‘Post-Truth’ was Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. While the term was coined by its disparagers, especially in light of the Brexit and US Presidential campaigns, the roots of post-truth lie deep in the history of Western social and political theory. This book reaches back to Plato, ranges across theology and philosophy, and focuses on the Machiavellian tradition in classical sociology. The key figure here is Vilfredo Pareto, who offered the original modern account of post-truth in terms of the ‘circulation of elites’, whereby ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’ vie for power by accusing each other of illegitimacy, based on allegations of speaking falsely either about what they have done (lions) or what they will do (foxes). The defining feature of ‘post-truth’ is a strong distinction between appearance and reality which is never quite resolved, which means that the strongest appearance ends up passing for reality. The only question is whether more is gained by rapid changes in appearance (foxes) or by stabilizing one such appearance (lions). This book plays out what all this means for both politics and science.
About the Author
Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK.
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BREXIT: POLITICAL EXPERTISE CONFRONTS THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE
I should start by saying that I would be happy to reverse the course which the United Kingdom has taken since that fateful 52/ 48 decision on 23 June 2016 to exit the EU after more than 40 years of membership (hence 'Brexit'). Any path that would lead the United Kingdom back to the EU is fine with me: a parliamentary vote, another general election, a second referendum – you name it. But suppose Brexit is inevitable. My view then is that we should examine more closely – and even more charitably – what some of the more 'visionary' Brexiteers have been projecting. However, this is not as easy as it first sounds because their vision is a strange amalgam of populism and elitism, which when taken together threatens not only the sovereignty of Parliament, which has been much discussed in the media, but also the authority of expertise more generally. Such are the ways of the fox, in Pareto's terms. Here it is worth recalling that virtually all of UK academia, business leaders – including the Bank of England – and world politicians who expressed an opinion wanted to see the United Kingdom remain in the EU. (Russia was a notable exception.)
However, as we shall see, Brexit has turned out to be a poisoned chalice for the Brexiteers, who had not anticipated that the public would treat its newfound voice as though it were a sort of collectively manifested expertise of its own. I present the argument that follows in three parts. First, I consider Brexit in relation to my own long-standing anti-expertist approach to social epistemology, which in many ways makes me a kindred spirit to the Brexiteers. Next, I turn to the struggle of parliamentary elites which eventuated in the win for Brexit, focusing on the Brexiteers' distinctive epistemic and ethical strategy with regard to public opinion. Finally, I consider the unforeseen emergence of a Rousseau-style 'general will' with regard to Brexit, which is where British democracy stands for the foreseeable future, ending on the role of academia – and specifically business schools – in the anti-expert revolution.
The Anti-expert Turn in Politics and Science
The topic of expertise is close to my heart because the version of 'social epistemology' that I have been developing over the past 30 years has stood out for its 'deconstructive' and 'demystifying' attitude towards expertise, which I originally dubbed 'cognitive authoritarianism' (Fuller 1988: chap. 12). As a philosopher of science who became a 'social constructivist' in the formative years of the field now known as 'science and technology studies' (STS), I differed from my philosophical colleagues in seeing the disciplinary boundaries by which expertise is institutionalized as mere necessary evils vis-a-vis free enquiry: the more necessary, the more evil (Fuller and Collier 2004: chap. 2). In this context, I stood with Karl Popper as against Thomas Kuhn: the former said that no scientific knowledge claim is irreversible, the latter that science depends on its knowledge claims being rarely reversed (Fuller 2003a).
