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.