It’s not about facts. It’s about politics

It is common now for elites to decry the advent of “post-truth” politics.  The desire for better mechanisms to root out error and falsehood in political life, or to empower more trustworthy experts, is understandable.   That said, I offer a few qualifications. [1]

Worry about false facts creeping into governance is somewhat of an “inside the establishment” problem.  When we, as rulers and participants in the great global established order worry about the role of, say, “science” in “policy,” we are also congratulating ourselves, our habits and institutions for normally being rational, objective, reasonable, and procedurally sound machinery to identify and implement pragmatic action in the public interest.  As if this – let’s call it “policy” — were normally what government does.

Not rent-seeking or nest feathering; not reinforcing some private interests against others; not reinforcing inequality or consolidating social power while managing dissent; not managing an entertainment spectacle or providing material for allegorical morality tales.  Policy.

Thinking about science in policy – when rulers should listen, when they don’t – also helps us screen out what is actively unknown by those who rule, even, or particularly when they are guided by what have been selected as “facts.”   What is framed out, insignificant, uninteresting, the routine exclusions and sufferings comprehended as mere “fact” rather than conscious choice.

Rather than framing governance as a search for fact based policy in the public interest, we would do better to imagine it as one terrain of struggle among intellectuals, statesmen, business moguls, citizens, all assessing the terrain around them for allies and ways to defeat rivals. They face one another with little backpacks of entitlements, vulnerabilities and capacities and have at it. What they have in their backpack reflects the outcomes of earlier struggles as they understand them.  Their nameplate and mandate may read “perform fact based policy,” but we should think of them as their rivals to – as people inhabiting that phrase as authority.

The claim to “know” in rulership – the posture of leaning on fact, invoking science, performing the necessity of the material –is strangely analogous to the claim to represent an ethical universal and subject to the same deformations  

Second, inside the establishment, if you think “expertise” is fundamentally different from “politics,” the problem of technocracy will seem to be a constitutional one: keeping each in its box so that we could enjoy the benefits of both technical knowledge and political decision.

But today, we have neither analytic expertise to which we should defer nor responsible political interest aggregation and decision. Technical experts are everywhere divisible by ideological propensity, while in politics, everyone has embraced the reassuring comfort of thinking we “know” rather than face the anxiety of having to choose.   Global rulership is something experts and everyone else make together – make in struggle with one another, all using similar, if unevenly distributed, idea fragments and coercive powers.

So-called expert “knowledge” turns out to be human knowledge: a blend of conscious, semiconscious and wholly unconscious ideas, full of tensions and contradictions, inhabited by people who think, speak and act strategically. So-called “political” considerations are no different.  It turns out to be expertise all the way down – or politics all the way up. All of us — politicians, entrepreneurs, citizen activists — speak a version of languages once owned more exclusively by “experts.”  Technocracy is not them – it is us. Modern managerialism is neither with nor against fact – it is a conflicted practice of performing as fact and as opinion, as value and as necessity.  As a result, it is not so clear there is a “political” or “democratic” alternative once democracy and rulership have themselves become technocratic practices.

Third and finally, the claim to “know” in rulership – the posture of leaning on fact, invoking science, performing the necessity of the material –is strangely analogous to the claim to represent an ethical universal and subject to the same deformations. The usefulness of an idea drawn out of someone’s backpack lies in its capacity to frame the situation to advantage, press an opponent to yield, consolidate a gain with the cloak of legitimacy or drape a tendentious result in the neutral garb of universal interest. The idea works when it advances a project by creating some kind of idea effect: we might call it a legitimation effect or a normative effect or the effect of authority.

From a governance perspective, the difference between insider and outsider knowledge is not a matter of “perspective,” in the sense that neither viewpoint is “true.”  But nor is objective truth on one side and subjective perspective on the other, however useful each group may find it to tar the other with ignoring what is in plain sight.   The governance question is whose reality will guide action?    This depends on who controls the governance machinery.   If the outsiders become insiders, governance will reflect their sense of the situation.  Elites may protest that this is “not true” and in some sense — the sense of their indicators and experience – it is not.  But absolute truth, objective truth, truth beyond perspective, is simply not relevant unless someone can harness it effectively.  The rulership relevant facts are those that have prevailed – until they are successfully contested.  Only if modes of assessment which have become hegemonic can be unsettled can one govern on the basis of other facts and bring other facts into being.

