just as the bakery does not have non-baked goods to offer, those involved in science communication likely do not have the relevant knowledge in the other fields.

Thus, if they are required to distribute that knowledge also, they are required to do a lot of homework. They would have to learn about everything in order to justly distribute all knowledge. This is an unreasonable expectation. Even if they were able to do so, they would not be able to distribute all knowledge in a timely manner. Requiring this much of distributors would slow-down the distribution of knowledge.

Furthermore, just as the bakery may not have the means needed to distribute all the other goods, distributors may not have the time or other means to distribute all the knowledge that they are required to distribute in order to avoid injustice. It is reasonable to utilize an epistemic division of labor (including in knowledge distribution), much like there are divisions of labor more generally.

Credibility Excess

A final issue with Medvecky’s argument concerns premise (4). Premise (4) claims that the credibility excess in question results in epistemic injustice. While it is true that a credibility excess can result in epistemic injustice, it need not. So, we need reasons to believe that this particular kind of credibility excess results in epistemic injustice. One reason to think that it does not has to do with the meaning of the term ‘epistemic injustice’ itself.

As it was introduced to the literature by Fricker, and as it has been used since, ‘epistemic injustice’ does not simply refer to any harms to a knower but rather to a particular kind of harm that involves identity prejudice—i.e. prejudice related to one’s social identity. Fricker claims that, “the speaker sustains a testimonial injustice if and only if she receives a credibility deficit owing to identity prejudice in the hearer.” (28)

At the core of both Fricker’s and Medina’s account of epistemic injustice is the relation between unfair credibility assessments and prejudices that distort the hearer’s perception of the speaker’s credibility. Prejudices about particular groups is what unfairly affects (positively or negatively) the epistemic authority and credibility hearers grant to the members of such groups.

Mere epistemic errors in credibility assessments, however, do not create epistemic injustice. While a credibility excess may result in an epistemic harm, whether this is a case of epistemic injustice depends upon the reason why that credibility excess is given. Fricker and Medina both argue that in order for an epistemic harm to be an instance of epistemic injustice, it must be systematic. That is, the epistemic harm must be connected to an identity prejudice that renders the subject at the receiving end of the harm susceptible to other types of injustices besides testimonial.

Fricker argues that epistemic injustice is product of prejudices that “track” the subject through different dimensions of social activity (e.g. economic, professional, political, religious, etc.). She calls these, “tracker prejudices” (27). When tracker prejudices lead to epistemic injustice, this injustice is systematic because it is systematically connected to other kinds of injustice.

Thus, a prejudice is systematic when it persistently affects the subject’s credibility in various social directions. Medina accepts this and argues that credibility excess results in epistemic injustice when it is caused by a pattern of wrongful differential treatment that stems in part due to mismatches between reality and the social imaginary, which he defines as the collectively shared pool of information that provides the social perceptions against which people assess each other’s credibility (Medina 2011).

He claims that a prejudiced social imaginary is what establishes and sustains epistemic injustices. As such, prejudices are crucial in determining whether credibility excesses result in epistemic injustice. If the credibility excess stems from a systematically prejudiced social imaginary, then this is the case. If systematic prejudices are absent, then, even if there is credibility excess, there is no epistemic injustice.

Systemic Prejudice

For there to be epistemic injustice, then, the credibility excess must carry over across contexts and must be produced and sustained by systematic identity prejudices. This does not happen in Medvecky’s account given that the kind of credibility excess that he is concerned with is limited to the context in which science communication occurs.

Thus, even if there were credibility excess, and this credibility excess lead to epistemic harms, such harms would not amount to epistemic injustice given that the credibility excess does not extend across contexts. Further, the kind of credibility excess that Medvecky is concerned with is not linked to systematic identity prejudices.

In his argument, Medvecky does not consider prejudices. Rather than credibility excesses being granted due to a prejudiced social imaginary, Medvecky argues that the credibility excess attributed to science communicators stems from omission. According to him, science communication as a practice and as a discipline is epistemically unjust because it creates credibility excess by implying (through omission) that science is the only reliable field worthy of engagement.

On Medvecky’s account, the reason for the attribution of credibility excess is not prejudice but rather the limited focus of science communication. Thus, he argues that merely by not distributing knowledge from fields other than science, science communication creates a credibility excess for science that is worthy of the label of ‘epistemic injustice’. Medvecky acknowledges that Fricker would not agree that this credibility assessment results in injustice given that it is based on credibility excess rather than credibility deficits, which is itself why he bases his argument on Medina’s account of epistemic injustice.

However, given that Medvecky ignores the kind of systematic prejudice that is necessary for epistemic injustice under Medina’s account, it seems like Medina would not agree, either, that these cases are of the kind that result in epistemic injustice.[3] Even if omissions in the distribution of knowledge had the implications that Medvecky supposes, and it were the case that science communication indeed created a credibility excess for science in this way, this kind of credibility excesses would still not be sufficient for epistemic injustice as it is understood in the literature.

Thus, it is not the case that science communication is, as Medvecky argues, fundamentally epistemically unjust because the reasons why the credibility excess is attributed have nothing to do with prejudice and do not occur across contexts. While it is true that there may be epistemic harms that have nothing to do with prejudice, such harms would not amount to epistemic injustice, at least as it is traditionally understood.

Conclusion

In “Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice”, Fabien Medvecky argues that epistemic injustice lies at the very foundation of science communication. While we agree that there are numerous ways that scientific practices are epistemically unjust, the fact that science communication involves only communicating science does not have the consequences that Medvecky maintains.

We have seen several reasons to deny that failing to distribute other kinds of knowledge implies that they are less valuable than the knowledge one does distribute, as well as reasons to believe that the term ‘epistemic injustice’ wouldn’t apply to such harms even if they did occur. So, while thought provoking and bold, Medvecky’s argument should be resisted.

Contact details: j.matheson@unf.edu, n01051115@ospreys.unf.edu

References

Dotson, K. (2011) Tracking epistemic violence, tracking patterns of silencing. Hypatia 26(2): 236–257.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Medina, J. (2011). The relevance of credibility excess in a proportional view of epistemic injustice: Differential epistemic authority and the social imaginary. Social Epistemology, 25(1), 15–35.

Medvecky, F. (2018). Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Justice. Sci Eng Ethics 24: 1393-1408.

[1] This is Fricker’s description, See Fricker (2007, p. 1).

[2] Medvecky considers Richard Dawkins being given more credibility than he deserves on matters of religion due to his credibility as a scientist.

[3] A potential response to this point could be to consider scientism as a kind of prejudice akin to sexism or racism. Perhaps an argument can be made where an individual has the identity of ‘science communicator’ and receives credibility excess in virtue of an identity prejudice that favors science communicators. Even still, to be epistemic injustice this excess must track the individual across contexts, as the identities related to sexism and racism do. For it to be, a successful argument must be given for there being a ‘pro science communicator’ prejudice that is similar in effect to ‘pro male’ and ‘pro white’ prejudices. If this is what Medvecky has in mind, then we need to hear much more about why we should buy the analogy here.

