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.

To the bone

Reading some of the comments on a previous post of this blog, I can’t escape thinking that there still exists, even among the members of our community – by “our” community, I don’t mean historians of economics in general, but more narrowly, postmodern and SSK-inflected historians of economics (whatever that is) -, some misunderstandings related to what postmodern thought is, to its influence on the history of science and on SSK. Words such as “postmodernism” and “relativisn” can be used in a quite loose – and sometimes harmful – way. I will not pretend here that I have more knowledge than anyone on that matter, but I know at least one person who does: Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Professor Smith has been trained in psychology, literary criticism and cultural theory and those who haven’t read my review of Stanley Fish’s Save the World on your Own Time, will surely wonder what literary criticism has to offer to those who study the history of economics. The answer is: a lot, actually.

In her last book, Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human (2005), Smith elucidates, in less than 200 pages, some of the questions we are asking ourselves on this blog, with unequaled accuracy, thoughtfulness and what I would call a jubilatory bent for intellectual jousting. This is hardly Smith’s first endeavour in the field of the History and Philosophy of Science. Her previous book, Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy (1997) dealt with the same kind of material. Though she proudly acknowledges she is no philosopher, nor is she a social scientist, Smith is a fine reader of science. It is no secret that she is herself a radical relativist/constructivist but the power of her analysis comes from her ability not only to criticize, but also to understand the point of view of those who try to beat postmodernism. She can literally strip her opponents’s arguments to the bone, as to reveal how empty and meaningless they are. If you intend to contradict her, then, choose your words carefully! I will not detail the book chapter after chapter as I did for Fish’s essay, but I will try to give you a hint of a material that certainly repays study.

The general objective of the book is to revisit two decades of science wars and to review all the harms that have been made on contemporary cultural theory and behavioral sciences, tracking the last bits of anti-relativism and positivist philosophy in newspapers articles, feminist writings and recent works in evolutionary psychology. The author does not think that all people criticizing postmodernism are idiots. In her opinion, indeed, most of them are doing interesting – if not fascinating – things but they are also misled by unjustified preconceptions on constructivism. To contradict these authors, Smiths appeals to what she calls pre-postmodern relativists such as Ludwig Fleck and Carl Becker.

The meaning of the title is dual: it refers both to the fact it is often said that “knowledge, or the problem of knowledge, is the scandal of philosophy” (1) and to all the scandalized critiques of postmodernism, which assert that the latter is a threat against the highest values of our society: the ability of making moral and aesthetic judgements, the possibility of scientific progress and nothing less that the pillars of Western democracy. Smith’s response to that critique is that in fact, relativism is an attack against one and only one thing, traditional (i.e. positivist and judgemental) philosophy. But, as Smith observes: “[w]hile it is not clear that the scandal matters to anyone but philosophers, philosophers point out that it should matter to everyone … [f]or, they explain, unless we can ground our claims to knowledge as such, which is to say distinguish it from mere opinion, superstition, fantasy, wishful thinking, ideology, illusion or delusion, then the actions we take on the basis of presumed knowledge – boarding an airplane, swallowing a pill, finding someone guilty of a crime – will be irrational and unjustifiable” (ibid.).
This is a rather serious claim. In chapter 2, Smith illustrates some examples of the implications of it in recent controversies, examining Deborah Lindstadt‘s thesis that postmodern theory is responsible for the rise of Holocaust denial (a thesis that has been given credit by other academics and journalists) and Edward Rothstein‘s contention that the same stream of skepticism has been discredited by 9/11. She observes that such sets of linkages are generally based on no actual quotation from postmodern thinkers. “Who among the figures commonly associated, properly or improperly, with ‘postmodern’ theory maintains that all truth is subjective or that one man’s narrative is as good as another’s? Michel Foucault? Jacques Derrida? Jean-François Lyotard? Hayden White? Richard Rorty? Stanley Fish? David Bloor? Bruno Latour? Actually, of course, none of these” (20). The real problem, she suggests, is that those who support such misleading conclusions often do so because they want to sustain values that they consider beyond scrutiny: “A denunciation of relativism amounts to a demand for dogmatism – for predetermined judgement armoured against new thought” (23).