The constructed nature of apparently natural constraints does not mean, of course, that the “really real” never presses on rulership or that the “real facts” don’t matter.   People certainly experience constraint from the force of their situation, the power of others, the opportunities and tragedies of their history.  That is why it is often, if not always, a powerful strategy to insist that your proposals are “reality based.”  Beyond that, things happen: climate changes, famine strikes, Vesuvius erupts, someone blows up a train station, populations shrink or grow, plagues and pandemics scramble everyone’s sense of good and evil, wise and foolish, possible and impractical.   Some people may have been insisting for some time that exactly this would happen or was already underway — they were right.  But they were not relevant unless or until they came into power, bringing their knowledge to bear to make others change what they do or think.  And turning out to have been right rarely converts seamlessly into being in charge: often more the reverse.  When surprising things happen, people very often double down on what they thought before.

Most “real” things which become governance relevant have been midwifed by earlier rulership.   Beneath the fact lies someone’s decision – or omission.  An earthquake or tsunami affects these people and not those, disastrously or merely annoyingly, as a result of things like the distribution of vulnerability or investment in prevention and recovery services.  Decisions on such matters may or may not have been disputed when made, but it is often a powerful strategic move to identify the failed policy behind the tragic fact or to take credit for the wise policy which now allows us to respond.   When they are not contested, prior settlements, triumphs and defeats get taken for granted, their origins in decision and struggle forgotten.   However, so long as there is an inside and outside — an us and a them — contesting for rulership, today’s hegemonic facts will be vulnerable to reframing as decisions for which someone should get the credit or blame.  At any given time, it is likely both perspectives will be available within the repertoire of elite discussion, one dominant, the other in abeyance.   In this, elite knowledge about the economy is vulnerable: the constructed nature of the measures open to be reframed as interested decision rather than objective assessment.

In short, fretting about knowing is part of the pathology of established power. We should get over it.  With the establishment consensus fragile, governments prostrate by financial constraint, gridlocked and disempowered, whole populations locked out, held down, off-loaded by global modernization, the global commentariat is right to ask how long the center will hold, whether the postwar system is sustainable.  Not a time to worry about the place of science in policy.  A time to worry about our society’s political, economic, and ethical essentials.

David Kennedy is Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School.

[1] I develop these more fully in David Kennedy, World of Struggle: How Power, Law and Expertise Shape Global Political Economy (Princeton, 2016).

Automatic for the people

By: Tiago Mata

Three days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the New Yorker published a profile of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, a small office created by Barack Obama in September 2015. In “Good Behavior” the reader accompanies Maya Shankar, the leader of the team, journeying to Flint, Michigan to aid a community injured by neglect and collapsing infrastructure. It was the New Yorker‘s farewell tribute to the Obama Presidency. Predictably, the team of behavioral scientists was an early candidate for Trump’s “you’re fired,” and their website now bears the disclaimer that its contents are “historical material ‘frozen in time’ on January 20, 2017.” In the profile, Shankar stands in for Obama. She is young, intelligent, accomplished, relaxed, devoted, at one point pledging to go without sleep to serve the people of Flint as the clock ticks towards her inevitable eviction from the West Wing.

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The End of Truth Politics in Paraguay

By Kregg Hetherington

The idea that we might be entering a “post-truth” era is a crisis for liberal democracies because it reveals the tenuousness of a proposition that many people in North America and Europe have taken for granted, at least since the end of the Cold War. For the sake of argument, I’ll call that proposition “truth politics.” It claims that the appropriate way of governing a population is with recourse to empirically verifiable facts. Part of the difficulty with understanding the Trump phenomenon, and its correlates in other Western democracies, is how suddenly it has revealed the positionality, and the fragility, of this proposition. The rabbit hole this opens is deep for believers in truth politics, since it undermines the very tools for thinking critically about politics at all. What we assumed to be the ethical standard governing the realm of political debate turns out to be part of the debate itself, one position among many others in a realm whose standards are suddenly up for question.

From the outside, however, the situation is less strange, and it’s therefore useful to think about places and times where truth politics is not taken-for-granted. Paraguay is one of those countries that staunchly refuses to conform basic liberal assumptions about truth in government. Continue reading “The End of Truth Politics in Paraguay”

Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part III)

The Truther Paradox

By Michael Lynch

Editors’ note: This is the final installment of a three-post series by Michael Lynch. ‘Part I: Between Liars and Truthers’ and ‘Part II: Uncivil Epistemology’ were previously published on the blog. 