Author Information: Patrick Bondy, Wichita State University, patrick.bondy@wichita.edu.

Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44n

Image by The Naked Ape via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance,” Nadja El Kassar brings disparate conceptions of ignorance from recent epistemology into contact with each other, and she proposes an integrated conception of ignorance which aims to capture the important aspects of each of these conceptions. This paper is both useful and stimulating for anyone interested in the subjects of knowledge and ignorance, especially those who might be ignorant of work on ignorance conducted in other branches of epistemology.

El Kassar’s View of Ignorance

El Kassar identifies three broad approaches to ignorance in the epistemology literature which lead up to her proposed integrated conception:

(1) Propositional conception of ignorance

This is the standard approach in epistemology. On this approach, ignorance consists of a subject’s lacking either knowledge of or belief in a true proposition.

(2) Agential conception of ignorance

Agential ignorance goes beyond mere propositional ignorance, in “explicitly includ[ing] the epistemic agent as contributing to and maintaining ignorance” (p.3). Epistemic vices such as arrogance, laziness, and closed-mindedness contribute to this sort of ignorance. On this approach, the particular way in which ignorance is brought about or maintained is viewed as partly constitutive of the ignorance itself.

(3) Structural conception of ignorance

Like the agential conception, this conception of ignorance views the causes of ignorance as partly constitutive of ignorance. Unlike the agential conception, however, the structural conception takes into account belief-forming practices and social structures that go beyond the individual cognizer.

(4) Integrated conception of ignorance

El Kassar argues that each of these other conceptions of ignorance gets at something important, and that they are not reducible to each other. So she proposes her integrated conception, which aims to bring the key features of these approaches together: “Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)” (p.7).

In the remainder of this commentary, I will do three things. First, I will briefly argue in defense of the Standard View, on the ground that we can say everything we want to say about ignorance, taking the propositional conception of ignorance as fundamental. Second, I will suggest that proponents of the Standard View of ignorance do not need to choose between viewing ignorance as a lack of knowledge and ignorance as lack of true belief. Just as there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” there can be corresponding weak and strong senses of “ignorance.”

Third, I will propose that we should recognize another kind of ignorance, which we might call practical ignorance, which consists of not knowing how to do things. There is a clear way in which practical ignorance is distinct from propositional ignorance, given that knowledge-how and knowledge-that appear to be different kinds of knowledge that are irreducible to each other. But there is also a sense in which practical ignorance can be partly constitutive of propositional ignorance, which is similar to how El Kassar sees agential ignorance as partly constitutive of ignorance in general. Indeed, I will suggest, El Kassar’s integrated view of ignorance might easily be extended to cover practical ignorance as well.

Propositional Ignorance as Fundamental

I want to defend the view that propositional ignorance is the most fundamental kind of ignorance. Viewing ignorance this way is intuitively plausible, and it allows us to say everything we need to say about ignorance.

The claim that propositional ignorance is most fundamental is ambiguous. On the one hand, it might mean that agential and structural ignorance are entirely reducible to it, in the sense that the crucial aspects of agential and structural ignorance as described above, such as the cognitive dispositions of individual subject or the knowledge-producing institutions extant in a society, are themselves all forms of propositional ignorance or that they derive from propositional ignorance.

El Kassar notes that that kind of reductivism is implausible, and it is not the view I mean to defend here. Instead, I mean to defend the proposal that “The propositional conception is most fundamental because the second and the third conceptions are not really conceptions of ignorance but rather accounts of different causes of ignorance” (p. 4).

On this view, the only condition that constitutes ignorance is lack of knowledge or true belief, and so all ignorance is propositional ignorance. But propositional ignorance might be brought about in various ways, and it is useful to distinguish the various ways in which it can be brought about or sustained, especially when some of those ways make a person’s or a group’s ignorance particularly dangerous or resilient.

This approach does not aim to denigrate the projects pursued by proponents of agential and structural conceptions of ignorance. It does not even aim to prevent us from talking about different kinds of ignorance as differentiated by their agential or structural causes.

Just as we can categorize propositional knowledge into different kinds based on the subject matter of what is known and the methods by which knowledge in different areas is acquired, all the while acknowledging that these are still all kinds of propositional knowledge, so too we can distinguish kinds of propositional ignorance based on the subject matter and the ways in which ignorance is caused or maintained, while still recognizing these as kinds of propositional ignorance.

El Kassar objects (p. 4) that this proposal misunderstands the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance, for they aim to broaden our view of ignorance, to incorporate more than just propositional ignorance. They view certain kinds of agential or structural causes of ignorance as part of what constitutes ignorance itself. Propositional conceptions of ignorance cannot capture these aspects of ignorance; these aspects of ignorance are not propositional in nature, after all.

But it seems that propositionalists can make two replies here. First, if virtue epistemologists such as Greco (2009) are right, then knowledge itself depends on subjects possessing and exercising certain cognitive abilities. In that case, there are agential aspects to propositional knowledge—and in some cases, to propositional ignorance. So some aspects of agential ignorance can be built into propositional ignorance.

And second, it’s not clear that we need to broaden the conception of ignorance to include things beyond propositional ignorance. Granting that there are aspects of agential and structural conceptions of ignorance that are left out of the account of what ignorance is when we take propositional ignorance as fundamental, it does not follow that we cannot take those aspects of agential and structural ignorance into account at all.

Some kinds of causes of ignorance are worth dwelling on in our theories of knowledge and ignorance. We just don’t need to think of the causes of ignorance as themselves forms of ignorance, or as part of what constitutes ignorance.

So it seems to me that we can still say everything we want to say about what are here called propositional, agential, and structural ignorance, even if we only ultimately count propositional ignorance as ignorance proper, and we count the features of agential and structural ignorance as important causes of ignorance proper but not themselves constitutive of ignorance.

Propositional Ignorance: Lack of Knowledge or True Belief?

El Kassar notes that if we take the propositional conception as fundamental, then we will need to decide whether to take ignorance to consist of a lack of true belief or a lack of knowledge. But perhaps we can have it both ways. As Goldman and Olsson (2010) note, ordinarily, from the fact that S lacks knowledge that p, one may infer that S is ignorant of p. Knowledge and ignorance appear to exhaust the logical space, for a given subject S and true proposition p.

Furthermore, in ordinary English there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” with the weak sense meaning simply true belief, and the strong sense meaning Gettier-proof justified true belief. In the weak sense of “knowledge,” ignorance is a lack of knowledge and a lack of true belief, because knowledge and true belief are one and the same, on this conception of knowledge.

In the strong sense of knowledge, on the other hand, a lack of knowledge results from lacking true belief, or from lacking justification, or from being Gettiered. But, Goldman and Olsson argue, lacking justification or being Gettiered do not make a person ignorant of whether p is true. As long as p is true and S believes p, it is incorrect to say that S is ignorant of p.