Smith also points out that many disparaging commentaries on relativism are made by people who often happen to be relativist in the sense actual relativists define it (she illustrates this paradox by quoting from feminist theorician Donna Haraway and from … Proust !). She shows that debates similar to those who appeared at the end of the twentieth also occurred in the 1920s and in the 1930s as Albert Einstein, Virginia Woolf or Pablo Picasso were often linked to the more perilous evil of those times: Bolshevism. In fact, she observes, there existed an important stream of pre-postmodern relativism, represented by people like John Dewey or Margaret Mead, during a period “marked by a confident positivism in the natural sciences and a related scientism in much academic philosophy”. Those original thoughts were mostly swept away by decades of “popular beliefs and cultural associations that made-up the Cold War; the global eruption of various radical social movements … ; and throughout the century, dramatic technological developments and widespread demographic shifts” (31). All those events fostered in the same way social conservatism and a “renewed … commitment to the idea and ideals of objectivity” (32).
Related to this historical context is Smith’s account of Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, published in 1935. Fleck’s book was overshadowed by a more popular one, Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, published the same year. Fleck was rediscovered and praised by Kuhn and later by Latour (whose Pasteurization of France, Smith argues, is in some way a reinvention of Genesis and Development). Yet it is no surprise, given the peculiar intellectual environment of the early postwar period that Fleck was ignored and that scientists, in search of legitimacy, preferred the demarcating epistemology offered by Popper. In addition, Fleck was a Polish Jew whose work in chemistry did not draw the attention of Western scientists. He was arrested during the war and sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Nonetheless, he survived the war and emigrated to Israel, where he died in 1961. His conceptions in Genesis and Development were influenced by his practice of chemistry. The book tells the development of the Wassermann reaction, a chemical process that allowed for the detection of the syphilis pathogen. Fleck shows that the Wassermann reaction occured within the development of various beliefs, techniques, theories, methods, political and professional interests (yes, it sounds a lot like SSK !). The following passage, quoted by Smith (57), shows how radical Fleck’s relativism was:

It is true that modern doctrine is supported by much more sophisticated techniques of investigation, much broader experience, and more thorough theory. The naive analogy between the organs of both sexes has disappeared and far more details are at our disposal. But the path from dissection to formulated theory [and pictorial representation] is extremely complicated, indirect and culturally conditioned … In science, just as in art and in life, only that which is true to culture is true to nature.

In addition, Smith shows that Fleck also provided the demonstration that his conceptions of science had nothing to do with the idea that all theories are equally valid because the latter is actually the opposite of the assertion that “the validity of a theory depends on its position in a network of historically specific connections” (64). Smith observes that this justification is similar to Latour’s distinction between relative and absolute relativism.

I will not try to detail the rest of the book. Smith’s wordings are too precise and subtle to withstand summarization. Trying to reconstruct her thought would result in unproductive paraphrase. Nonetheless, I can’t finish this review without saying a few words on Chapter 6, devoted to Evolutionary Psychology. In this chapter, she addresses the claims of contemporary evolutionary psychology, whose most notable advocate is Steven Pinker. She shows that contrary to what evolutionary psychologists assert, the alternative to the claim that all human behavior – “from incest avoidance and female-adolescent anorexia to past-tense formation and a taste for Victorian novels” (130) – can be explained by our genes, is not dogmatic theology or ideologically driven humanities, but a set of more sophisticated models of development, such as those theorized by Susan Oyama in her book The Ontogeny of Information, giving rise to developmental or ecological psychology. Evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker operate within a mechanical conception of the brain, in which the latter is considered as an information processing computer. This conception rejects – or ignore – major works in biology which explain human behavior in terms of  interactions between cells and their environment (involving “complex social and perceptual coordination”, as well as “internal feedback mechanisms”). The relation between those issues and what has been studied earlier in the book is that evolutionary psychologists often strengthen their claims by discrediting alternative theories as dubious – if not dangerous – postmodernism. Frequently, those claims mistake constructivism for social constructivism (or social constructionism): they identify the claims of alternative theories as the idea that everything is socially/culturally constructed, whereas these theories  simply claim that there is no clear separation between nature and nurture. These distinctions are particularly rich and subtle and one is not even obliged to share Smith’s skepticism to examine them carefully. Those interested in the relations between economics and biology might want to give special attention to these debates.

In her course on “Biological Issues in Cultural Theory” at Duke University, Barbara Herrnstein Smith teaches graduate students in philosophy, theology and natural sciences that Bruno Latour has been the most important theorist over the last twenty-five years. If only to hear that once in my life, I think I have been fortunate to sit in on her class. I hope I have conveyed the pleasures one feels reading her writings, that his, the pleasures of being scandalized.