President Trump sent out a flurry of tweets on March 4, 2017, accusing former President Obama of tapping his phones during the 2016 election campaign. His accusations were quickly denied by Obama and FBI Director James Comey, among others. With no immediate evidence to support the wiretapping allegation other than some sketchy reports in right-wing media, Trump’s embattled spokespersons sought to furnish non-literal versions of what he could have meant when he tweeted, “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.” According to these defensive accounts, Trump didn’t really mean that Obama directly ordered wiretapping, or that the wiretapping occurred in Trump Tower, or (as marked by the inverted commas) that the surveillance took the form of actual wiretapping. Trump himself did not back away from his accusation and called for an investigation. Although it is too early to tell how the episode will play out, it has the makings of another “truther” campaign: a persistent reassertion of a conspiracy theory in the face of repeated denials and a lack of supportive evidence. Trump is, of course, famous for taking a leading role in the “birther” movement, which promoted the ‘theory’ that Obama’s credentials as an American born citizen were fake despite a steady stream of evidence to the contrary.

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“Crisis Talk” in Crisis and Nuclear Scholars’ Responsibility to Imagine

By Anna M. Weichselbraun

In the run-up to and immediately following Trump’s election, commentators weighed in on what it would mean for Trump to be in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal as commander-in-chief. The comments tended to fall into three camps: there were the nuclear abolitionists who took the horror of a Trump presidency to issue their usual call for total nuclear disarmament. The second group, the sensationalizers, was composed of establishment nonproliferation people (which include think tanks and NGOs) who expressed grave concern about Donald Trump’s capability to be a rational and responsible guardian of the nuclear arsenal, and used it to push for limited “realistic” measures such as taking nuclear weapons off high alert. Finally, the third group, the normalizers (mostly made up of arch-conservatives and military folk), praised Trump for promising to strengthen America’s nuclear arsenal and saw in this a return to a more secure homeland.

All three positions are examples of “crisis talk” described by Masco. Drawing on Roitman’s 2013 work, Masco diagnoses the present political and media logics of crisis as a “predominantly conservative modality, seeking to stabilize an existing structure within a radically contingent world.” In the article, Masco identifies the 1960s as an earlier moment of crisis when atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons led to widespread concern about radioactive fallout while civil defense was preparing U.S. citizens for a nuclear attack. This moment of crisis produced the Limited Test Ban Treaty and put in motion the process to negotiate the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. However, “in this cold War moment of existential crisis, the nuclear danger was managed rather than removed, stabilized rather than resolved, allowing the global infrastructure of nuclear war to remain firmly in place to this day.” The election of Donald Trump has precipitated a crisis that demands an intellectual transformation in order to be able to conjure, in Masco’s words, “non-utopian positive futurities.” In response to the crisis of nuclear weapons in the 21st century, the three identified positions are, however, merely engaging in crisis talk and therefore foreclosing opportunities for a radical shift.[1]

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What Should Democracies Know?

By Sheila Jasanoff

Repeatedly over the past few months I’ve heard anguished cries from former students and junior colleagues asking how I might make sense of the strange time we’re in—a time in which so much we’ve valued about the making of robust public knowledge and critical understanding has been tossed overboard as if of no consequence to the conduct of the nation’s politics. How should we, as teachers of future citizens, respond to these calls, and what special obligation do we have as scholars of science and technology, with a professional commitment to understanding the role of facts and truth in society?

The “post-truth,” “alt-fact,” “fake news” era has drawn understandable outrage from thoughtful people. Some, especially in the mainstream media, assume that the line between truth and lies is clear-cut, and can be ascertained through careful fact-checking, as in a recent New York Times editorial on the real costs of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policy. Others, more historically minded and attuned to technological change, have called attention to social media and the ease of propagating claims that have not passed through the costly, messy processes of peer review or validation through experiment.[1] Still others have noted the rise of data as a substitute for tested facts, and how politicians’ reliance on mass measures of electoral sentiment may undermine the cultural habits of deliberation on real-world problems. All these are important arguments, with serious implications for public reason, but none have touched on the role of professors in this period of eroding confidence in the very meaning of evidence, facts, and truth. Yet, if ever there was a time to heed the Delphic mandate “know thyself,” surely for us in the academic business now is that time.

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Trumpism in Denmark

By Peter Lauritsen & Lars Bo Andersen

Denmark is known for having a strong democracy. We have high election turnouts, political transparency, widespread and profound trust in the public system, and a lively political debate facilitated by strong and nuanced medias.

