by Judith Curry
One needs to ask good questions about whose claims to trust and why. – Sheila Jasanoff
Sheila Jasanoff has a new essay, entitled What Should Democracies Know? that provides some interesting perspective on ‘alt-facts’, etc. Excerpts:
The “post-truth,” “alt-fact,” “fake news” era has drawn understandable outrage from thoughtful people. Some, especially in the mainstream media, assume that the line between truth and lies is clear-cut, and can be ascertained through careful fact-checking, as in a recent New York Times editorial on the real costs of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policy. Others, more historically minded and attuned to technological change, have called attention to social media and the ease of propagating claims that have not passed through the costly, messy processes of peer review or validation through experiment. Still others have noted the rise of data as a substitute for tested facts, and how politicians’ reliance on mass measures of electoral sentiment may undermine the cultural habits of deliberation on real-world problems.
As a teacher in a public policy school, who also has a considerable involvement in undergraduate education, I feel an urgent need to address this issue. My interest is not merely in enabling students to judge for themselves why some arguments are better than others or why some claims are entitled to deference while others should be set aside as “not proven.” Those aims of course are basic, and I spend hours each week thinking how to make my students into more critical thinkers, more careful readers, and more persuasive writers. That, however, is not where the pedagogical buck stops. The challenge of the moment is to make students think harder about how knowledge and power work together in modern democracies, for good and for ill. To that end, I believe we also have to explore in our teaching why arguments take the forms they do, why some sources of knowledge count for more than others, why facts are not always available when needed, why one person’s settled knowledge looks like another’s baseless allegation, and why being uncertain is not an insurmountable obstacle to making wise public policy.
To turn students into critical users and evaluators of public knowledge, it is not enough to lead them into the thick of dueling facts and counter-facts. One needs to ask good questions about whose claims to trust and why. Democratic theory has spent thousands of years wondering what makes it legitimate for the few to rule the many. We have to cultivate similar awareness of what makes it acceptable for a few to know for the many. Why do some facts, especially those couched in numbers, carry so much political weight: unemployment statistics, poverty metrics, the GDP, life expectancy, pollution burdens, highway fatalities, dietary guidelines, and many more? What principles of accountability exist and are appropriate for institutions charged with producing these facts that we live by? What rights do citizens have against abuses of knowledge by those in power? How can those rights be better articulated, given that no society can make its rules of public knowing fully transparent? What, in short, is the constitutional position of science, those tacit or explicit principles that govern in any society the relations between science, expert judgment, and political power?
My students have learned since their early school days how to evaluate the facts the world holds out to them. They are often masters of logic and technique, accomplished debaters, and skilled at choosing between weaker and stronger claims. Yet, like children taught to believe that babies are brought in the beaks of storks, they have not learned to question how facts are made. This moment calls for an end to that dangerous innocence. Only through sustained reflection on why we know what we think we know can we find ways to strengthen, even augment, our collective knowing—and so push back against those who would dismantle the human institutions we have entrusted with the hard task of making public knowledge.
Jasanoff raises some important points. Scientific ‘facts’ are being used as a political weapon. Unfortunately, there is widespread confusion about what constitutes socially relevant knowledge, with much purveying of truthiness and factiness. The sociology and politics of knowledge is a topic that deserves much reflection. I am particularly heartened to hear how Jasanoff is educating her students.