2016 as a ten-letter word

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Robert N. Proctor (Photo: Linda A. Cicero)

In the end of November, as it is the case every year since 2004, Oxford Dictionaries revealed their choice for the word of the year. For 2016, they settled on “post-truth”. This adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, echoed a number of events of the past few months, including UK’s vote in favor of Brexit and, most infamously, the election of Donald J. Trump. Following the announcement, a few commenters were quick to observe that “post-truth” could be considered as an emanation of postmodernism, the brain-child of post-1968 French philosophy and critical theory. Whether you buy this or not – I don’t -, there’s no denying that “post-truth” has been everywhere in the press and on social networks. Yet, as a historian of science with little – if any – interest in questions of “truthfulness” and “falsity”, I would like to suggest another ten-letter word for describing more accurately what has been going on over the past few months – and, admittedly, over the past few decades as well, 2016 representing in my opinion some kind of turning point in its development. This word is: “agnotology”.

For those of you who are not familiar with the concept elaborated by Robert N. Proctor in books such as The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer (1995) and Golden Holocaust – Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition (2012), suffice to say that “agnotology” is the production and dissemination of ignorance – as well as the study of this phenomenon. Proctor’s argument in a nutshell is that knowledge is not created out of a vacuum which we would call “ignorance” but, instead, that both knowledge and ignorance are social constructs, therefore contingent to many social, political and individual factors. The production and dissemination of ignorance, therefore, can be studied using the tools that are traditionally attached to the history of science, making the distinction between science and non-science not so significant in the process. When we look at the history of how the cigarette industry intentionally spread doubts about evidences that linked smoke ingestion to cancer, there were a few scientists to back this claim. At first, I was skeptical about “agnotology” because I had read Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, which does not use the term “agnotology” but tells a relatively similar story of ignorance dissemination, and was unsatisfied with the way they tried to demarcate between the good, disinterested scientists fighting for truth and those who were paid by big corporations to spread false information – I had expressed my dissatisfaction on the INET version of this blog. However, I do not find the same problem with Proctor’s historical narrative which is not so much interested in questions of demarcation but rather in the cultural and political context in which ignorance is produced and disseminated. Accordingly, agnotology has been used in the history of economics by Phil Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah in a way that may seem controversial at first  but which I found, after some resistance, increasingly convincing. After all, agnotology deals with producing and distributing something, so economics should not be too far away when we think about it. Two French economists have recently tried to use Proctor’s work, without using the term ‘agnotology’, in order to build a case against the critics of mainstream economics but in my opinion – which I have expressed in a forthcoming review of their book for a French STS journal -, they fell short of understanding the complexity of the concept and, quite ironically, ended up generating a lot of agnotology over the current status of their discipline.

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Donald Trump: the rise of agnotologic governmentality?

But so much for these issues of scientific demarcation – or lack therof. “Agnotology” is an enlightening word to describe 2016 because it is effectively applicable to the political issues of the day. Ignorance production and dissemination is not something which is just relevant to scientific issues. It is actually, a total social fact in the Maussian sense of the term, one that ties together cultural, psychological and political elements. With the election of Donald Trump, I even wonder if it is not possible to assert that we are entering an age of agnotologic governmentality, a way of governing that uses ignorance as a political device. In using the term governmentality, I explicitly refer to Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics. Governmentality, in Foucault’s conception, should not be confused with “government”. A regime of governmentality is enforced, not just by the State, but at many different levels where knowledge and power are connected. Suffice to replace knowledge by ignorance and then you have some idea of what a Foucaldian version of agnotology could look like. Since his election in November, Donald Trump has been a master in disseminating so much information, both in the press and on social networks, that it is almost impossible to assess what his legislature will yield. But of course, this had not begun with his election: this is the way he had behaved since the very beginning of his campaign at the Republican primaries. At the time, it had been summed up in one fantastically short tweet.

Now that “the comments section” has become the new President of the United States, we can argue that the kind of ignorance that such comments section typify will noy only lead  the most powerful nation, but as a result will preside over the way of the world at large. But ignorance is not a “top-down” phenomenon and that’s what makes it so stealth, yet powerful. Ignorance is cultivated at every level of the society and now, through more or less trustable internet news coverage, it is disseminated at a higher speed. Even academics and self-proclaimed “intelligent” people such as you and I can be subjected to it. If you have been a regular user of social networks in the course of the past few months, I defy you to tell me that you have never fallen into a clic-bait, believing for at least a few minutes a piece of information that has been revealed to be either false or (mis)guided by a non-objective source. The bombing of Aleppo, for instance, has been the subject of so much news coverage that it is impossible be sure that everything we were told was true. While there is no doubt that, on one hand, some information has been manipulated by pro-Syrian and Russian medias, we are not so naive as to believe that there is no propaganda on the other side, too. Increasingly complex conflicts and social issues such as this one are not easy to grasp and we can all be deceived. Effective propaganda knows how to exploit the capacity we all have to doubt. It is no surprise that agnotology is often related to neoliberalism. It is not so much, I think, that there is a mechanical relation between the two but, instead, that both are so squeezed in the recesses of our our everyday life that they are difficult to espace, unless we turn off our computers and start leading a more recluse life – which may not be a bad idea after all.