When I turned to 'knowledge management' about 20 years ago, I was struck by the Janus-faced way in which economics portrayed knowledge in wealth creation. On the one hand, it appeared as a magic 'X factor' in the production function, usually called 'innovation', which is irreducible to the available epistemic and material resources. On the other hand, there is knowledge as 'expertise', a form of rent-seeking that is structured around having to acquire credentials before accessing what is already known (McKenzie and Tullock 2012: part 5). It was Popper and Kuhn all over again. From the standpoint of a dynamic capitalist economy, innovation is clearly positive, not least because it 'creatively destroyed' markets, the functional equivalent of a paradigm shift in science. In contrast, expertise is seen negatively as a major source of information bottlenecks. At the time, I believed that the emergence of 'expert systems', whereby computers are programmed to reproduce the reasoning of experts under normal conditions, might ultimately remove such bottlenecks by rendering human experts redundant, not least in relatively high-paying but routinized fields of law and medicine. That future is still very much on the agenda (Fuller 2002: chap. 3).
Still more recently, I have become concerned about the future of the increasingly 'research-led' university, which is arguably a euphemism for the institution's role in the manufacture and certification of expertise. In this spirit, I have called for a shift in the university's mission from research back to teaching, which has historically done the most to break down the hierarchies, or 'bottlenecks', that expertise breeds (Fuller 2016a). In this context, teaching should be seen as the regular delivery of knowledge to those who would otherwise remain ignorant by virtue of being removed from the channels in which such knowledge normally travels. To be sure, this levelling of epistemic authority enables more people to 'own' formerly expert knowledge, in the resonant sense that 'own' enjoys today. But at the same time, it removes the stabilizing effect that expert knowledge has had on the social order in the past, given that a wider range of people can take the same knowledge in a wider range of directions.
Arguably, this collective epistemic volatility has been intensified in our own day with the rise of the Internet as society's principal means of knowledge acquisition. And just as the Protestant Reformers 500 years ago capitalized on the advent of the printing press to delegitimize the authority of the Roman Catholic Church by urging the faithful to read the Bible for themselves, various anti-establishment campaigners in both politics and science have urged their followers to override the experts and judge the evidence for themselves.
I have never seen much of a difference between the epistemologies of politics and science. Here I stand closer to Karl Popper than to Max Weber, two thinkers who otherwise share many similar sensibilities. As someone who has been intimately involved with one of the major anti-expert science movements in our time, intelligent design theory, I see some striking similarities with Brexit. Intelligent design theory is a form of scientific creationism that is premised on the idea that life is too complexly specified to have been the product of unintelligent variation and selection processes, a la Charles Darwin's theory of evolution (Fuller 2007a; Fuller 2008).
The first and perhaps most important similarity is that an institutional opening already existed for the experts to be challenged. In the case of intelligent design, it was built into the US Constitution, namely, the devolution of education policy to the local tax base, which funds the school system. The original idea was to prevent education from being dominated by the secular equivalent of an established church, or a 'national religion'. In that context, academic authorities function no more than as consultants and lobbyists in terms of curriculum construction and textbook purchases, which are ultimately in the hands of local school districts. In the case of Brexit, the opening was provided by Parliament's right to call a referendum, thereby throwing open to a direct public vote what would otherwise be a statutory issue. This right has been rarely exercised in Parliament's long history. Moreover, unlike the United States, where the referendum is commonly used by several states to determine matters such as setting tax rates, on which voters might be expected to have relatively well-formed views, the United Kingdom has called a referendum only on relatively esoteric high-level matters of governance, such as proportional representation and, of course, membership in the EU.
To be sure, intelligent design theory has been hoist by its own petard in US courtrooms, as it is regularly ruled to be a crypto-Christian plot to overturn secular democracy. Yet, there is little evidence that the well-publicized legal defeats suffered by the theory have diminished public support for it. Perhaps more to the point, there is equally little evidence that these defeats have served to increase the public's belief in evolution, let alone public trust in the scientific establishment that backs evolution. Instead there is a climate of suspicion and even paranoia that agencies of the state are on a mission to subvert dissenting voices that uphold Christian values.
