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.

@INET-BW: Discipline and punish

Ken Rogoff and Larry Summers were on the program today at Bretton Woods, and they stole the show. Both are Harvard professors, both have been in and out of policy making, both are intellectual leaders of the economics profession. On any criteria, these are not men of “new economic thinking”. Rogoff of his own initiative, Summers pressed towards it, had to defend the state of economics teaching and research.

Two unlikely responses were given, and even more unlikely, they overlapped (when Rogoff spoke Summers was not in attendance).

1. The first was to describe the failing of economics as a subject of “sociology”. As economists, and practitioners, both men were baffled by how young people in the profession are more interested in formal puzzles and define research as model building taking any empirical work as distraction. Both men confessed they were the same when they were starting. Unfortunately, no sociologist was in the audience, however…

2. The other response, more interesting because of its bizarre possibilities, saw Rogoff and Summers defending rational expectations models and efficient market hypothesis as an integral part of economics education and research because both provide “discipline.” No one followed up asking what discipline meant.

The panoptic suggestion hints that economists have a bit of the sociologist in them after all…

TV guide

Lots happening this week’s end and weekend. Harvard’s Program on Science Technology and Society is hosting a “STS 20+20”. By the cryptic title an event that promises only to excite the converted to science studies. The tone is not very hopeful either:

This meeting is the product of a year of conversations across several continents and dozens of institutions. It weaves together the hopes, aspirations, and—yes—frustrations of STS scholars from around the world who have committed their careers to studying the central role of science and technology in our social, political, and moral lives.

The meeting is in part a stock-taking. After two decades of increased public funding for STS, what can we say about our achievements as a “thought collective”? What have we learned from speaking the truths of our field to the power of established disciplines? Which areas of work do we recognize as displaying the greatest theoretical depth and creativity? What do we impart to STS scholars-in-the-making, and what can we do to ensure that their ideas are heard more widely and that they find appropriate academic homes? The three-day program addresses these questions: first, STS and the disciplines; second, STS and its theories; third, STS’s institutional challenges and opportunities.

In part, too, the meeting is a provocation: an invitation to reflect on the conditions needed for this field to thrive and grow—in keeping with the importance of its mission. As with any provocation, the questions we hope to explore may have conflicting answers. Ideas will be generated throughout the meeting from both our physical and virtual audiences. This website, managed by a local team of scholars, is part of an effort to make the meeting as inclusive and participatory as possible, both during the event and after it.

Overall, this is a meeting to rethink questions that all STS scholars have grappled with at some point in their intellectual lives. Why do STS? What makes it interesting, distinctive, coherent, relevant, and deserving of stronger institutionalization?

This meeting—diverse enough to be representative, yet small enough to foster conversation—offers a rare opportunity to think together about these issues, in the company of others who share our concerns and our convictions.

But the program is marvelous, today, tomorrow and saturday. It kicks off with Ted Porter on “Does STS Matter, and to Whom?” and later today at 5 pm, Eastern, there is “STS, Economics, and Sociology: Do Economists Make Markets?”. If like me you can’t attend, you can still be a fly on the wall through the live video feed from 2pm, US eastern time.

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….

Denaturalizing the book

Once upon a time a book was a book was a book. Now a book has become a technology. Once it began competing with iPals, Kindles, audiobooks, the book became an artifact. Still, it stays closer, more human, more intuitive, otherwise comedy would not work for the following videos:

Thanks to Federico D’Onofrio and Andrej Svorencik for the vids.

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.

HET vs. SSK etc. etc… It’s (very) old hat

Maybe I am slow or we have just collectively ignored the fact that the debates we keep having about internalist vs. externalist history, SSK vs Traditional History of Economics, Context vs theory-focus, was resolved many many years ago. Maybe no-one bothered telling us? At least that’s what I get from the third edition (!) of a rather excellent book on The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2008: 7):

The discipline of the history of science used to be riven by warfare between internalists and externalists (c. 1930-59). The internalists were supposed to have believed that science, or possibly an individual sub-discipline within science, was a system of thought which was self-contained, self-regulating, and developed in accordance with its own internal logic. The externalist, on the other hand, was supposed to believe that the development of science was determined by the sociopolitical or socioeconomic context from which it emerged. In fact, neither position seems to have been properly established as valid or viable (Shapin 1992: 345-51), and it wasn’t long before a professed eclectic approach became all the rage (c. 1960). Effectively, this eclectic approach is still dominant.

I am happy to plead ignorance on this one, but having heard this sort of debate at many a conference, across several blogs (ours is no exception, even if this memorable debate was not explicitly about externalists vs. internalists), I get the feeling it isn’t just me. At some level I wish I had had John Henry’s book a few years ago, but better late than never. Also, I’d recommend it as a good introductory read – it’s 179 pages is not strictly correct, as only 114 are content (the glossary – especially his definition of ‘whiggism’ – and references are excellent too), and it is a ‘small’ book, A5 size. Worth getting, now if only I was still going to teach that course this semester. Dammit.