Anyway, I am afraid I have conveyed that 2016 has been a very bad year and this is similar to a lot of rants you have already read elsewhere. I should apologize for my lack of originality. But there is also a more positive message: as historians of science, we may  be able to apply our critical toolbox to the understanding of how we got there and, hopefully, how we will be able to get away with it.

@INET-BW: Upon leaving Mount Washington

Who goes with Fergus?

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,                    
And dance upon the level shore?                                         
Young man, lift up your russet brow,                                            
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,                      
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
 
And no more turn aside and brood,
Upon love’s bitter mystery;                                                        
for Fergus rules the brazen cars,                   
And rules the shadows of the wood,                 
And the white breast of the dim sea                         
And all the dishevelled wandering stars. 

The place invites poetry. By the way, all sessions can be viewed from the webiste – check out in particular the last session featuring Gillian Tett of the Financial Times moderating a disucssion between Paul Volcker and George Soros.

Here’s what it all looked like through an amateur lens.

@INET-BW: Clear skies with a chance of economics

For the next three days, a few of us are blogging the Institute of New Economic Thinking’s Bretton Woods Conference. It is an unusual event, as unusual as the Institute’s patron, George Soros, who somehow manages to be a player in politics, finance and culture on both shores of the Atlantic. A number of principals are walking about Mount Washington: policy makers (Summers and Sachs will drop by), media (Wolf and Tett from the FT, Cassidy from the New Yorker), bloggers (Huffington in on the guest list) and plenty of economists.

Historians are here too. (Skidelsky, Keynes’s biographer is sitting in front of me.) One of INET’s core business is to foster the teaching and the research into economic history and the history of economics. I am sure this will scramble some folk’s disciplinary grids, of who fits where, and the dangers of being an historian and analyst without due distance to one’s subject, that trouble of being too “embedded”. That is why I am taking this assignment more as the anthropologist (as I imagine them) than as the colleague. As in a field assignment I come prepared with my trusted Marantz recorder, a set of agreed questions that i discussed with colleagues in the course of the last week, and a set of empty notebooks to be filled. I also thought of wearing my khakis to make the transformation complete, but upon visiting weather.com I discovered it was going to be cloudy and cold, and there is still snow on the hillsides.

(Ben and Floris will likely take this experience differently, I am looking forward to some contrast)

Robert Lucas demands more books in economics!

The quote is extracted from a Panel Discussion on “Promoting Economic Literacy” in the American Economic Review in 2002 (v.9, n.2):

Another way to define the new course, … might be to provide an economics canon: a list of economics writings that all well-educated people should have read. The appeal of this idea led me, last year, to assign to my sophomores the selection from Ricardo’s Principles that treats comparative advantage. This was a pedagogic failure, even by my modest standards, and not even an honest failure: I didn’t learn about comparative advantage from Ricardo, so why make my students do so? One could probably do better with selections from the Wealth of Nations, but I am skeptical that an entire, good, one-semester course could be defined as a course in the Great Books of economics. Maybe we just have not written enough of them.

Not new, but it is news, no?

How big is your H?

Recently I discovered (actually it was Funny Bird) a neat software Publish or Perish. It is the ultimate toy for the narcissistic or anxious 21st century academic. The program fetches data from Google Scholar and calculates impact statistics for authors and journals. It doesn’t work that well because Scholar sometimes gets dates confused, it takes as separate works items that differ only in minor edits in author name or publisher, and other such like.

I started by doing a top ten of the history of economics, but then found the exercise too parochial and self-serving. So instead I went ambitious and decided to find the most influential social theorist of the late 20th, early 21th century. My metric was the h-index. (To get the h one ranks all of a scholar’s papers by how many times it was cited. A scholar’s h is 4, if her/his top 4 papers are cited at least 4 times, the scholar’s h is 8 if his/hers top 8 most cited papers have at least 8 cites each.)

The kids Bernard Henri Levy and Slavoj Zizek go at 14 and 55 respectively. C Wright Mills gets a 25, and EP Thompson a 36. Jean-François Lyotard does better at 44, and F. von Hayek better still at 63. The father of structuralism, Claude Levi-Strauss is as high as 76, and the great man of science studies Bruno Latour manages an 80. Jacques Derrida and Anthony Giddens, the frenchman and the englishman are head to head at 100 and 101.

But the real business is down to Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jurgen Habermas and Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is h 116, he is a level 30 warrior mage in World of Warcraft. Habermas makes it third place at 124. Michel or Pierre. A french final, and the winner is … (you have seen the picture next to the post!)… Pierre Bourdieu (168 to 162, cricket score numbers).

