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?”
By Hilton Simmet
May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.
–inscribed on the Golden Spike, Promontory Point, 1869.
A year of disbelief ended in a morning of despair. On November 9, 2016, the American people elected a real estate tycoon with no record of public service to the nation’s highest office. I will not forget the faces from that morning at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. A November gray had sunk into the faces of bleary-eyed men and women. Balloons in red, white, and blue fell from above in the post-election ball drop ritual. Some students began singing “Amazing Grace,” needing, it seemed, almost religious comfort. Words came to me not of grace but of compassion, from the Vedic shloka “from ignorance, lead me to truth … from the darkness of suffering, lead us to the light of compassion.” I thought of Trump supporters, wherever they were, and wondered if, in their jubilation, they understood how their years of dejection and loss had now been shifted to the other side of the wall separating elite rationality from mass fervor.
Understanding on anyone’s part seemed unlikely. The election had rejected the Kennedy School’s culture of calculated truths, coolly leading the world one smart policy decision at a time. It marked a radical division between citizens, exposing the fragility of the “we” in “We the people.” This “we” depends on compassion, a feeling for the plight of the other. Yet, one of my own students asked, “How can I find empathy for groups of people who deny my right to exist?” I did not answer. How can one find a “we” of shared value and concern in a country gripped by fear and the impending threat of violence? Not, I believe, by casting Trump’s supporters as the enemy. They are only the symptoms of the breakdown of the polity into “us” and “them.” We must look deeper into this breakdown, examining failures in what I call “infrastructures of compassion”: the epistemic, material, and normative structures that underwrite the democratic enterprise. Instead of investing $1 trillion in physical infrastructure, longer-term “investment” is needed in our infrastructures of compassion to safeguard America’s democratic future against the recurrent threat of Trumpism.
Continue reading “Infrastructures of Compassion: Trumpism and America’s Democratic Future”
By Christopher Jones
The United States faces an infrastructure crisis. Report after report warns that the nation’s networks are old, brittle and vulnerable. Systems that were once the envy of the world now suffer from chronic underfunding and neglect. If you’ve travelled in western Europe or parts of China recently, you probably noticed the unfavourable comparison between roads and subways in the US and those abroad. A culture enthralled with disruptive innovation has ignored the fundamental importance of maintaining its technological backbones.
The need for infrastructure revitalisation is so pressing that, despite today’s polarised politics, it actually draws bipartisan agreement. President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address called for ‘rebuild[ing] our infrastructure’. The Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has argued that ‘we have to rebuild our infrastructure: our bridges, our roadways, our airports’, and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton has pledged $275 billion in additional spending for infrastructure upgrades.
Can we make US infrastructure great again? Yes, and clearly financial investment is essential. But that is not all. Infrastructure is not, and never has been, simply a collection of material objects. The secret of the country’s infrastructure success lies in a forgotten political history: the demands by millions of Americans over time for fairer and more equitable access to rails, pipes, wires, roads and more. The wondrous US infrastructure achievements happened when citizens participated in infrastructure decisions. One can even propose a rule: the better the democracy, the better the infrastructure.
Continue reading “New Tech Only Benefits the Elite Until the People Demand More”