By David Kennedy
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. 
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.
Continue reading “It’s not about facts. It’s about politics”
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.
Continue reading “Automatic for the people”
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. 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.
Continue reading “What Should Democracies Know?”