So Goldman and Olsson plump for the view of ignorance as lack of true belief. But another option is to take their initial point about ignorance as a lack of knowledge at face value. Given that ignorance is a lack of knowledge, and given that there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” one would expect that there also are strong and weak senses of “ignorance.” A lack of knowledge in the weak sense would be ignorance in the strong sense, and a lack of knowledge in the strong sense would be ignorance in the weak sense. Because knowledge in the strong sense consists of more than knowledge in the weak sense, a lack of knowledge in the strong sense takes less than does a lack of knowledge in the weak sense.

Practical Ignorance

The proposal here is that ignorance at bottom consists of a lack of knowledge. So far, in line with the Standard View, we have only been considering propositional knowledge: ignorance consists of the existence of a true proposition p, and S’s lacking knowledge that p.

But on the assumption that knowledge-how is not reducible to knowledge-that, it seems useful to have a conception of ignorance which will apply to the lack of knowledge-how.[1] For example, it seems natural enough to say that I am ignorant of how to kick a field goal, or how to speak Mandarin, or how to build a sturdy chair. And if knowledge-how is not just a species of knowledge-that, then my ignorance of these things consists of more than a simple lack of true beliefs about how these things are done: they consist at least in part of my lacking the ability to do them. We can call this kind of ignorance practical ignorance.

Importantly, practical ignorance is not reducible to the agential kind of ignorance discussed above. Although the agential conception takes cognitive abilities and dispositions to be partly constitutive of ignorance, practical ignorance would be much broader, encompassing practical inabilities as well as cognitive inabilities. Further, the agential conception of ignorance draws our attention to ignorance that can sometimes be actively maintained by very sophisticated intellectual abilities, in which case such ignorance does not manifest practical ignorance.

For example, one might have the ability to reinterpret data to support a preferred outlook. That is not a truth-conducive ability, but it is an ability to form desired beliefs, and it is an ability at which people can become quite proficient. In cases where a subject exercises such an ability, she might successfully maintain a distorted or mistaken outlook because of the exercise of practical abilities, not because of practical ignorance.

Like propositional ignorance, practical ignorance can be partly caused or sustained by agential and structural features of a person or a society. For example, practical ignorance can be actively maintained by an individual’s interference in her own development, or by other people’s interference in her development. Social structures geared toward the oppression of segments of the population, or which simply encourage members of certain social groups to participate in some activities and not to participate in others, can also contribute to sustaining people’s practical inabilities.

And, like agential ignorance, practical ignorance can be responsible for maintaining propositional ignorance in individuals or in groups, about individual propositions or about whole domains of knowledge.

For example, the inability to speak local languages can keep victims of human trafficking from gaining knowledge of the kinds of resources that might be available to them. The inability to perform relatively simple arithmetical calculations can prevent an individual from knowing whether she is receiving the correct amount of change in a transaction. The inability to conceptualize certain kinds of behaviour as abusive can sustain a lack of understanding of one’s situation.[2] And so on.

So although practical and propositional ignorance are different kinds of ignorance, on the assumption that know-how and knowledge-that are irreducible to each other, they appear to be susceptible to being intertwined in these ways.

The nature of practical ignorance and its relation to propositional ignorance bears further investigation. One potential feature of El Kassar’s integrated conception of ignorance is that, although it has a doxastic component built in, and so it does not account for practical ignorance as I am conceiving of it, it might be straightforwardly extended to cover practical ignorance as well.

For example, theoretical and practical ignorance might be defined and brought together as follows:

Theoretical ignorance: this would remain as El Kassar formulates her integrated conception of ignorance, as “a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)” (p.7).

Practical ignorance: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in her actions – where S fails to φ, or S does not φ well or properly – and her practical attitudes (ethical and pragmatic attitudes, ethical or practical virtues and vices).

Ignorance in general: combines theoretical and practical ignorance. Ignorance in general would then be: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in an agent’s beliefs or actions – whereby she fails to succeed in achieving the characteristic goal of the activity in question (believing truly, knowing, or successfully carrying out some practical action) – and in her epistemic and practical attitudes (doxastic attitudes, ethical attitudes, epistemic and practical virtues and vices).

Of course, this is only a suggestion about how practical ignorance could be conceptualized. I have argued in defense of the Standard View of (theoretical) ignorance, so this sort of unified integrated conception is not available to me. Nor do I mean to suggest that El Kassar is committed to developing her view of ignorance in this direction.

Still, given a commitment to El Kassar’s integrated view of ignorance, and given that we should also want to give an account of practical ignorance, this seems like a plausible way to deliver a unified treatment of ignorance.

Contact details: patrick.bondy@wichita.edu

References

El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Goldman, Alvin and Olsson, Erik (2009). “Reliabilism and the Value of Knowledge.” In: A. Haddock, A. Millar, and D. Pritchard, eds., Epistemic Value. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19-41.

Greco, John (2009). “Knowledge and Success from Ability.” Philosophical Studies 142 (1): 17-26.

Fricker, Miranda (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Peels, Rik (2010). “What Is Ignorance?” Philosophia 38: 57–67.

[1] Peels (2010) briefly considers the possibility of practical ignorance, only to set it aside and focus on propositional ignorance.

[2] I have in mind here Fricker’s (2007) treatment of hermeneutical injustice.

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43y

Image by David Grant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Sometimes, when it is hard to review a book, it is tempting to turn in some kind of personal reflection, one demonstrates why the reviewer felt disconnected from the text they were reviewing. This review of Bernard N. Wills Believing Weird Things – which I received three months ago, and have spent quite a bit of time thinking about in the interim – is just such a review-cum-reflection, because I am not sure what this book is about, nor who its intended audience is.

According to the blurb on the back Believing Weird Things is a response to Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (Henry Holt and Company, 1997). Shermer’s book is one I know all too well, having read and reread it when I started work on my PhD. At the time the book was less than ten years old, and Shermer and his cohort of Skeptics (spelt with a ‘K’ to denote that particular brand of sceptical thought popular among (largely) non-philosophers in the U.S.) were considered to be the first and final word on the rationality (more properly, the supposed irrationality) of belief in conspiracy theories.

Given I was working on a dissertation on the topic, getting to grips with the arguments against belief in such theories seemed crucial, especially given my long and sustained interest in the what you might call the contra-philosophy of Skepticism, the work of Charles Fort.

Times for the Fortean

Fort (who Wills mentions in passing) was a cantankerous collector and publisher of strange and inconvenient phenomena. His Book of the Damned (Boni and Liveright, 1919) is an early 20th Century litany of things which seemed to fall outside the systemic study of the world. From rains of frogs, to cities floating in the sky, Fort presented the strange and the wonderful, often without comment. When he did dare to theorise about the phenomena he cataloged, he often contradicted his previous theories in favour of new ones. Scholars of Fort think his lack of a system was quite deliberate: Fort’s damned data was meant to be immune to scientific study.

