Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’


It’s now official, Truth is dead.

Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year, after seeing a spike in frequency this year in the context of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.*

Many of us are neither surprised nor dismayed by the realization that Big-T Truth—in relation to politics, the media, and much else—is being called into question. We’re not surprised because telling the truth was never a mainstay of political discourse or newspaper reporting. Remember the lies that served as the basis for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 order to launch retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam and his request for a joint resolution of Congress—the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—which gave him authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia? Or the New York Times in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, especially Judith Miller’s now thoroughly discredited reporting about Iraq’s supposedly brimming stockpile of weapons of mass destruction?

Nor are we dismayed, since we’ve long understood that different sets of “facts” and “truths” are produced within different theoretical frameworks and that there’s no Archimedean standpoint—independent and outside of those frameworks—to decide that one or another corresponds to reality. The idea that there’s a set of bedrock facts or a single truth about reality is a holdover from positivism and other foundationalist theories of knowledge that have long been contested.

What we do need to be aware of is how those different facts and truths are constructed (the discursive and social conditions under which they are produced), and of course how they lead to different consequences (on the theories and the wider society). It’s a stance concerning knowledge that is often referred to as “partisan relativism”—relativist in the sense that validity criteria are diverse and internal to theoretical frameworks, partisan because producing knowledges always involves taking a stance, in favor of one set of facts and truths and against others.

To be clear, then, “post-truth”doesn’t mean (as if often presumed) that theoretical and empirical analysis grinds to a halt or that analysts—in whatever field, humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences—are unable to make pronouncements about the world. On the contrary. It makes discussion and debate, amongst and between those who use different theoretical frameworks, even more important—because, of course, the stakes for the world in which we live are so high.

Julia Shaw, a forensic psychologist, adopts much the same perspective

They say that we have found ourselves in a world lost to emotion, irrationality, and a weakening grasp on reality. That lies don’t faze us, and knowledge doesn’t impress us. That we are post-truth, post-fact. But, is this actually a bad thing?

I’m a factual relativist. I abandoned the idea of facts and “the truth” some time last year. I wrote a whole science book, The Memory Illusion, almost never mentioning the terms fact and truth. Why? Because much like Santa Claus and unicorns, facts don’t actually exist. At least not in the way we commonly think of them.

We think of a fact as an irrefutable truth. According to the Oxford dictionary, a fact is “a thing that is known or proved to be true.” And where does proof come from? Science?

Well, let me tell you a secret about science; scientists don’t prove anything. What we do is collect evidence that supports or does not support our predictions. Sometimes we do things over and over again, in meaningfully different ways, and we get the same results, and then we call these findings facts. And, when we have lots and lots of replications and variations that all say the same thing, then we talk about theories or laws. Like evolution. Or gravity. But at no point have we proved anything.

Still, we need to contend with the fact that so many liberals—especially liberal politicians, pundits, and political economists—are bemoaning what they consider to be the descent into a post-truth world. They’re worried that non-liberal political candidates and voters increasingly deny facts, manipulate the truth, and prefer emotion to expertise. And so they rush to defend “the facts” and Truth.

Rune Møller Stahl and Bue Rübner Hansen, I think, get it right:

liberals’ nostalgia for factual politics seems designed to mask their own fraught relationship with the truth. The supposedly honest technocrats and managers—who enacted neoliberal measures with the same ferocity as their right-wing counterparts—relied on a certain set of facts to displace the material truths they refused to acknowledge. . .

As liberals took over facts, they pushed social conflict to the non-factual realm, to the domain of values. Instead of struggles over domination and exploitation, we got the culture wars. There, progressive values held no sway; they were sold with a sense of moral superiority then betrayed by the spinelessness of triangulation and by policies that undermined the welfare state and organized labor.

As I see it, the defeats mainstream liberals suffered under the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election don’t prove that voters hate facts or truths. Those events (and we can expect more to come in the years ahead) merely show that enough regular citizens are fed-up with business as usual—with increasingly unconvincing liberal facts and truths, which deny the severe losses and dislocations under the existing rules and institutions—to revoke their trust in the so-called experts and, swayed by a different set of facts and truths, to throw in their lot with the only available alternatives.