Indeed, if evolution were subject to a national referendum in the United States, it might well lose by something like a Brexit-style 52/ 48 margin. Trump, playing somewhat against type, managed to capitalize on that sentiment in his path to the White House. Similarly, even after the triumph of Brexit at the ballot box, there is widespread scepticism that it will be implemented in the spirit of the referendum campaign, given that the House of Commons was 4 to 1 – and the Lords 6 to 1 – in favour of remaining in the EU. And while the numbers in the Commons have shifted towards Brexit as a result of the 2017 general election, parliamentarians generally want to remain as close as possible to the current UK-EU arrangement rather than what the public seemed to have wanted, namely, to reboot Britain's place in the world. A reasonable inference is that, for better or worse, the public is much less risk averse than its elected representatives.
The other important factor in the anti-expert revolt common to intelligent design and Brexit is the establishment's own admission that there are problems, but that these can be solved by staying within status quo. Where intelligent design theory goes beyond earlier forms of Creationism is that it not only argues for an alternative basis for explaining the nature of life (i.e. an 'intelligent designer', also known as the Abrahamic deity) but also addresses issues that evolutionists have already identified as problematic for their own account. Similarly, and perhaps fatally, Prime Minister David Cameron started the campaign to remain in the EU by conceding the EU's shortcomings, a panto version of which had been enacted in an ineffectual February 2016 Brussels summit, yet he also argued that these will not be remedied unless the United Kingdom stays to reform the EU from within.
Over time this message morphed into what Brexit campaigners dubbed 'Project Fear', namely, a generalized foreboding about the calamities that would follow from United Kingdom leaving an 'always already' flawed EU. Likewise, as support for intelligent design theory increased, the scientific establishment amplified the theory's threat to encompass all of science, if not civilization as such, were it to be taught in schools. Once again, on both matters, the public appears to be much less risk averse than the experts. But equally, by conceding fallibility at the outset the experts unwittingly opened the door to the public taking matters into its own hands.
At this point, we confront one of the big canards perpetrated by defenders of expertise: namely, that anti-experts are anti-intellectuals who privilege ignorance over knowledge and would treat all opinions as equally valid. All that this exercise in misdirection does is to cover up the reverse tendency, namely, that our trust in experts in modern democracies has led to a moral dumbing down of the population, as people are encouraged to let authorized others – starting perhaps with the general medical practitioner – decide for them what to believe, even when the consequences of those decisions directly affect people's lives and sense of self. In effect, modern democracy presents a paradox. At the same time as we enfranchise more of humanity into the political system, and indeed provide people with the education needed to function in that system, we are also discouraging them from exercising their judgement, given the increasing normative weight invested in expertise. The result is that we are breeding a culture of intellectual deference, a 'soft authoritarianism', if you will, whereby education ends up functioning in a counter-Enlightenment manner. Instead of individuals learning how to expand their powers over themselves and the wider world, they are being taught simply to discover and respect the limits of those powers.
What is missing here – and which Brexit's anti-expertism aims to inspire – is an ethic of intelligent risk-taking, one that acknowledges the full complexity of the world, which in turn requires diverse forms of knowledge, each of which is inherently partial and fallible. Moreover, given the pervasive unlikelihood that a perfect outcome can ever be reached, a democracy should aim to take decisions for which the people to whom they apply would be willing and able to take personal responsibility, whatever the consequences. In Kantian terms, all legislation should aspire to be self-legislation. Put more practically, reducing the difference between what the Parliamentarian and what the public knows about matters relating to the public good should be an aim of electoral politics.
I have associated this mindset with a proactionary – as opposed to a precautionary – approach to decision-making with regard to the future of the human condition (Fuller and Lipinska 2014). Clearly, putting the electorate in this mindset takes some persuasion in contemporary democracies, where voters often quickly punish politicians who fail to deliver on promises for which the voters have only themselves to blame. Interestingly, the Brexit-voting public so far has not engaged in this strategic distancing from its own decisions. If anything, as we shall see, it suffers from the reverse problem: The public has insisted that politicians get on with implementing the 'will of the people' in the case of Brexit, however ill-prepared, incoherent or potentially disastrous such a policy may be.
