2016 as a ten-letter word

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.

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.

Inside Economics

Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job forces us to fundamentally rethink the connections between economics and policy making. This entangled relation runs along a number of dimension. First there is the performativity of economics: in which ways do economic theories shape the ideas of policy makers and hence the policies they enact (i.e. the Donald MacKenzie story)? Are economists and their rational market hypothesis, CAPM models and what have you responsible for the deregulation that led to the recent financial turmoil? If so, how should economics and its relation to policy making be reorganized institutionally? Second, is it at all possible to be politically and ideologically value-free as an economist? If so, how do we distinguish a value-free economist or economic theory from value-laden ones? If not, should economists always state their ideological points of view in the first disclaimer-footnote of their papers? Are there other ways to sufficiently disentangle ideology from science? Third, should economists be allowed to be paid by the private sector for their academic work? Do we need an economic code of ethics or some other kind of formal arrangement to distinguish more clearly between academic credibility and financial gain?

Luckily, we economists need not figure this out all by ourselves. In fact, the last few years have seen a surge of books discussing the role of science in the contemporary for-profit world. Gaye Tuchman’s Wannabe U (2009) tells the story of the middle ranked university that aspires to become an elite university in an age of auditing and ranking in which universities are run by business men in business suits.  Yet, although the undertone is clearly critical, Wannabe U first of all is a careful and engaging ethnographic reconstruction of the archetypical Western university that had to transform itself in the 1990s from a public institution to a private enterprise. Moreover, it reads like a novel. 

The different contributions to Harold Kincaid, John Dupré and Alison Wylie’s Value-Free Science? (2007) discuss the topic from a philosophical and theoretical point of view. The basic message is that the old fact-value distinction cannot be maintained. To some extent, that is an almost trivial point. The more important argument, therefore, is that although at some level we all know that the fact-value distinction cannot be maintained, we constantly act as if it does. That, the authors argue, is a fault of contemporary society that needs to be cured. Scientists should make clear how facts and values mingle in their work, politicians should not be allowed to rely on “objective facts,” and moral convictions should never be argued to be based on values alone. Yet, convincing as the book is, it is somewhat unfortunate that the authors do not translate their calls for action into concrete measures.     

Theodore Brown’s Imperfect Oracle (2009) is the book of a distinguished chemist, successful university administrator, and well-informed reader of sociology and philosophy who towards the end of a long career reflects on the waning authority of science. The key premise is that with all the problems the world currently faces, there is so much science could offer. Yet public opinion accepts less and less of science and scientists. Thus, the central question Brown addresses is how to restore the authority of science. This book should perhaps be read not so much as a deep or new account of the place of science in contemporary society, but rather as a well-written intellectual autobiography of one of those scientists who ruled the universities in the post war decades.  

In contrast to these three general accounts, the different contributions to Hans Radder’s The Commodification of Academic Research (2010) seek to investigate the topic from the bottom up. The book provides detailed accounts of the politics and economics of patents on academic research, the management of data , and the different sources and consequences of financial interests in academic research. Sometimes, the authors force themselves somewhat unnecessarily to infer more general claims about science, private enterprise, or autonomy. But the chapters offer enough in simply describing the different elements of corporate science.  

To save the economic discipline it would certainly help when all economists would read Kincaid’s Value-Free Science?. But before answering the bigger questions of whether economics should have a code of ethics, and how universities and research should be funded and organized, we would perhaps do good to first understand the system itself. What would most help the discussion now are detailed sociological, economic and historical accounts of how the economic discipline, economic departments, and economists function and have functioned. Both in the bygone days of the public university and authoritative science, and in the contemporary era of auditing, ranking, financial interests and business suits. Much like Tuchman’s Wannabe U or Radder’s Commodification perhaps. By chance, that happens to be what I’m doing and I’m willing to offer my expertise. Who gives me grant? I’m (still) quite cheap.

@INET-BW: Careers

Guess who came for lunch? Gordon Brown. He just strolled in, was in the neighborhood, with the K-9s and the barrel chested security detail. And he is a terrific speaker!

Before I say anything of his message, and because the messenger was a big portion of the message, I was left wondering about careers. It used to be that a politician out of office would travel some (any) desert and return for another fight, another cycle, Churchill and Nixon come to mind. Politicians these days, such as GW Bush, go out of office and into celebrity: they write a book, they go on speaking tours.

Gordon Brown has a book, and he did not forget mentioning it. But he appears to inch towards a different career prospect, other than inspirational speaker: from national statesman he is ready to become a world statesman (Tony Blair is trying that too). The vision offered to the digesting masses was of a world unbalanced by a epoch making transformation, where the West will be dwarfed by the ascending middle class of the South and the East (worryingly not Africa) remaking financial and value flows. His proposal is to continue and conclude what he began but was myopically interrupted by democracy in May 2010: a new set of global agreements that regulate debt and currency adjustments but that also assures continued growth and prosperity for the new world order that is coming on the horizon. …. a new Bretton Woods.