I was routing for Michel…

P.S. Incidentally Paul Samuelson is h=75, and JM Keynes goes only for h=39.

Rudolf Modley (?)

There is a frequent bias in the history of science – and the history of economics alike. We are mainly interested in people who have published, and particularly in people having published in the main field we are interested in. People having greatly contributed to the development of departments – think of Aaron Director and Gregg Lewis at Chicago, for instance – or operating at the crossroads of disciplines are often neglected. When my co-author Loic Charles and I began to be interested in the history of visualization in the interwar social sciences in general and in the dispersion of Otto Neurath‘s pictorial statistics in the US in particular, we quickly found that one man was particularly influential in these developments: Rudolf Modley.

Modley, a former student of Neurath in Vienna, moved to the US in the early 30s, where he was appointed as curator of social sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, under Waldemar Kaempffert (Neurath’s cousin). Modley, after experiencing numerous difficulties, created a flourishing business in illustrating magazines, newspapers, official reports and pamphlets with Neurath-like Isotypes. The name of his corporation, Pictograph Inc., could be seen anywhere in these different medias. As Loic and I put it in our paper: “the American reader was [then] more likely to encounter Modley’s version of [pictorial statistics], rather than the original [Neurath’s]”. One could dismiss Modley as someone who’s only responsible for the little men and women we find on our bathroom doors. After all, Modley’s pictorial statistics was almost completely stripped of the theoretical and political contents Neurath would attach to it. Neurath himself was quite critical of the way his former disciple used his method. On the other hand, social scientists were very interested in Modley’s enterprise. In the course of our research, we have encountered some important names of social scientists of the period (including economists) who were quite eager to participate in the diffusion of Modley’s little men. On the whole, Modley is one of the central characters in the Americanization of Neurath’s visual method, namely its transformation from a tool of conceptualization into a tool of illustration and consequently, its move from social sciences to propaganda and finally, to graphic design.

Though he was the object of only one scholarly article (Crawley 1994) and was briefly mentioned in another one (Lupton 1986), Modley has lately attracted more and more fans on the internet. You just have to google his name to find several blog posts and websites devoted to his use of Neurath’s method. By contrast, when I began being interested in Modley while finishing my PhD dissertation in late 2007, there was almost nothing to be found on the internet. Meanwhile, websites devoted to pictorial statistics are flourishing (see examples here or here). Loic and I would like to take advantage of this recent proliferation and try to gather as much information as possible on Modley from all those contributors. In particular, if some people do know whether some archives exist and if so, where they are located, that would be highly useful for further research. Besides, we would be curious to know the various background of those who have contributed to disperse Modley’s pictures on the internet and how they got interested in his work in the first place.

Lead and Follow in the ash cloud controversy of 2010

Wiki tells us that “In partner dancing, the two dance partners are never equal. One must be the Lead and the other will be the Follow.”

Someone from STS will write, within a couple of years, the “icelandic volcano controversy” of 2010 (since the Eyjafjallajökull controversy would not be a usable title). This person will write on how the UK Met office collaborated with the aviation authorities to close off European air space in face of an Ulrich Beck type of risk. And then how the Met office, after four days of stranded passengers, hungry, sleepless, penniless, was pressured to review its authoritative claims about air safety. The scholarly account might examine the credibility of the weather model that was used to predict the location and concentration of the volcanic ash. The story might include a Dutch hero, the head of KLM who sent out a plane, and out to the real world above the clouds with a mission to find the ash and measure. Private interests doing battle with the model’s claims. The Met office’s plane which was also stranded, for repairs, would follow the Dutch example as air space began to open.

In such an account we will read contextual claims about the “obvious” economics of airlines. The rich uncertainty of the lava spewing natural world will lead. The comparatively certain world of Mr. Moneybags, counting and subtracting coins, will follow. The danger is that the lead partner of the dance objectifies and caricatures the follow.

Let’s discount the influence upon the story of losing, for nearly 5 days, the fastest means to move freight (if not the only means for fresh produce), and consider only the calculations and the knowledge producing practices of the airline industry. The airline business is generally know as the most hazardous business around. It is hard to keep a profit, and an expensive gamble to guess petrol prices, negotiate airport costs, prevent industrial action, always under the vigilant pressure of new entrants who want a piece of the glamorous business. The airline industry has equipped itself with practices of continued discovery and modeling of its own sort. The story of the ash of 2010 is also a story of airlines knowledge producing practices of ash and how the event might have changed airlines’ views on their business, on how to liaison with air control authorities, on how to prepare for the future.

I want to suggest to that anonymous STS scholar writing about the “ash cloud controversy of 2010”, that she/he really needs to collaborate with an historian or sociologist of economics to get any handle on the events (possibly someone from this blog). Although wiki’s entry on dancing condemns it, some occasional “lead stealing” might make for the best kind of partnership.