The battle over facts, truths, and expertise hasn’t ended. But the idea that there’s only one—one set of facts, one truth, one group of experts—has. Which means the critique of the existing order After Truth has only just begun.


*According to Oxford Dictionaries, the first time the term post-truth was used was in a 1992 essay by the late playwright Steve Tesich in the Nation magazine. Tesich, writing about the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf war, said that “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.” The term “post-truth politics” was coined by David Roberts in a blog post for Grist on 1 April 2010, where it was defined as “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation).”

Note: yes, that is Schrödinger’s cat at the top of the post.


David Wojnarowicz, Untitled from Ant Series (time/money), 1988

Tom Chatfield [ht: ja] makes a compelling case that, in the era of “big data,” we often suffer from what is called a recency bias, the “tendency to assume that future events will closely resemble recent experience.”

It’s a version of what is also known as the availability heuristic: the tendency to base your thinking disproportionately on whatever comes most easily to mind. It’s also a universal psychological attribute. If the last few years have seen exceptionally cold summers where you live, for example, you might be tempted to state that summers are getting colder – or that your local climate may be cooling. In fact, you shouldn’t read anything whatsoever into the data. You would need to take a far, far longer view to learn anything meaningful about climate trends. In the short term, you’d be best not speculating at all – but who among us can manage that?

The same tends to be true of most complex phenomena in real life: stock markets, economies, the success or failure of companies, war and peace, relationships, the rise and fall of empires. Short-term analyses aren’t only invalid – they’re actively unhelpful and misleading. Just look at the legions of economists who lined up to pronounce events like the 2009 financial crisis unthinkable right until it happened. The very notion that valid predictions could be made on that kind of scale was itself part of the problem.

And the solution?

What’s needed is something that I like to think of as “intelligent forgetting”: teaching our tools to become better at letting go of the immediate past in order to keep its larger continuities in view.

Now, if only we could intelligently forget mainstream economics—and spend more time studying history, including of course the history of capitalism. Then, we’d be in better shape to understand the recurring boom-and-bust-cycles that regularly throw millions of people out of work and subject them to the kinds of crises they’ve been forced to endure for the past nine years, while those at the top once again benefit from the way the game is rigged.


Leicester City was not going to win the Premiership—not by a long shot. Nor was the Republican nomination supposed to be handed to Donald Trump. And Bernie Sanders, well, there was no chance he was going to give Hillary Clinton a serious run for her money (and machine) in the Democratic primaries.

And yet here we are.

Leicester City Football Club, as anyone who has even a fleeting interest in sports (or reads one or another major newspaper or news outlet) knows, were just crowned champions of the Premiership, the highest tier of British football, after starting the season at 5000-1 odds. There really is no parallel in the world of sports—any sport, in any country. (By way of comparison, Donerail, with odds of 91-1 in 1913, is the longest odds winner in Kentucky Derby history.) And the bookies are now being forced to pay up.


Similarly, Donald Trump was not supposed to win the Republican nomination. Instead, it was going to go to Jeb Bush and, if he failed, to Marco Rubio. (And certainly Ted Cruz, the candidate most reviled by other members of the GOP, was not supposed to be there at the end.)


Finally, Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic nomination was written off almost as soon as it was launched. And yet here is—winning the Indiana contest by 5 points (when it was predicted he would lose by the same number of points) and accumulating enough pledged delegates to be him within a couple of hundred of the presumptive nominee.

What’s going on?

In all three cases, the presumption was that the “system” would prevent such an unlikely occurrence, and that the pundits and prognosticators “knew” from early on the likely outcome.


So, for example, the winner of the Premiership was supposed to come from one of the perennial top four (Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City)—not a club that were only promoted from the second division of British football in 2014 and last April were battling relegation (they finished the season 14th).