Fort was hardly a known figure in his day, but his work has gained fans and adherents, who call themselves Forteans and engage in the study of Forteana. Forteans collect and share damned data, from haunted physics laboratories, to falls of angel hair. Often they theorise about what might cause these phenomena, but they also often don’t dispute other interpretations of the same ‘damned data.’

John Keel, one of the U.S.’s most famous Forteans (and who, if he did not invent the term ‘Men in Black’ at least popularised their existence), had a multitude of theories about the origin of UFOs and monsters in the backwoods of the U.S., which he liberally sprinkled throughout his works. If you challenged Keel on what you thought was an inconsistency of thought he would brush it off (or get angry at the suggestion he was meant to consistent in the first place).

I was a fan of Forteana without being a Fortean: I fail the Fortean test of tolerating competing hypotheses, preferring to stipulate terms whilst encouraging others to join my side of the debate. But I love reading Forteana (it is a great source of examples for the social epistemologist), and thinking about alternative interpretations. So, whilst I do not think UAP (unexpected aerial phenomena – the new term for UFO) are creatures from another dimension, I do like thinking about the assumptions which drive such theories.

Note here that I say ‘theories’ quite deliberately: any student of Forteana will quickly become aware that modern Forteans (contra Fort himself) are typically very systematic about their beliefs. It is just that often the Fortean is happy to be a systemic pluralist, happily accepting competing or complimentary systems as equally possible.

Weird and Weirder

Which brings me back to Believing Weird Things. The first section concerns beliefs people like Shermer might find weird but Wills argues are reasonable in the context under which they developed. Wills’ interest here is wide, taking in astrology, fairies, and why he is not a Rastafarian. Along the way he contextualises those supposedly weird beliefs and shows how, at certain times or in certain places, they were the product of a systemic study of the world.

Wills points out that a fault of Skepticism is a lack of appreciation for history: often what we now consider rational was once flimflam (plate tectonics), and what was systemic and rational (astrology) is today’s quackery. As Wills writes:

The Ancients do not seem to me to be thinking badly so much as thinking in an alien context and under different assumptions that are too basic to admit evaluation in the ordinary empirical sense (which is not to say they admit of no evaluation whatsoever). Further, there are many things in Aristotle and the Hebrew Bible which strike me as true even though the question of ‘testing’ them scientifically and ‘skeptically’ is pretty much meaningless. In short, the weird beliefs I study are at minimum intelligible, sometimes plausible and occasionally true. [4]

Indeed, the very idea which underpins Shermer’s account, ‘magical thinking,’ seems to fail the skeptical test: why, like Shermer, would you think it is some hardwired function rather than culturally situated? But more importantly, how is magical thinking any different from any other kind of thinking?

This last point is important because, as others have argued (including myself) many beliefs people think are problematic are, when looked at in context with other beliefs, either not particularly problematic, or no more problematic than the beliefs we assume are produced rationally. The Psychology of Religion back in the early 20th Century is a good example of this: when psychologists worried about religious belief started looking at the similarities in belief formation between the religious and the non-religious, they started to find the same kind of ‘errors’ in irreligious people as well.

In the same respect, the work in social psychology on belief in conspiracy theories seems to be suffering the same kind of problem today: it’s not clear that conspiracy theorists are any less (or more) rational than the rest of us. Rather, often what marks out the difference in belief are the different assumptions about how the world is, or how it works. Indeed, as Wills writes:

Many weird ideas are only weird from a certain assumed perspective. This is important because this assumed perspective is often one of epistemic and social privilege. We tend to associate weird ideas with weird people we look down upon from some place of superior social status. [10]

The first section of Believing Weird Things is, then, possibly the best defence of a kind of Fortean philosophy one could hope for. Yet that is also an unfair judgement, because thinking of Believing Weird Things as a Fortean text is just my imposition: Fort is mentioned exactly once, and only in a footnote. I am only calling this a tentatively Fortean text because I am not sure who the book’s audience is. Ostensibly – at least according to the blurb – it is meant to be a direct reply to Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. But if it is, then it is twenty years late: Why People Believe Weird Things was published in 1997.

Not just that, but whilst Believing Weird Things deals with a set of interesting issues Shermer did not cover (yet ought to have), almost everything which makes up the reply to Why People Believe Weird Things is to be found in the Introduction alone. Now, I’d happily set the Introduction as a reading in a Critical Thinking class or elementary Epistemology class. However, I could not see much use in setting the book as a whole.

What’s Normal Anyway?

Which brings us to the second half of Believing Weird Things. Having set out why some weird beliefs are not that weird when thought about in context, Wills sets out his reasons for thinking that beliefs which aren’t – in some sense – considered weird ought to be. The choice of topics here is interesting, covering Islamophobia, white privilege, violence and the proper attitude towards tolerance and toleration in our polities.

But it invites the question (again) of who his intended audience is meant to be? For example, I also think Islamophobia, racism, and violence are deeply weird, and it worries me that some people still think they are sensible responses. But if Wills is setting out to persuade the other half of the debate, the racists, the bigots, and the fans of violence, then I do not think he will have much luck, as his discussions never seem to get much further than “Here are my reckons!”

And some of those reckons really need more arguments in favour of them.

For example, Wills brings out the old canard that religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are one and the same (presented as ‘religious faith’ and ‘scientific faith’). Not just that, but, in chapter 6, he talks about the things ‘discovered’ by religion. These are presented as being en par with discoveries in the sciences. Yet aren’t the things discovered by religion (‘humans beings must suffer before they learn. … existence is suffering’ [48]) really the ‘discoveries’ of, say, philosophers working in a religious system? And aren’t many of these discoveries just stipulations, or religious edicts?

This issue is compounded by Wills specification that the process of discovery for religious faith is hermeneutics: the interpretation of religious texts. But that invites even more questions: if you think the gods are responsible for both the world and certain texts in the world you could imagine hermeneutic inquiry to be somehow equivalent to scientific inquiry, but if you are either doubtful of the gods, or doubtful about the integrity of the gods’ prophets, then there is much room to doubt there is much of a connection at all between ‘faith’ in science and faith in scripture.

Another example: in chapter 8, Wills states:

Flat-Earthers are one thing but Birthers, say, are quite another: some ideas do not come from a good place and are not just absurd but pernicious. [67]

Now, there is an argument to be had about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Flat Earth theory and the thesis Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Some might even claim that the Flat Earth theory is worse, given that belief might entail thinking a lot of very disparate institutions, located globally, are in on a massive cover-up. The idea Barack Obama is secretly Kenyan has little effect on those of us outside the U.S. electoral system.

None of this is to say there aren’t decent arguments to be had about these topics. It is, instead, to say that often these positions are stipulated. As such, the audience for Believing Weird Things seems to be people who agree with Wills, rather than an attempt by Wills to change hearts and minds.

