Sunday, 15 October 2017

Regarding 'post-truth': causality, complacency and complicity

There's an interesting set of essays recently uploaded at Discover Society on the so-called 'post-truth' phenomenon, including a piece by Greg Hollin, which mentions debates within Science and Technology Studies on this topic, starting with Bruno Latour's well-known 2004 essay.
It always struck me, and I know many others, that one of the most striking aspects of Bruno Latour’s famous article, ‘Why has critique run out of stream’ (2004) was a peculiar sort of self-aggrandizement. It is not entirely clear to my mind whether Latour thought that Science and Technology Studies (STS) caused inaction over global warming or 9/11 conspiracy theories, but the use of phrases like ‘our weapons’ (p.230) and ‘our critical arsenal’ (p.230) certainly seem to permit such a reading. 
He goes on to mention recent commentaries by Sergio Sismondo, Harry Collins and others.

A little while ago, I wrote a short piece on the same topic (Post-Truth, Complicity and International Politics) that also drew on Latour's 2004 essay. To reiterate a little more briefly what I wrote then, I think we have to distinguish causality, complacency and complicity.

Did academics (STS scholars or otherwise) cause this new wave of propaganda and ‘post-truth’ (as in it wouldn’t have happened without their works)? Of course not, that’s ridiculous and shouldn’t be given a second thought. Have many academics been massively complacent as regards the relation of their own work to basic standards and practices of truthfulness as a public good (for want of a better phrase) that cannot be taken for granted? Yes, of this I have no doubt. Does this make such academics complicit in these events? Possibly. I think there’s a case to be made there. Most certainly, it changes the priorities for our thinking (and teaching) in a way that few seem prepared to recognise, much less confront.

I took Latour’s 2004 article to be pointing out the complacency, not the causality, although I agree that he’s not very clear on that point. It's more of a provocation than a diagnosis as such.

And so, if there is complicity arising not out of causality but rather complacency, what does that mean? I think it means, first of all, that there is no use attempting to attribute blame, as some have done. Certainly, this latest episode has been seized on by various unreconstructed, so-called 'rationalist' buffoons and bullies as evidence of the need to purge the academy of the epistemologically unclean. Excuse me while I stifle a rhetorical yawn. Such self-important exhortations are a lot of hot air that we can do without.

However, if there is such a state of complicity then this also means that there is a serious obligation to think about how we can do better – and at quite a fundamental level. Such a situation brings into question not only epistemology but also wide-ranging issues of politics and pedagogy. It challenges and changes far more than these debates, so far, have been willing to admit.

With all due respect to them, and as valuable as their contributions may continue to be, I therefore doubt whether this is a question best answered by the likes of Bruno Latour and Harry Collins. It is a question that thinkers of my generation (post-grad or 'early career') need to take on, without any guide ropes or sherpas.

It is, after all, the world that we have inherited.


  1. part of why Bruno's turn from sociologist (providing descriptions) to theologist (providing prescriptions) is to be rejected but even if these folks were complicit to suggest that this had any measurable political impact is self-aggrandizing without some believable study of how they supposedly had such reach/impact, all to say that the "speculative" turn needs to get empirical if they want to be reality based...

    1. Difficult to measure this sort of thing. From my point of view (just starting out on a career teaching and trying to figure these things out), the most immediate question comes from the classroom. We teach students to be sceptical, to think critically about things they might have previously taken for granted. And we must. But how works both epistemologically and politically is complicated. It's all too easy to adopt a kind of aloof ironism and pretend that this is somehow a radical stance. Particularly difficult when teaching on issues of war, economy, race, gender, and so on (as I am). Also too easy to take up a 'facts are facts' empiricism. Not enough of these debates, if that is what they are, take these sorts of commitments into account.

    2. the power of STS/ANT lay in going out of the class/office and seeing what was actually happening, concrete examples of actual processes and assemblages, not sure one can teach attitudes like scepticism what would be the basis (psychology or such?) for such a project?

    3. Well, it starts with scepticism towards authority, as in 'the 2003 Iraq War was claimed to be about WMDs and human rights – what other reasons might there have been?' A crude example but that's the basic point. A little closer to the point, critiques of scientifically-rationalised essentialism concerning gender and race bring in questions of evidence, epistemic-authority, and so on.

      I agree that the refreshing thing about ANT/STS with regard to the history/philosophy/sociology of science/tech was its empiricism (and much can still be learned from that).

      However, the sacralisation of 'the field' as some universal palliative helps no one. Not every question has a 'field' it can go to and not every question needs such a thing.

      The nice thing with STS as a field is the richness of its case study-based research. However, it's also very often an appallingly depoliticised, technocratic discipline (and I think this is the other side of the coin, really).

    4. if you can't point-to/demonstrate how something actually occurs in the world (and how you know it happens that way and others can check for themselves) than you are merely speculating and how are we to judge such non-things?

    5. Well, I think it's important to emphasise that sources of information in this circumstance necessarily include the news media, economic data, historical archives, and so on. So, there are general questions of interpretation that need to be addressed. However, the general ethos of empiricism over abstract theorising – that I'm not taking issue with.

  2. Thanks for this short piece on Truth and Post Truth.

    I spent 10 years in math which formed my rational world view and my work life. In 1978 I left academia to word at Bell Labs and worked for some years in software engineering and transferred methods to almost 50 projects. The approach by one of the giants in software engineering, the approach was called design by documentation. I was on the first project to implement the approach and was a minor author to the man who formulated the approach.

    Funny thing happened. When I interviewed people to find out what they had done in small to huge projects of many diverse systems, there was no coherent theme. I realized that what exceptional people were doing was more important than the documentation methodology.

    It was only in the last 6 months that I realized that I was in fact engaged in rhetoric. One of those ancient disciplines that has for most disappeared.

    I have read several books by Bruno Latour but I am finally reading Cosmopolis by the scientist, philosopher of science and rhetorician, Stephen Toulmin. Given my background this has been an excellent way to link to my background and see how the late Renaissance with its openness transitioned to the Quest for Certainty (the title of John Dewey's book in the late 1920's).

    In the 1600's, the rationalism of Descartes, the birth of the state, secularization, and other changes were brought in to control uncertainty. In other words, the debate about post truth goes back hundreds of years.

    To use an example from the USA. Establishment democrats are doing everything they can to hold onto power and those of us see their games being played out. In fact, both parties for the last few decades have been able to carry on a superficial back and forth while they agree on the basics and these are not covered in the mainstream press. Look at the huge military budget which recently passed the senate.

    I see Trump not as an anomaly, but as a crazy continuation of what has been going on for decades in the neo liberal project.

    Bruno in Facing Gaia grapples with the question of why humans have not responded to climate change. He traces it back to many things in the modern constitution including the quest for certainty. This is very clear in some fundamentalism religions.

    As readers of Latour know, his An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence has 15 "modes of felicity."

    The academics have been outed by The New Climate Regime and the collapse of neo liberal economics. Can they, like the democratic party in the US, do the hard work to construct works and engage others for what is called for by Gaia?

    This morning there is an article in the NY Times opinion section about the intense crackdown of dissent in China. This is scary.

    All disciplines, including International Relations, are now entangled in questions that cross established boundaries and who knows how it will come out?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Don! I agree that it's nothing unprecedented. For instance, this is a classic book on the history of propaganda: