church bells

No funeral bells: Unwriting Modernity’s epitaph

— Sheila Jasanoff and Hilton Simmet —

On June 1, 2017, Donald Trump announced, against advice from many quarters, that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. The president’s public refusal to abide by the global scientific and political consensus on climate change performed the very idea of post-truth, Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year, and followed a distressing pattern that was advancing around the globe: the rise of authoritarian regimes rejecting science, and even reason, to suit their political goals. Far from setting us free, truth no longer seemed capable of guiding societies toward enlightened choices. Modernity, it seemed, had written its own epitaph.

Inside the Trump administration, the rot went deeper. At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, a man ‘whose LinkedIn profile describes him as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda”’ (Davenport and Lipton, 2017), was reportedly dismissing scientists, rolling back regulations, and closing offices without any signs of being answerable to the public or to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In the US Department of Agriculture, the director of soil health banned the use of the term ‘climate change’. Confounding progressive hopes and expectations, an unpredicted election outcome had put the fate of the nation and the planet into the hands of blind politics, unconstrained by science.

Bill McKibben, founder of and one of America’s most eloquent environmentalists, has led the charge to restore respect for truth, science, and the EPA (McKibben 2017). The public, he writes, is solidly supportive. Polls show that ‘two-thirds of Americans would prefer that the EPA’s powers be preserved or strengthened’ and ‘solar power, meanwhile, polls somewhere in the neighborhood of ice cream among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans alike.’ He attributes the opposition to a ‘whole league of cartoonish villains’ and moguls in the ‘right-wing funding network’; and ‘against them stands reality’. McKibben concludes:

Reality gets plainer every day … [where we] just saw the hottest year ever recorded, where sea ice is at an all-time low, and where California’s epic drought has suddenly given way to epic flooding.

Trump and his administration wrap themselves in the values of deregulation and free enterprise without paying any heed to widely accepted scientific facts. McKibben bludgeons them with the hard truth of an intractable ‘reality’, but he is preaching to the already converted. Both sides seem to place what they hold to be self-evident ahead of the need to arrive at more inclusive closure in disagreements over environmental futures. For progressives and coastal elites, the solution is clear: politics and policy should bow to the authority of scientific facts. The social contexts and implications of these facts, however, go unquestioned. In a republic that is more diverse in its experiences and aspirations than the liberal enclaves of Vermont or California, what do hot days and declining sea ice actually mean for lower-income people living in Michigan or Mississippi? Whose task is it to bring those implications into view in ways that let people feel some control over their own and their children’s lives?

Our present crisis is as much a crisis of democracy as a ‘climate crisis’—with no shared imaginations about the future of American, indeed global, society. The splintering of America across economic, educational, racial and class divides has led to an environment in which fundamental disagreements over what kind of society we should be are left unresolved. Instead, a temporarily ascendant right treats politics as a winner-take-all game, with little respect for politically uncomfortable facts, while the defeated left dismisses opposing values as if they can be overridden and destroyed by mere facts, without reflecting on the values that made those facts seem invincible.

Yet, as STS scholars have long observed, public truths cannot be dictated—neither by the authority of an all-knowing science nor unilaterally from the throne of power and its will to bend truth to its purposes. For those familiar with the dynamics of co-production (Jasanoff, 2004), it comes as no surprise that building strong truth regimes requires concurrent attention to the building of norms and institutions. In our alleged post-truth moment, however, neither right nor left in American politics seems prepared to concede this need for closer integration.

The challenge is to rediscover common ground between facts and values to shore up shared visions of the future. As history teaches, that is not an impossible task. Creating expert knowledge has been the hallmark of the greatest national projects, from the transcontinental railroad and the highway system to eradicating polio and the Apollo missions.

Good science and good democracy, moreover, have much in common. Both at their best are modest enterprises, because both are continually mistrustful of their own authority and hold their claims open to transparency and critique. This does not mean that the search for closure in science or stability in politics must be dismissed as quixotic. It does mean that we must remember to ask, and insist on good answers to, questions about what underpins both sets of authority claims.

To restore faith in public knowledge, then, it seems indispensable to pose questions that probe both facts and values:

  • Who made the claim?
  • In answer to whose questions or purposes?
  • On what authority?
  • With what evidence?
  • Subject to what oversight or opportunity for criticism?
  • With what opening for countervailing views to express themselves?
  • And with what mechanisms of closure in cases of disagreement?

If those questions can at least be raised, even if not answered to everyone’s satisfaction, then factual disagreements cease to be seen as intractable, and confidence builds that ours is a government of shared moral worth as well as sound reason.

Acknowledgments:  An earlier version of part of this essay authored by Jasanoff appeared as “Back from the Brink: Truth and Trust in the Public Sphere,” Issues in Science and Technology XXXIII(4) (Summer 2017), pp. 25-28. The authors gratefully acknowledge permission from Issues to reuse that material.

Works Cited

Davenport C and Lipton E (2017) Scott Pruitt is carrying out His E.P.A. agenda in secret, critics say. New York Times, 11 August.

Jasanoff S (2004) States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge.

McKibben B (2017) A bad day for the environment, with many more to come. New Yorker, 18 August.

Next in our post-truth series: Marko Monteiro on ‘Science, politics and (post-)truth’