How to Engage With Weird Beliefs

Which is not to say that the second half of the book lacks merit; it just lacks meat. The chapters on Islamophobia (chapter 8) and racism (chapter 9) are good: the contextualisation of both Islamophobia and the nature of conflicts in the Middle East are well expressed. But they are not particularly novel (especially if you read the work of left-wing commentators). But even if the chapters are agreeable to someone of a left-wing persuasion, all too often the chapters just end: the chapter on violence (chapter 10), for example, has no clear conclusion other than that violence is bad.

Similarly confused is the chapter on tolerance (chapter 11). But the worst offender is the chapter on the death of Conservatism (chapter 14). This could have been an interesting argument about the present state of today’s politics. But the chapter ends abruptly, and with it, the book. There is no conclusion, no tying together of threads. There’s hardly even any mention of Shermer or skepticism in the second half of Believing Weird Things.

Which brings us back to the question: who is this book for? If the book were just the first half it could be seen as both a reply to Shermer and a hesitant stab at a Fortean philosophy. But the second half of the book comes across more as the author’s rumination on some pertinent social issues of the day, and none of that content seems to advance far beyond ‘Here are my thoughts…’

Which, unfortunately, is also the character of this review: in trying to work out who the book is for I find my thoughts as inconclusive as the text itself. None of this is to say that Believing Weird Things is a bad or terrible book. Rather, it is just a collection of the author’s ruminations. So, unless you happen to be a fan of Wills, there is little to this text which substantially advances the debate over belief in anything.

Contact details: m.dentith@episto.org

References

Fort, Charles. The Book of the Damned, Boni and Liveright, 1919

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things, Henry Holt and Company, 1997

Wills, Bernard N. Believing Weird Things, Minkowski Institute Press, 2018

Author Information: Jim Butcher, Canterbury Christ Church University, jim.butcher@canterbury.ac.uk.

Butcher, Jim. “Questioning the Epistemology of Decolonise: The Case of Geography.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 12-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42E

Maori dancers about to perform at the 2017 Turangawaewae Regatta in New Zealand.
Image by Hone Tho via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This paper was prompted by the prominence of new arguments in favour of ‘decolonising geography. This was taken by the 2017 Royal Geographical Society–Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IGB) annual conference as its theme, with many preparatory papers in Area and Transactions and sessions organised around this. In both, to ‘decolonise’ was presented as an imperative for geography as a field of study, and for all geographers within it, to address urgently (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017; Jazeel, 2017).

In the USA, the annual American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference in New Orleans of 2018 also featured a number of well attended sessions that took the same perspective. The number of journal articles published advocating decolonialism has also increased sharply in the last two years.

The spirit in which this paper is written is supportive of new debates in the academy, and supportive of the equality goals of decolonise. However it takes issue with important assumptions that, it is argued, will not advance the cause of marginalised or of geography as a discipline.

The paper is in three related parts, each written in the spirit of raising debate. First it considers the principal knowledge claim of decolonise: that a distinctly Western epistemology presents itself as a universal way of knowing, and that this is complicit in colonialism of the past and coloniality of the present through its undermining of a pluriverse of ontologies and consequent diversity of epistemologies (Sundberg, 2014; Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). The paper also illustrates further how this principle of decolonialism is articulated in some key geographical debates. It then highlights a number of contradictions in and questions with this epistemological claim.

Second, decolonialism’s critique of universalist epistemology is effectively, and often explicitly, a critique of the Enlightenment, as Enlightenment humanism established knowledge as a product of universal rationality rather that varied cultures or deities (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014). The paper argues that decolonialism marks a retreat from what was positive about the Enlightenment tradition: the capacity of (geographical) knowledge to transcend time and place, and hence act as universal knowledge.

In conclusion I briefly broach the value of decolonising geography in terms of its claim to be challenging injustice. I suggest that a truly humanist and universalist approach to knowledge has more to offer geographers seeking ways to tackle inequality and differential access to the process of producing knowledge than has the epistemic relativism of decolonize.

The Epistemological Claim of Decolonise

One of the claims made prominently at the conference and elsewhere by advocates of decolonisation is that geographical knowledge can be ‘Western’ (Radcliffe, 2017), ‘Eurocentric’ (Jazeel, 2017) ‘colonial’ (Baldwin, 2017; Noxolo, 2017) or ‘imperial’ (Tolia-Kelly, 2017; Connell, 2007 & 2017). This is not just a question of a close link between geographical knowledge and Western interests per se – it is well established that geographical understanding has developed through and been utilised for partial, often brutal, interests. For example, one of the principal figures in the history of UK geography, Halford Mackinder, regarded geography as central to Britain’s colonial mission (Livingstone, 1992).

At issue here is an epistemological one: Do the ideas, theories and techniques that today’s geographers have inherited constitute a universal geographical tradition of human knowledge to be passed on, built upon and critiqued, or; are the ideas, theories and techniques themselves ‘saturated in colonialism’ (Radcliffe, 2017: 329) and hence part of a particular system of knowledge in urgent need of decolonisation.

In his advocacy of decolonialism, Grosfoguel (2007: 212) argues that it is wrong to say that ‘there is one sole epistemic tradition from which to achieve truth and universality’. Rather, he and other decolonial theorists argue for a pluriverse – a variety of ways of knowing corresponding to different historical experience and culture (Sundberg, 2014; Mignolo, 2013).

Decolonialism holds that systems of knowledge existing in colonised societies were effectively undermined by the false universal claims of the West, claims that were in turn inextricably bound up with colonialism itself. Hence in this formulation the persistence of the ‘sole epistemic tradition’ of ‘the West’ well after formal decolonisation has taken place ensures the continuation of a discriminatory culture of ‘coloniality’ (Grosfoguel, ibid.).

As a result it is not deemed sufficient to oppose colonialism or its legacy within the parameters of contemporary (geographical) thought, as that thought is itself the product of a Western epistemology complicit in colonialism and the denial of other ways of knowing. Jazeel quotes Audre Lorde to accentuate this: ‘the masters tools will never demolish the masters house’ (2017: 335).

This leads decolonial theory to argue that there needs to be a delinking from Western colonial epistemology (Mignolo, 2007). Here they part company with many post-colonial, liberal and Left arguments against colonialism and racism and for national independence and equal rights. These latter perspectives are viewed as unable to demolish the ‘masters house’, as they are using the ‘master’s tools’.

For Grosfoguel, rights – the basis around which almost all liberation struggles have been fought for the last 250 years – are ‘ … articulated to the simultaneous production and reproduction of an international division of labour of core / periphery that overlaps with the global racial / ethnic hierarchy of Europeans / non-Europeans’ (2007: 214). Rights discourse, as with ‘Western’ knowledge, is regarded as part of a Cartesian ‘Western global design’ (ibid.).

