For those who study how people generate and deploy knowledge, the late 20th century is known as a time when scholars became collectively curious not only about what we know but the way culture shapes how we know and what this means for politics. Encompassing scientific as well as other forms of knowledge, debates involving the social and cultural underpinnings of truth-claims also extended outside the academy where they seemed to be rewriting the rules connecting knowledge and politics. But now, this movement stands charged with guilt by association with ‘post-truth’. Efforts to put received truths in their proper context are accused of enabling the far-right to propagate ‘alternative facts’, allegedly unchecked.
The Trump Administration’s attitude to science – and environmental science in particular – is widely seen as a key signifier of a post-truth culture. Taking truth to be the product of social practices as scholars in science and technology studies (STS) have done seems to represent a position from which it is impossible to respond coherently to abuses of science. But in fact, STS researchers have been at the forefront of creative guerrilla archiving tactics to ‘save’ environmental data from institutionalised losses sparked by Trump. Those who work on science and environmental justice have long called attention to the politics of how environmental hazards are rendered knowable, or alternately, invisible. These tactics are borne out of a socialized perspective on truth.
STS work also helps us think harder about what is involved in creating broadly shared truths. Rather than expect that science will furnish these truths for us, this calls for cultivating the space between science and politics in its own right. To explore this, we first need to dispel some common confusions over what it means to think about truth as a product of social practices.
The most familiar confusion is captured by that well-worn phrase: “anything goes”. In response, the simple comforts of logic come in handy. We could highlight, say, the culturally specific nature of certifying births, the differential ability to brandish institutional evidence about the details of one’s birth when challenged about it, or the role of the media in making that evidence public, and still agree that Obama was born in the USA. Birtherism does not follow from an acknowledgement of any of these social contingencies. The same applies to beliefs about anthropogenic climate change.
We could also do more than just point to the non sequitur to underline contemporary practices which reaffirm attention to truth rather than confirm its displacement. The critical response to former White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer’s infamous claim about the size of Trump’s inauguration audience tells us as much about the status of truth today as does his claim itself. Indeed, Spicer’s subsequent effort to defend his claim as referring to online audiences arguably also constitutes this reaffirmation. Renewed vigour for displaying journalistic fact-checking virtues and the rise of news-explainers illustrate that truth is still valued in political culture.
But logic and empirical observations do not suffice for thinking about the capacity to know in common. This is what gives critics of so-called relativism, such as Kenan Malik, their political edge. Indeed, Malik diagnoses the epistemic malady of the day as representing not so much a problem of post-truth but a profusion of competing ‘truths’, many of them constituting, in his view, merely subjective opinions.
If multiple and conflicting truth-claims were not problem enough, adding science to the mix makes for an even more potent cocktail of discomfort and confusion. Malik reiterates a familiar point, though suitably qualified to take note of the history of science: “Scientific truths, provisional though scientific knowledge necessarily is, correspond roughly to the world as it is”. By extension, it seems the world can only be one thing, hence scientific knowledge is our best bet for capturing that world in a single truth.
But this singular correspondence model is inaccurate and unhelpful for thinking about science and the truths that matter for politics. STS arguments about contextuality and contingency of knowledge are important here not least because they reflect material realities as well as social norms that shape what and how we know. Following a geological view of nature, one might say the world is more complex than is possible to capture in a set of singular scientific truths – or even in a single theory of truth. Geology reveals nature to be the contingent product of multiple, complex phenomena. This doesn’t mean other epistemic attitudes to nature – such as prediction – are unimportant. But it does mean putting predictive science in its place alongside other interpretive approaches to knowledge.
The geological view underlines the perils of relying on science to do politics especially when the epistemic questions that provoke political controversy are rarely the kind which lend themselves to simple yes/no or true/false answers. This is exemplified by environmental science and its relationship to policymaking which has been described as plagued by an excess of objectivity, at least in the US context.
Today, such an account might seem odd to those used to seeing the Trump Administration as anti-science. The trouble is that the relationship between, say, exposure to the currently controversial pesticide, chlorpyrifos, and human health is sufficiently complex that it possible for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Scott Pruitt, to claim that he revoked a prior EPA ban on the substance in line with ‘sound science’. In response to the controversy, Scicheck has tried to extend the fact-check model to science to clarify results from different studies which arise from different underlying models and contexts of assessment. This can take us some way towards recognising the strengths, limitations and complexities of scientific evidence, and the social practices required to nurture a place for evidence in politics.
But fact-checking only works within a narrow framework in which the issue at stake is what science can tell us about this or that hazardous chemical substance, and what this means for regulation. It does not address long-standing challenges such as the capacity to assess chemical mixtures in the real world, where the threshold of exposure to hazard should be set, on whom the epistemic burden of evidence of hazard should be placed, or assumptions about behaviour embedded in regulatory standards which are difficult to meet in practice.
So, what fact-checking cannot do is tell us how science should inform truth-making for politics and what the political questions should be in the first place. Such a question is rarely posed as it is assumed that science will first provide truths – at least about nature – and political judgments and actions can then follow suit. Even an expansive theory that is unashamed to speak of politics and truth in the same breath can fall into the trap of a too sharp distinction between making truths about the world as we wish it to be versus those about the world as it is. As a result, the space of truth in between science and politics is forgotten.
If our condition is marked by ‘too many’ truths, this in-between space is more important than ever for cultivating attention to what might be called connective truth-making. As far back as the 1970s, scientists involved in environmental regulation recognised the distinctive trans-scientific nature of the activity that they were called upon to perform. Alvin Weinberg noted the paradox of questions of risk which could be framed as matters of fact and stated in the language of science, but which were unanswerable by science alone as they necessarily involved value judgments. But the public representation of this space as value-free science supplying the facts for policy interventions has helped private interests deconstruct the legitimacy of scientific findings which do not fit their own interests. Casting doubt on the veracity of evidence provides a political weapon only in a system predicated on framing hazard-minimising interventions as a response to scientific fact to the exclusion of other considerations.
Rather than think of this in-between space as a disappointed settling-for-less-than idealised scientific standards, we are better off populating and developing its own distinctive matters of truth. As a mode of analysis, the space between science and politics is currently thriving with large numbers working under the rubric of post-normal science. In addition to the methods developed by this community, what insights could we build on?
The idea that experts might work out disciplined ways of actively bridging the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ is especially intriguing, calling for training in and engagement with different disciplines in deeper ways than has been possible in many research council-driven interdisciplinary projects to date. A recent Nature Comment piece offers a glimpse of what such a bridging might look like in a space where, in this case, environmental change and land governance are taken equally seriously as a joint epistemic-political matter. Developing more such examples on a systemic scale could help us respond to our post-truth condition in ways that demonstrate why the space between science and politics is more than just a refuge for the disillusioned.
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Sujatha Raman is Associate Professor in Science and Technology Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham.
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