However, we argue that there is a growing breeding ground for Trumpism in Denmark and would like to point out two reasons why.

Research and politics

The first is a weak relation between research and politics.

In many situations, it has become perfectly legitimate for politicians to ignore firmly established knowledge and to refer only to their ‘gut feeling’, when accounting for political measures. This is not a new trend. Many consider former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s 2002 New Year’s address a milestone in this regard. In the speech, he announced that there was too many ‘taste panels’ for politics and that neither the people nor their politicians should allow themselves to be subdued by ‘lifted fingers’ from the ‘tyranny of experts’.

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“Let the bullets fly for a while”: an allegory from China

By Mei Zhan

Let me begin with a fiction.  Let the Bullets Fly, a Chinese “action comedy,” was wildly popular upon its release in 2010.  Witty, gory, at times bawdy, and determinedly absurd, the plot centered around the confrontation between Zhang Mazi, a fictitious Chinese Robin Hood impersonating a county governor (whom, upon being captured by Zhang, impersonated the governor’s secretary in order to survive) and his nemesis Master Huang, a mobster boss who turned out to have a body double.  The opening scenes of the film featured what appeared to be a steam-engine train, only to reveal a few seconds later that the train was pulled along the rail tracks by horses and the white steam arose from an impossibly large hotpot around which the governor and his entourage were dining and singing.  Zhang and his bandits took aim and fired several shots.  As the train continued roaring on, one bandit asked, “Did we miss?” Zhang calmly replied, “Let the bullets fly for a while”.  Neither horse nor train was hit.  But the train soon stopped as the horse reins came undone.

Although unable to pin down the historical and allegorical references in the film, many Chinese viewers understand it to be a political satire.  They marvel at the fact that it not only circumvented government censorship, but also generated a slew of catchphrases widely used in everyday discourse. “Let the bullets fly for a while” in particular has acquired an effervescent afterlife on Chinese social media, which is saturated with sensational news of all natures and scales: natural and human-made disasters, political scandals, abuse of police power, medical malpractice and violence against doctors and nurses, illegal trade and consumption of wild life, celebrity extramarital affairs, and so forth.  These dramatic events often unfold through multiple rounds of disguises, revelations, and revisions.

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Anti-regulation Discourses, Nuclear Safety, and the Role of STS

By William J. Kinsella

Despite the proliferation of issues marking the turbulent beginnings of the Trump presidency, many important questions have received little or no public attention. One question involves the future of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), whose stated mission, proclaimed on a banner at the top of the agency’s website, is “protecting people and the environment.” As anti-regulation discourses become increasingly normalized and budget priorities shift, actors in both government and the nuclear industry may soon be seeking changes that could impair that crucial mission. Perspectives from the field of science and technology studies (STS) may help anticipate and respond to the challenges ahead.

Following the 2011 disaster at Fukushima, critics pointed to regulatory laxity as a key factor in the meltdowns that followed the Tōhoko earthquake and tsunami. In Japan, those events are widely known as the “triple disaster” of “3-11.” For STS scholars, they demonstrate a convergence of environmental forces, technological vulnerabilities, and human failures. As we observe the sixth anniversary of Fukushima it is appropriate to ask: could such a thing happen in Trump’s America?

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Do Historical and Societal Circumstance Still Have a Place in Law Enforcement?

By Tiffany Nichols

On February 9, 2017, US law enforcement officially began its shift from crime prevention and investigation to ensuring the safety of law enforcement itself through the Presidential Executive Order on Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers. The Executive Order makes no mention of crime prevention or investigation and instead focuses on the enhancement of “protection and safety of Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”

A similar attempt was made by former President Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of the Watts Uprising of 1965. Over 35,000 adults “active as rioters” and over 72,000 spectators were involved. These riots resulted in 34 deaths (mostly Blacks), 1,000 injured, 4,000 arrests and $200 million in property damage within the Watts-Willlowbrook district of Los Angeles. The Watts Uprising can largely be attributed to the exclusion of Blacks from the movie industry after the Hollywood Red Scare, slow presence of the effects of the Civil Rights Movement in Los Angeles, the rise of Black Nationalism paired with White fear thereof, and the exclusion of Blacks from unions, among numerous additional factors. To many within the city, the Uprising was seen as inevitable due to these imbalances. Although later disproved, psychologists blamed the increase of unrest on the heat in August of 1965, while others blamed the full moon. [1]

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