The punchline was pleasant and appropriately sweet: an invitation to the imagination of scholars, with a bit of poetry as fits British eloquence, to envisage the worlds that are coming. We need economic fiction?

Sociobiology and vegetarianism

Claude Lalanne - L'Homme à Tête de Chou

My Dear Clément,

As you may know, I am a vegetarian. I have never thought much about the reasons of my rather recent conversion to vegetarianism, though as a historian and as a postmodern constructivist, I would tend to rely on socio-cultural explanations and as an economist, on more rational justifications – whether the two are mutually compatible, I ignore. To be a vegetarian in France is not an easy task. You have to struggle with the weight of culture: foie gras, confit de canard and so on. At least, I can still enjoy the incredible range of French cheeses we have, though I have to override the fact that most contain animal rennet – but I am not against inconsistency, which is what  every non-vegetarian tries to pinpoint about you as soon as they learn about your diet, as if they did not commit inconsistencies themselves all the time. One of the reasons I turned to vegetarianism is justly because I was a bit fed up with this French cultural exception. We believe we cook better food than most of the other world citizens – and the latter often believe it to be true as well. Yet, most of our ‘wonderful’ French cuisine is about putting a piece of factory farmed meat in a frying pan with chopped shallots and pretending it is a work of art – by comparison, I would invite you to taste my wife’s bread-and-mushrooms vegetarian terrine or my own eggplant and chick-peas tajine, which are far better. When I try to make my dietary choice more ‘rational’ – because my interlocutors seem to favor rational explanations – , I tend to rely on economic arguments. The fact that we eat only 0.25% of the edible livestock, that most of the resources that could serve to feed people in developing countries are instead used for feeding factory farmed animals, that 8 to 11 % of the weight of the meat that is sold to consumers actually consists of wasted waters that the profession calls “fecal soup” and that we actually eat only a minor portion of the livestock we kill – as Jonathan Safran Foer notes in Eating Animals (p.50): ‎”Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across” – are all arguments that make me quite comfortable as a vegetarian.

At this point of my message, my dear Clément, you must wonder what this has to do with you, right? Don’t worry. I am now coming to my central question. I have never been much convinced by naturalistic/positivistic justifications for vegetarianism and anything that relies on animal suffering to claim animal rights, though striking a chord, does not seem convincing to me as a rationale – you would have, to be convinced, to compare the suffering of factory farmed pigs to that of starved children in Ethiopia or slaughtered Libyans, which is not something I want to do. But other people find these arguments perfectly suitable for grounding their claims, such as most people at PETA. I was then wondering whether sociobiology has been used by animal rights advocates. After all, sociobiology use the exact same tools to study social behaviors in human and animal populations, and by doing so, it tends to instill the idea that animals, like humans, may have rights too. [Of course, as some eminent (sic) researchers in our field have tried to show you during your first conference presentation a few years ago, it can also argue the exact contrary, that because we behave just like animals do, we can be treated the same way, hence the campaigns of sterilization of some populations, and so on.] For instance, in Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, I was surprised to see some PETA member mentioning Richard Dawkins‘s research as one that helps ground animal rights. Culturally, I think it is quite interesting because people tend to think of sociobiology as kind of right-wing entrenched because of its hard scientism, positivism and probably because E.O. Wilson himself seems to fit the image of the Republican type of public intellectual. But it might not be necessarily so. I think that you would agree that sociobiology as it is currently practiced is an Anglo-Saxon invention and it is precisely where vegetarians are the most numerous and the most vocal – I would put aside religious vegetarianism, as practiced in some other areas in the world. Have you ever located in the sociobiological literature a fraction of authors that more or less explicitly advocate animal rights? Admittedly, it does not have a lot to do with the history of economics, yet I am quite interested in the question.

Kind regards,

Your friend Yann

Politics as History of Economics

Since almost a year now I’m involved in local politics (a few long evenings a week). Apart from all the obvious differences between the business of politics and the business of history of economics, I’ve noticed an unexpected similarity. Whenever politicians receive information of any kind, they will immediately do two things: 1) Check where the information is coming from, and 2) See how they can spin the information to their advantage. Politics is founded on the firm belief that there is no such thing as objevtive, or value-free information – even though part of the rhetoric is that there is. Ok, you might say, surely you knew that before entering politics. I did, although I had never realized how strongly and deeply rooted this conviction is in every nerve of the political process. But I also think that how readily you, reader of this blog, recognize the self-evidence of this observation, testifies to how similar the history of economics perspective is to the political perspective. Although we do different things, we historians also treat all information – publications, archival sources, interviews – always and everywhere very explicitly as the product of its source. That is, we never treat the information without taking into account the origin of the source.

But academic economists (including the IMFs and OECDs of this world) do. In fact, when we as historians of economics are alerted by fact that economists could take some information about some phenomena as THE truth, we are alerted in the very same way as are politicians about the same economists. Ipso facto, when economists are alerted because we introduce this source- or context-dependence in the discussion, they are alerted in the same way as they are alerted when politicians start questioning the source of their information (or worse, start spinning it). Economics is a self-perceived body of value-free, objective knoweldge in between two realms of politics and history of economics with surprisingly similar world views.