Pretty much the same is true in the political arena: neither Trump nor Sanders was taken particularly seriously at the start, and along the way the prevailing common sense was that their campaigns would simply implode or wither away. The idea was that the Republican and Democratic parties and nominating contests were structured so that their preferred nominees would inexorably come out on top.

There are, I think, two lessons to take away from these bolts from the blue. First, the “system,” however defined, is much less complete and determined than people usually think. There are many fissures and spaces in such systems that make what are seemingly unlikely outcomes real possibilities. Second, our presumably certain “knowledges” are exactly that, knowledges, which are constructed—in the face of radical uncertainty—out of theories, presumptions, blind spots, and much else. The fact is, we simply don’t know, and no amount of probabilistic certainty can overcome that epistemological gap.

So—surprise, surprise—Leicester City and Trump won, while Sanders has put up a much more formidable challenge than anyone expected from a socialist presidential candidate in the United States.

 George Grosz, "Bürgerliche Welt/ World of the Bourgeoisie" (1922)

George Grosz, “Bürgerliche Welt/ World of the Bourgeoisie” (1922)

Back in 2011, I suggested we move from focusing on the pathologies of the poor to those of the rich. And that’s exactly what psychologists seem now to be doing. We’ve seen studies of “social class as culture,” “sharing the marbles,” and much more.*

The latest is Rael J. Dawtry, Robbie M. Sutton, and Chris G. Sibley on “social sampling”—that is, the idea that wealthier people may be less supportive of redistribution than poorer people because they infer society is wealthier than it actually is because they are surrounded by other wealthy people. And that’s exactly what the authors found:

wealthier (relative to poorer) Americans reported moving in wealthier social circles and extrapolated from them when estimating wealth levels across America as a whole. . . In turn, these estimates were associated with the perceived fairness of wealth distribution in America and with opposition to redistribution, a finding that is consistent with theory on normative-justice judgments.

These results suggest that the rich and poor do not simply have different views about how wealth should be distributed across society; rather, they subjectively experience living in societies that have subtle—but important—differences. Thus, in the relatively affluent America inhabited by wealthier Americans, there is less need to distribute wealth more equally.

Dawtry, Sutton, and Sibley are certainly on to something: we often arrive at social judgments based on anecdotal evidence—things we have either heard or seen—and many of our anecdotes are produced or disseminated within our particular social circles. Those circles are our “sample.”

But that’s not enough. Because we also have other knowledges of the world around us—knowledges that come from the news, novels, music, religious sermons, political speeches, and so on. We’re not just limited to what is said and repeated within our narrow social circles.

So, sure, wealthy people might think the rest of society looks like the worlds in which they live and work. But they also know, through other means, that it isn’t really like that. There are many more people earning far lower incomes than they might come across on a daily basis. Grotesque inequalities exist and they’re getting more and more extreme.

If the rich don’t know about those inequalities, given the other knowledges that are widely available, then they are engaged in practices of willful ignorance.

And that’s another pathology we need to take into account.


*Readers will note I find myself always turning to George Grosz to illustrate my discussions of these studies. There must be some other artists I can use. Any suggestions?


I won’t attempt to take on Greg Mankiw’s latest defense of the 1 percent. Dean Baker and Paul Krugman have raised most of the relevant issues.

But, in his defense of his defense, Mankiw does make a curious admission: capitalism is fatally flawed.

The admission actually occurs in his textbook [pdf], where Mankiw sends us to read his explanation of who bears responsibility for the most recent financial crisis (hint: it’s half the fault of government, and half Wall Street). Then, he admits that financial crises “do occur from time to time.”

Finally, keep in mind that this financial crisis was not the first one in history. Such events, though fortunately rare, do occur from time to time. Rather than looking for a culprit to blame for this singular event, perhaps we should view speculative excess and its ramifications as an inherent feature of market economies. Policymakers can respond to financial crises as they happen, and they can take steps to reduce the likelihood and severity of such crises, but preventing them entirely may be too much to ask given our current knowledge.

Yes, indeed, “speculative excess and its ramifications” are in fact “an inherent feature” of capitalist economies.* But then, Mankiw adds, “preventing them entirely may be too much to ask given our current knowledge.”

What Mankiw sees as a problem of knowledge is what the rest of us see as a problem of economic institutions. It’s precisely because the economic system is arranged so that a tiny minority at the top is able to continue to capture the surplus that financial crises occur on a regular basis.

What the rest of us know is that defending the 1 percent is precisely what will guarantee more financial crises in the future.


*And, for Mankiw, they’re something we simply have to put up with because “for human welfare, growth swamps fluctuations.”


The other day over lunch, we discussed the issue of growing inequality and economic instability and whether or not the elite is aware of what is going on right now.* Do the members of the political and economic elite know about how dire conditions are for a large part of the population, and then choose not to do anything about it? Or, alternatively, are they so sheltered in their gated communities they are simply ignorant of the forces that are tearing this society apart?

This is the problem, then, of the “unknown knowns,” which Slavoj Žižek defines as “the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values.”

Jonathan Gray [ht: ja] thinks the “acute fragility of our economic system” is one such unknown known, “one of many facts we all know but have decided not to think about.” And he considers this “resolute avoidance of unsettling facts” to be “a deep-seated human trait.”

I’m not convinced. While I don’t pretend to know what the members of the elite think (I’m not a member and I don’t spend time with them), their spokespeople may reveal something about what they’re thinking (or at least what they want to hear). David Brooks is one such example. When he explains away inequality by the “superstar effect” and blames poverty on the bad decisions and character problems of the poor, he is both acknowledging that inequality and poverty are problems to be reckoned with and attempting to defuse them so as to avoid a “primitive zero-sum mentality” that holds “growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor.” Basically, what that means is that policy should focus on providing better opportunities for those at the bottom and, if they don’t take advantage of them—if they remain poor—it’s their own damn fault. There’s not much more that society—including and perhaps especially those at the top—can do for them. I prefer to call that deliberately unknowning a known.**

As for the general (non-elite) public, they seem to have a pretty good idea of what is going on, at least as revealed in recent surveys (e.g., by Gallup and Pew). They know there’s a growing gap between the rich and poor and that’s a bad thing for the society in which we live.


And they know the nation’s economy is in bad shape, long after the official recovery was declared.


I don’t see much evidence of unknown knowns there. By and large, people seem to be pretty aware of what is going on, in terms of both inequality and the acute fragility of our economic system.

More important, I don’t see any evidence of a deep-seated, shared human trait to avoid unsettling facts. What I see, instead, is a determined campaign to attempt to unknow what we full well know in order to forestall any kind of fundamental questioning of our current economic institutions.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to stop pretending and acknowledge what we do, in fact, know.


*I’ve been having lunch with a colleague and friend once a week, while school is in session, for more than 20 years.

**On the other hand, one way of interpreting the recent stridency about the problems of inequality and economic fragility on the part of some mainstream economists, such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, is that the members of the ruling class don’t appear to be willing to know what is known.

Know this!

Posted: 27 September 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Richard Florida continues to peddle his story of knowledge workers, the creative class, and urban clustering (about which I have raised questions before, such as here and here).

But economic inequalities have become so glaring and obscene, even Florida has finally come to admit their existence:

The main threats to America’s growth model don’t come from other countries, but from domestic contradictions. The more talented people cluster, the greater the economic returns they produce. But as these clusters of highly educated people form and grow, they tend to push out the middle class, resulting in a ruthless sorting of people and places. As great as its potential may be, this new economic landscape is also notable for its widening fissures.

The cultural, political, and economic gulfs that separate advantaged and disadvantaged people and places go well beyond the wage gap. Knowledge workers benefit from living in neighborhoods with better schools, better amenities, and lower crime rates, while less advantaged groups are sometimes stuck in place, with limited prospects for climbing even one rung up the economic ladder, and insufficient resources to move out of stagnant areas.

And how creative can Florida get, now that he knows about all those poor people clustered into into depressed areas of cities? The best he can do is suggest that poor people get up and move to his “knowledge centers,” where their chances for moving up the ladder will be improved.

Here’s a not particularly creative alternative idea: end poverty!