How the Anti-experts Beat the Experts at Their Own Game in Brexit
It is somewhat ironic that Brexit has propelled the current anti-expert revolution, given that it resulted from a referendum that was itself the product of infighting among parliamentary elites – indeed, within the same ruling party. However, the situation would have been all too familiar to Pareto, who in the introduction we highlighted as having seen the lifeblood of society as fuelled by the circulation of elites, whom he divided a la Machiavelli into 'lions' and 'foxes'.
In the case of the Brexit referendum, the lions were represented by those wanting to remain in the EU, including the Conservative prime minister, Cameron, who ill-fatedly called the referendum to stave off the foxes, as represented by two of his cabinet ministers and potential leadership rivals, Justice Minister Michael Gove and Minister without Portfolio Boris Johnson. A more specifically British analysis of this divide would start with the famous 'Two Cultures' problem that C. P. Snow first identified in 1956, as the reins of government were passing from the 'humanists' to the 'scientists' (including social scientists, especially economists and policy-oriented sociologists) with the advent of the post-war welfare state. In this respect, Brexit marked the ironic revenge of the humanists, given Gove's and Johnson's literary education, which neither has ever attempted to mask.
In terms of Snow's two cultures, the relevant division in the Brexit referendum was between those who tried to gain power by conjuring up verbal images of a much better world within reach ('humanists') by breaking with the EU and those who tried by brandishing statistics about how remaining within the EU was responsible for the rather good world in which people already live ('scientists'). Thus, whereas the 'foxy' Gove and Johnson stoked up passions in their respective columns for the Times and the Telegraph, the 'leonine' Cameron relied on sober economic arguments and forecasts with the backing of the Bank of England. And in that round of Snow's culture war, the rhetoricians ended up vanquishing the technocrats.
To be sure, what followed has not exactly gone to plan for the anti-expertists: Neither Gove nor Johnson is prime minister, and their Conservative Party is severely weakened in Parliament, following the 2017 general election. However, it is worth dwelling on how the Brexiteers outsmarted their opponents by effectively approaching the business of democracy from a rather different epistemological and perhaps even ethical standpoint.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Post-Truth"
Copyright © 2018 Steve Fuller.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Science and Politics in a Post-Truth Era: Pareto's Hidden Hand;
Chapter One: Brexit: Political Expertise Confronts the Will of the People;
Chapter Two: What Philosophy Does and Does Not Teach Us about the Post-Truth Condition;
Chapter Three: Sociology and Science and Technology Studies as Post-Truth Sciences;
Chapter Four: The Post-Truth about Academia: Undiscovered Public Knowledge; Appendix: Prolegomena To A Deep History of 'Information Overload';
Chapter Five: Science Customisation: A Project for the Post-Truth Condition;
Chapter Six: The Performance of Politics and Science on the Playing Field of Time;
Chapter Seven: Forecasting: The Future as the Post-Truth Playground; The Argument in A Nutshell; Glossary; References.
What People are Saying About This
‘Steve Fuller takes the concept of post-truth to a new level of analysis, explaining the history of “meta” thinking about truth, the institutional structuring of truth through “rules of the game”, and the forms of knowledge that go beyond and problematize this kind of truth. Fuller skewers contemporary thinkers who are in denial about the problematic character of institutional truth and wish to occlude or ignore the processes by which it is produced, and who invent philosophical rationalizations for this denial. This is a readable, bravura performance that develops themes from his earlier writings.’
Stephen Turner, Distinguished University Professor, University of South Florida, USA
‘Alfred Jarry said, “Cliches are the armature of the Absolute.” Steve Fuller provokes us to think past clichés about truth that we default to in the face of scepticism about expertise. He provides an account of issues in play in “post-truth”, epistemic populist circumstances, and traces their lineage in an illuminating way.’
Fred D’Agostino, Professor of Humanities, The University of Queensland, Australia