Ps: Not implying any of the three is better than the other of course….


The economic crisis has a new trope. Zombies. An Australian economist, professor, blogger has published a book titled Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us. And Paul Krugman wrote a recent op-ed “When Zombies Win.” (it is not the first time he played with the term.) The message that Quiggin and Krugman express is that some ideas rise from oblivion, and just won’t go away, won’t die, i.e. zombies.

I believe I know a thing or two about zombies. I watched, at a very impressionable age, The Night of the Living Dead, credited to have originated the concept (zombies are the most modern of monsters), although I always preferred the zombie comedy not being a horror buff: Army of Darkness, Zombieland and that classic Shaun of the Dead. I am now adept of zombie videogames playing often with my main bro Left 4 Dead 2, and looking forward to play in Call of Duty: Black Ops where I will choose between JF Kennedy, Nixon, McNamara or Castro and fight for survival against zombies in an underground complex (really! no kidding!).

These are my extensive zombie credentials, and with those I feel confident to say a thing or two about the semiotics of zombiehood.

Survival. The first and last element of all zombie tales is survival. Financial crisis is dire but it seems hardly the matter for life and death struggle, chainsaw in hand. In this the analogy presses urgency, but not action. Survival in a zombie world is to escape, keeping out of sight, lay low, and wait for someone with big guns to come clean the place. This is not Krugman’s approach who wants us to go out there and fix the economy…

Sadism. In most of its comedic and particularly in its videogame versions, the real pleasure of zombiedom is sadism, and indulgence in its exploration. Zombies look like people but their status as infected or cursed allows you to dispense of them with extreme prejudice. The human body is dehumanized, and somehow it’s ok. Here is what worries me most about the zombie analogy and the crisis, that it invites some level of dehumanization of those that are your opponents, these zombies ideas are also zombie people, and it is ok to terminate them with righteous violence. I don’t predict physical extermination, but a unhesitating deletion of the other from public discourse is not implausible.

Closure. Along with sadism, the underlying theme of a zombie story is that of a loved one (or a peer) that cannot rest, cannot go in peace, and that is incensed by a hunger for your flesh. Tough call. Zombie narratives are about letting go, about forgetting. How do you kill a zombie? You destroy his brain, his memory, his mind, his idea. This is a hot subject in science studies right now: the construction of ignorance, of forgetting. Take the work of Naomi Oreskes on climate change and her Merchants of Doubt: like the tobacco companies many decades ago trying to deny the links between smoking and cancer, the climate change deniers are today attempting to turn back the clock on knowledge. Krugman and Quiggin might be claiming that pseudo-science is holding us back from knowledge, but as an historian I worry about their appeal for forgetting and closure. As an historian I sympathize with the zombies. Sure if they bite you you will get very ill, but i plan to keep my distance.

(this post is all the more appropriate since AMC is doing a marathon of the first season of its Walking Dead)

Is it time?

More random thoughts about the wikileaks cablegate

Of course, there are all these discussions about the consequences of such disclosure for international relations, its influence on American and worldwide public opinions.

But what about the consequences on scholarly historical work?

Two random links to begin with:

“Why Wikileaks is bad for scholars “, by international politics Fletcher School professor Daniel Drezner

US embassy cables: a banquet of secrets in The Guardian , by essayist/ public intellectual/ journalist (?) Timothy Garton Ash

Any other reactions by scholars/ public intellectuals you’re aware of?

Is the forced “declassification” of such recent historical material, at such a huge scale, a blessing or a curse for international relations scientists and for historians?

Are they/we “equipped” intellectually to deal with such material, to analyze its context, its subtext, its “truthfulness” ? To make sense of it? To tell a story out of it? What does the material reflect: the course of history, actions, opinion, prejudices, decisions, other? How distinct/close   is/should be  the work of a scholar as compared with the work of these journalists at the NYT, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, who are trying to sort out these millions words, cut through it, report it, make sense of it to the reader? Is it their very short horizon? Does it mean it will necessary take the historian a 1/5/10 years immersion into the material to tell the story behind such and such cable? Is it at all possible? What will the exploitation of these cables say about the possibility to write contemporary history? Or if that material is unimportant/ unexploitable/ secondary/ flawed/ biased, why and how is it so?

Does any precedent exist in history/ history of science/ history of culture/ history of economic something? I mean, is there any instance you know in which the unanticipated early disclosure of some historical material have forced historians/ analysts/ journalists/ story tellers  to reconsider/ rewrite their stories?

Do historians/ scholarly archivists in relation to historians have any duty in the face of such flow of material (setting aside questions regarding the legality of the disclosure) : do they have to sort the material, provide finding aid, reference it?

And if these are not the right/ meaningful questions to filter what is currently happening, what else?