The relationship to the Enlightenment, then, is key. Enlightenment ideas are associated with modernity: the mastery of nature by people, as well as notions of rights and the social contract that influenced the development of the modern state. But for decolonial thinkers, modernity itself is inextricably tied to colonialism (Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). Hence the challenge for decolonisation is to oppose not just colonialism and inequality, but also the Enlightenment universalism that shapes academic disciplines and fields including geography (ibid.).

Decolonial theory proposes in its stead the pluriverse of ways of knowing (Sundberg, 2014). For example (Blaser, 2012: 7) writes of a ‘pluriverse with multiple and distinct ontologies or worlds’ that ‘bring themselves into being and sustain themselves even as they interact, interfere and mingle with each other’ under asymmetrical circumstances (my italics). Effectively this answers philosopher Ernest Gellner’s rhetorical question: ‘Is there but one world or are there many’ (Gellner,1987: 83) with the clear answer ‘many’.

It is important at this point to distinguish between a plurality of ideas, influences and cultures, as opposed to a pluriverse of ontologies; different worlds. The former is uncontentious – openness to ideas from other societies has to be progressive, and this is evident throughout history, if not self evident.

Cities and ports have played an important role in the mixing of cultures and ideas, and often have proved to be the drivers of scientific and social advance. Scientists have learned much from traditional practices, and have been able to systematise and apply that knowledge in other contexts. Equally, reviewing curricula to consider the case for the inclusion of different concepts, theories and techniques is a worthwhile exercise.

A pluriverse of ways of knowing has much greater implications, as it posits diverse systems of knowledge as opposed to a diversity of viewpoints per se.

The Debate in Geography

The RGS-IGB 2017 Annual Conference call for sessions set out the aim of decolonising geographical knowledges as being to ‘to query implicitly universal claims to knowledges associated with the west, and further interrogate how such knowledges continue to marginalise and discount places, people, knowledges across the world’ (RGS-IGB, 2017).

Recent papers advocating decolonise argue in similar vein. Radcliffe argues that: ‘Decolonial writers argue that the modern episteme is always and intrinsically saturated with coloniality’ (2017: 329), hence the need to be alert to ‘multiple, diverse epistemic and ethical projects’ and to ‘delink’ from ‘Euro-American frameworks’ (ibid. 330). She goes on to argue that decoloniality should cover all aspects of geographical education: ‘racism and colonial modern epistemic privileging are often found in students selection and progress; course design, curriculum content; pedagogies; staff recruitment; resource allocation; and research priorities and debates’ (ibid. 331).

This challenge to the development of knowledge as a universal human endeavour, across history and culture, is often regarded not only as an issue for geographers, but is posed as a moral and political imperative (Elliot-Cooper, 2017; Jazeel, 2017 ). For Elliott-Cooper:

Geographers sit at a historical crossroads in academia, and there is no middle, benevolent way forward. We can either attempt to ignore, and implicitly reproduce the imperial logics that have influenced the shape of British geography since its inception, or actively rethink and dismantle imperialism’s afterlife by unlearning the unjust global hierarchies of knowledge production on which much of the Empires legitimacy was based. (2017:334)

To see contemporary geography as an expression of ‘imperialism’s afterlife’ serves to dramatically reinforce a sense of geographical knowledge – knowledge itself, not its origin or application – as ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’. This approach often involves eschewing one’s own, or ‘Western’, knowledge in favour of that of marginalised people. Two academics, reflecting on their teaching, state: ‘Our efforts do not even begin to live up to decolonial land based pedagogies being implemented across indigenous communities‘ (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017: 339).

This deference to ‘land based pedagogies’, speaks to an eschewal modern geographical knowledge and method in favour of a plurality of knowledges, but with authority granted on the basis of indigeneity. Noxolo makes a similar case, arguing that ‘[t]here are material conditions of experience out of which both postcolonial and, crucially decolonial, writings emerge’ (2017: 342). Emphasis is placed on intellectual authority of the lived experience of the marginalised.

We may well want to read something due to the experience of the writer, or to consider how a society gathers information, precisely in order to begin to understand perspectives and conditions of others who’s lives may be very different to our own. But these writings enter into a world of ideas, theories and techniques in which individual geographers can judge their usefulness, veracity and explanatory power. The extent to which they are judged favourably as knowledge may well depend upon how far they transcend the conditions in which they were produced rather than their capacity to represent varied experience.

This is not at all to denigrate accounts based more directly upon lived experience and the diverse techniques and ideas that arise out of that, but simply to recognise the importance of generalisation, systematisation and abstraction in the production of knowledge that can have a universal veracity and capacity to help people in any context to understand and act upon the world we collectively inhabit.

Contradictions: Geography’s History and Darwin

There is a strong case against the epistemic relativism of decolonialism. Geographical thought is premised upon no more and no less that the impulse to understand the world around us in order to act upon it, whether we seek to conserve, harness or transform. Geographical knowledge qua knowledge is not tied to place, person or context in the way decolonise assumes – it is better understood not as the product of a pluriverse of ways of knowing the world, but a diverse universe of experience.

From ancient Greece onwards, and indeed prior to that, human societies have developed the capacity to act upon the world in pursuit of their ends, and to reflect upon their role in doing that. Geography – ‘earth writing’ – a term first used in 3,000 BC by scholars in Alexandria, is part of that humanistic tradition. From Herodotus mapping the Nile and considering its flow in 450 BC, up to today’s sophisticated Geographical Information Systems, knowledge confers the capacity to act.

How elites act is shaped by their societies and what they considered to be their political and economic goals. But the knowledge and techniques developed provide the basis for subsequent developments in knowledge, often in quite different societies. Knowledge and technique cross boundaries – the greater the capacity to travel and trade, the greater too the exchange of ideas on map making, agriculture, navigation and much else.

The 15th century explorer Prince Henry the Navigator acted in the interests of the Portuguese crown and instigated the slave trade, but was also a midwife to modern science. He was intrigued by the myth of Prester John, yet he also helped to see off the myths of seamonsters. His discoveries fueled a questioning of the notion that knowledge came from the external authority of a god, and a growing scientific spirit began to decentre mysticism and religion, a process that was later consolidated in the Enlightenment (Livingstone, 1992). Geographical knowledge – including that you were not going to sail off the end of the world, and that sea monsters are not real – stands as knowledge useful for any society or any individual, irrespective of Portugal’s leading role in the slave trade at this time.

So whilst of course it is important to consider and study the people, the society and interests involved in the production of knowledge, is also important to see knowledge’s universal potential. This is something downplayed by the calls to decolonise – knowledge and even technique seem at times to be tainted by the times in which they were developed and by the individuals who did the developing.

Deciding what is the best of this, always a worthy pursuit, may involve re-evaluating contributions from a variety of sources. Involvement in these sources, in the production of knowledge, may be shaped by national or racial oppression, poverty and access to resources, but it has little to do with epistemic oppression (Fricker, 1999).

