Steve Fuller (2017) argues that STS has set the stage for a post-truth world, but has then stepped back, distancing itself from everything post-truth. I’m his primary target, having explicitly argued for the distance (Sismondo 2017a).
Fuller sets out four “tropes”, for which he credits STS, and labels them “common post-truth tropes”. I’ll make a distinction among them, but I argue that none of them are common post-truth tropes, and the ones for which STS should take credit sit at some considerable distance from the post-truth.
The first of Fuller’s tropes is:
- Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
In this, Fuller presents us with a version of the old distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification, adding an interpretive twist. This one doesn’t belong to or in today’s STS, a field that has invested enormous amounts of time to studying the actual conduct of research. While we might join Fuller in rejecting any ideas of a scientific method, that is hardly the same thing as rejecting as relevant to science everything that occurs before publication. Where would he leave STS’s many detailed studies of the practices of scientific research? Where would he leave STS’s many detailed studies of the materiality of scientific research? Our field integrates materials, tools, practices, infrastructures, rhetorics, epistemes, institutions and more, but Fuller’s purposes are served by restricting his attention dramatically. Science, for Fuller, appears to be a discursive activity.
Thus the first trope sets the stage for a specific reading of his others. On these, I’m happy to agree about the central ideas behind them, and to agree that these are distinctively STSish ideas. Let me rewrite them, though, without Fuller’s extravagant flourishes and suggestive asides:
- Accepted scientific truths are contingent.
- Consensus is contingent, the result of effort.
- Normative epistemic categories are contingent.
The way that STS has tended to develop them, this family of important and valuable themes doesn’t amount to an endorsement of or support for a post-truth era. The diverse inputs into stable technoscientific orders to which STS pays attention, those materials, tools, practices, infrastructures … and more, mean that scientific contingency is not at all like the apparent contingency of current popular political beliefs. For example, in the current issue of Social Studies of Science, there are studies of the practices of handling blood donations (Berner and Björkman 2017), valuing life (Hood 2017), and monitoring deforestation (Monteiro and Rajão 2017), all of which highlight alternatives. Like most other empirical studies in today’s STS, even where these examples focus on interpretation – which they do – they attend to skills, tools and infrastructures, as well as established practices, rhetorical moves and professional pressures. The creation of stable technoscientific orders is complex.
Meanwhile, as I claimed in the editorial to which Fuller takes exception (Sismondo 2017a), and somewhat more fully argue in another response to critics (Sismondo 2017b), the most exemplary episodes of post-truth behaviour involve a narrow range of resources – almost entirely discursive – to establish widespread beliefs. They involve rumours with emotional appeal, spread via alt-right websites, Twitter campaigns, and commentaries on quasi-mainstream media. Although they can have durability and lasting effects, it’s interesting that these rumours can collapse as quickly as they arise. The pizzagate conspiracy theory (about a Hillary Clinton-led sex trafficking ring headquartered in a Washington pizzeria) mostly died when a would-be fan tried to investigate it with a high-powered rifle, finding no evidence and nearly injuring some of the pizzeria’s patrons. The birther conspiracy theory (that Barack Obama had been born in Kenya) became sidelined as soon as President Obama ceased to have real power.
In a survey of what commentators are writing about post-truth, my research assistant Heather Poechman and I identified five themes, based on our readings of the 60 most prominent distinct sites on Google on which commentators characterized the “post-truth” or the “post-truth era” (Sismondo 2017b). These, I submit, have a better claim to being “common post-truth tropes” than the ones Fuller listed:
- The emotional resonances and feelings generated by statements are coming to matter more than their factual basis.
- Opinions, especially if they match what people already want to believe, are coming to matter more than facts.
- Public figures can make statements disconnected from facts, without fear that rebuttals will have any consequences. Significant segments of the public display an inability to distinguish fact and fiction.
- Bullshit, casual dishonesty and demagoguery are increasingly accepted parts of political and public life; this should not, however, be confused with ordinary lying, which is nothing new.
- There has been a loss of power and trust in traditional media, leading to more fake news, news bubbles and do-it-yourself investigations.
I am hard-pressed to see why we should connect STS’s emphasis on and careful studies of contingency with any of these themes. From the constructedness of science to the bullshit of post-truth politics, the slope is long and slight, and, with a good pair of walking shoes, not particularly slippery.