Take for example, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1998, original 1859). Darwin’s research involved all of the features regarded as ‘imperial’ by Connell (2007) and by other advocates of decolonialism: an association with the military (The Beagle was a military ship) and the use of others’ societies for data gathering without their consent or involvement. The voyage was funded by the British state who were engaged in colonial domination. Geography and scientific voyages were closely linked with imperial ambition (Livingstone, 1992).

Yet Darwin’s theory marked a major breakthrough in the understanding of evolution regardless of this context. As an explorer sponsored by the British imperialist state, and having benefitted from a good education, Darwin as an individual was clearly better placed to make this breakthrough that native inhabitants of Britain’s colonies or the Galapagos Islands – he had ‘privilege’ and he was ‘white’, two terms often used by decolonial activists to qualify or deny the authority of truth claims. Yet the Origin of the Species stands regardless of context as a ground breaking step forward in human understanding.

Darwinism has another link to colonialism. Social Darwinism was to provide the pseudo- scientific justification for the racism that in turn legitimised the imperialist Scramble for Africa and attendant racial extermination (Malik, 1997). Yet the veracity of Darwin’s theory is not diminished by the horrors justified through its bastardisation as Social Darwinism. Contrary to the view key to decolonialism, geographical knowledge can be sound and an advance on previous thinking regardless of the uses and misuses to which it is put. That is in no way to legitimise those uses, but simply to recognise that ideas that have a universal veracity emerge from particular, contradictory and often (especially from the perspective of today) reactionary contexts.

Geographical knowledge can be (mis)understood and (mis)used to further particular politics. Darwin’s ideas received a cool reception amongst those in the American South who believed that God had created wholly separate races with a differential capacity for intellect and reason. In New Zealand the same ideas were welcomed as a basis for an assumed superior group of colonisers taking over from an assumed less evolved, inferior group. This was in the context of struggle between Mauri and land hungry colonialists.

For Marx, Darwinism provided a metaphor for class struggle. For economic liberals social Darwinism buttressed the notion of laisser-faire free trade. Anarchist geographer Kropotkin advocated small scale cooperative societies – survival of those who cooperate, as they are best fitted for survival (Livingstone, 1992). So as well as being produced in contexts of power and inequality, knowledge is also mobilised in such contexts.

However Darwin’s theory as the highest expression of human understanding of its time in its field stands regardless of these interpretations and mobilisations, to be accepted or criticised according to reason and scientific evidence alone. Geographical and scientific theory clearly does have the potential to constitute universal knowledge, and its capacity to do so is not limited by the context within which it emerged, or the interests of those who developed it. We cannot decolonise knowledge that is not, itself, colonial.

Decolonialism’s Critique of Enlightenment Universalism

It is clear that the epistemology of decolonialism is based, often explicitly, upon a critique of the Enlightenment and its orientation towards knowledge and truth. Emejulu states this clearly in a piece titled Another University is Possible (2017). She accepts that the Enlightenment viewed all men as endowed with rationality and logic, and with inalienable rights, that human authority was replacing the church – all the positive, humanist claims that defenders of the Enlightenment would cite.

However, she questions who is included in ‘Man’ – who counts as human in Enlightenment humanism? How universal is Enlightenment universalism? Who can be part of European modernity? She argues that the restriction of the category of those who are to be free was intrinsic to Enlightenment thought – i.e. it was a Western Enlightenment, not only geographically, but in essence. Knowledge, ideas themselves, can be ‘Eurocentric,’ ‘Western’ or even (increasingly) ‘white’ in the eyes of advocates of decoloniality.

Emejulu quotes Mills from his book The Racial Contract (1999):

The contemporary interpretation of the Enlightenment obscures its exclusion of women, ‘savages’, slaves and indigenous peoples through the prevailing racial science as inherently irrational beings. Savages – or the colonial other: the Native or Aboriginal peoples, the African, the Indian, the slave – were constructed as subhuman, incapable of logical reasoning and thus not subject to the equality or liberty enjoyed by ‘men’. It is here, in the hierarchies of modernity that we can understand the central role of racism in shaping the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is brought into being by Europe’s colonial entanglements and is wholly dependent on its particular patriarchal relations – which Europe, in turn, imposed on its colonial subjects.

So these authors argue that the Enlightenment did not establish, nor establish the potential for, universal freedoms and rights or knowledge either, but that it stemmed from particular interests and experiences, and played the role of enforcing the domination of those interests. Humanistic notions of the pursuit of knowledge are considered partial, as a false universalist flag raised in the service of Western colonialism.

Matthew Arnold’s 19th century liberal humanist vision of knowledge (in schools) referring to ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’ (Arnold, 1869: viii) is rejected in favour of a view of knowledge itself as relative to incommensurate diverse human experience. This perspectival view of knowledge is central to the advocacy of decolonialism.

Sundberg (2014: 38), citing Blaser (2009), claims that the concept of the universal is itself ‘inherently colonial’, and can only exist through ‘performances’ that ‘tend to suppress and / or contain the enactment of other possible worlds’. This is a striking rejection of universality. Whilst logically universal claims can undermine different ways to think about the world, assuming that this in inherent in universal thinking questions geographical thought from any source that aspires to transcend diverse experience and be judged as part of a global geographical conversation across time and space.

Whilst this point is made by Sundberg to deny the wider veracity of Western thinking, logically it would apply to others too – it suggests Southern scholars, too, should not aspire to speak too far outside of their assumed ontological and epistemological identities in search of universal truths.

Saigon Opera House in Ho Chi Minh City.
Image by David McKelvey via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In Defence of the Enlightenment Legacy

The view as set out by Emejulu (2017) and implicit or explicit through much of literature is both one sided and also a misreading of the Enlightenment. Many Enlightenment thinkers articulated ideas that were new and revolutionary in that they posited two things: the centrality of humanity in making the world in which we live (through reason and through scientific understanding replacing religious and mystical views of one’s place and possibilities), and; the possibility and moral desirability of universal freedoms from subjection by others – natural, universal rights applicable to all. Both the study of the world, and the idea that people within the world were equal and free, were central to the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014).

However, these ideas emerged within and through a world of interests, prejudices and limitations. So there is a dialectical relationship: the new ideas that point to the possibility and desirability of human equality and freedom, and the world as it was which, as Emejulu rightly says, was far from free or equal and far from becoming so.

Consider the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 – a document shaped by the new ideas of the Enlightenment, and associated with freedom and rights subsequently. Some of its signatories and drafters, including Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders or had a stake in the slave trade. Yet the Declaration served as an emblem for opponents of slavery and inequality for the next 200 years.

The most famous clause in the Declaration states: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ (US Congress, 1776). At the time principled abolitionists played on the contradiction between the grand ideas and the practice of men like Jefferson. Some even argued that the clause relating to the ‘right of revolution’ (which was there to justify fighting for independence from the British) could apply to slaves who were not being treated equally.

Martin Luther King referenced the Declaration in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech at the Washington for Jobs and Freedom Demonstration of August 28, 1963: ‘When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ (King, 1991: 217). King’s speech, holding society to account by its own highest, universal moral standards, was in a long and noble tradition.

In the same vein the French Revolution’s Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1791) also states: ‘All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.’ The dialectical tension between by the ideas that informed the French Revolution and the reality of the society is well illustrated by CLR James in The Black Jacobins (2001, original 1938). James writes of the Haitian revolution, a revolution in revolutionary France’s colony, in which slaves and their leaders took the ideas of the revolutionaries at their word. They directly confronted the limits of the revolution by insisting that its demand for liberty, fraternity and equality be made truly universal and applied to themselves, the slaves in the colonies.

The force of these Enlightenment influenced universalist conceptions of humanity, central to both Declarations, feature throughout the history of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. For example, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945 cites both the famous ‘all men are created equal’ clause from the American Declaration, and its equivalent in the French Declaration, to accuse both of these imperialist countries of denying these ‘undeniable truths’ (Ho Chi Minh, 1945). In the Vietnamese Declaration it was assumed that the denial of Enlightenment ideals, not their assertion, characterised colonialism and imperialism. This is reversed in decolonial theory.

Equally, colonialism involved the denial of the fruits of modern geographical knowledge and technique, not an imposition of ‘colonial’ ideas. Just as geographic technique and knowledge developed in the imperialist West no doubt played a dark role in the war in Vietnam – not least cartography in charting bombing missions – so those same tools (or more advanced versions) in mapping, agriculture and much else are utilised today to enable a sovereign Vietnam look to a better future.

Enlightenment ideas, expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, were drafted by people complicit in slavery and formed a rational and moral basis for equality. The former does not contradict the latter. In similar vein geographical knowledge was harnessed to oppress, and provided the basis for post- colonial governments to progress. The Declarations were both of their time and transcendent of their time, as is good geographical knowledge. It is in the latter sense that we judge their worth as knowledge to help us understand and act upon the world today.

There is much else to be said about the Enlightenment of course. There were great diversity and contradictions within it. What Enlightenment scholar Jonathan Israel (2009) terms the Radical Enlightenment consisted of thinkers who pushed at the contradiction between the potential in Enlightenment thought and some of the backward beliefs prevalent amongst their contemporaries. They went well beyond the limiting assumption of humanity characteristic of their time: that some were capable of citizenship rights, and others were not.

Thomas Paine argued against slavery on the grounds that it infringed the universal (natural) right to human freedom. He did not restrict his category of ‘Man’ to western Man. He criticised colonialism too. He argued that Africans were productive, peaceful citizens in their own countries, until the English enslaved them (Paine, 1774). Diderot, Raynal, d’Holbach and others contributed to a 1770 volume titled Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes (The Philosophical History of the Two Indies). The book asserts that ‘natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will’. It prophesied and defended the revolutionary overthrow of slavery: ‘The negroes only want a chief, sufficiently courageous to lead them to vengeance and slaughter… Where is the new Spartacus?’ (cited in Malik, 2017).

So Emejulu’s account, and the assumption of decolonialism, are wrong. The issue is not that the Enlightenment is racist and partial, and the intellectual traditions that draw upon its legacy comprise ‘imperial’ or ‘colonial’ knowledge. Rather, the Enlightenment put reason and rationality, scientific method and the potential for liberty and equality at the centre of intellectual and political life. It provided a basis for common, human pursuit of knowledge.

The growth of scientific method associated with the Enlightenment, as an orientation towards knowledge, was not linked to any particular culture or deity, but to universal reason (Malik, 2014). The implication of this is that theories should be judged for their capacity to explain and predict, concepts for their capacity to illuminate and techniques for their efficacy. That they should be judged with consideration for (or even deference towards) the identity, political or social, of their originator, or with regard to context or contemporary use – all key to decolonialism – undermines the pursuit of truth as a universal, human project.

Knowledge, theories and techniques are better seen as having the capacity to transcend place and power. The veracity of a theory, the usefulness of a concept or the efficacy of a technique are remarkably unaffected by their origin and their context. Audre Lorde’s idiom, ‘The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, invoked by Jazeel (2017: 335) to argue that the traditions of knowledge and rights associated with the West cannot be the basis for the liberation of the non-West, is simply untrue in this context. The anti-colonial and anti-racist movements of the past achieved a massive amount through struggles that explicitly drew upon iconic assertions of the ‘Western’ Enlightenment. There is clearly some way to go.

Concluding Thoughts: Decolonialism and Liberation

To decolonise has been presented as a moral imperative connected to liberation (Jazeel, 2017; Elliot-Cooper, 2017). I think it is better regarded as one approach, premised upon particular political views and assumptions such as critical race theory and the intersectional politics of identity. In its advocacy of an ontological pluriverse and of diverse systems of knowledge, there is one knowledge claim that cannot be allowed – the claim that knowledge, from any source, ultimately, can aspire to be universal. In addition, presenting decolonialism as a moral and political imperative leaves little room for alternatives which become, a priori, immoral.

By contrast, Brenda Wingfield, Vice President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, argues that: ‘What’s really important is that South African teachers, lecturers and professors must develop curricula that build on the best knowledge skills, values, beliefs and habits from around the world’ (2017) (my italics). She fears that the rhetoric of decolonialism will effectively delink South Africa from science’s cutting edge. She points out that this in turn reduces the opportunity for young black South African scholars to be involved with the most advanced knowledge whatever its source, and also the opportunity to adapt and utilise that knowledge to address local issues and conditions. In other words, decolonialism could damage the potential for material liberation from poverty, and for promoting a more equal involvement in the global production of knowledge about our shared world.

In the spirit of the Radical Enlightenment, I would argue that the best of geographical knowledge and technique be made available for the benefit of all, on the terms of the beneficiaries. In judging ’the best’, origin and context, whilst important and enlightening areas of study in themselves, are secondary.

Academics and universities could certainly more effectively challenge the marginalisation of parts of the world in academic life and the production of geographical knowledge. Suggestions would include: Truly reciprocal academic exchanges, funded by Western universities who can better afford it, where budding academics from the South can choose freely from the curriculum around their own priorities; greater joint projects to understand and find solutions to problems as they are defined by Southern governments; increased funding for twinning with under resourced universities in the South, with a “no strings attached” undertaking to share knowledge, training and resources as they are demanded from academics based in the South.

In other words, we should prioritise a relationship between knowledge and resources from the best universities in the world (wherever they are located), and the sovereignty of the South.

None of this necessitates the decolonisation of geographical knowledge. Rather, it requires us to think afresh at how the promissory note of the Enlightenment – the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality (and I would add of the potential to understand the word in order to change it) – can be cashed.

Contact details: jim.butcher@canterbury.ac.uk

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