Interview: Maria Baghramian on the topic of “Truth, Trust and Expertise”

From doubting the truth to putting Truth into question: Post-truth and the loss of faith in experts.

With Maria Baghramian

Interviewed by Dr Fabio Gironi, Institute of Philosophy, University of Potsdam for the magazine  il Tascabile
(see here for original Italian version: http://www.iltascabile.com/societa/la-verita-in-dubbio)

Q: Every philosophical movement needs to be placed in its historical and social context. It is clear that “postmodernism” (a vague term, but heuristically useful) answered to some precise political and social concerns, first of all the threat of authoritarian regimes that dominated the middle of the twentieth century (the famous, and sometimes misunderstood “rejection of metanarratives”. The irony is that now postmodernism is accused of having reproduced the very same problem, making it possibly for any narrative to be believable (see for ex. Daniel Dennett’s recent Guardian interview, or a recent NYT piece blaming “philosophers” for Trump’s rise). Is it fair to consider this intellectual movement entirely responsible for our present predicament or can there be something of a misreading or an excessive simplification of its real intentions and goals? What kind of alternative philosophical diagnosis (if any) can we offer to explain the genesis of our present moment?

A: Unlike many of my colleagues on the continental side, I never quite appreciated the virtues of the postmodernism particularly when it came to its claim to represent a progressive and politically subversive moment in our intellectual life.  My rejection of postmodernism has parallels to my critique of relativism, an onoging topic of my research for over thirty years, On the one hand, I have always argued against the facile dismissal of relativism as incoherent and self-contradictory, at the same time I am adamantly opposed to the identification of a relativistic attitude with progressive politics. Relativism is a pliable conceptual framework that can lead to quietism and inaction but also has the potential to be used for authoritarian and regressive ends. After all, we should remember that Benito Mussolini was a vocal relativist and Nazis espoused a form of racial relativism.

The postmodernist thinkers, through aphorisms and metaphors rather than traditional philosophical argumentation, have cast doubt on the some of the core tenets of cultural discourse that revolves around reason, truth and rational enquiry. In this, they have occupied a common intellectual ground with relativism. This,  in my view, is their greatest failing.

The Postmodern movement ‘problematised’, as the saying goes, the ideas of objectivity, truth, logic, all in the name of freeing us from the oppressive shackles of universal reason “imposed” by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is frequently cast as a monolithic, authoritarian movement closely allied with Western imperialism and colonialism while postmodernism is heralded as the ally in the fight for emancipation from tyrannies of all kind. For many self-confessed postmodernists the Enlightenment with its belief in the force of reason and rationality and its optimism about the goal of improving the human lot  had come to be seen as the chief political and social enemy.  To me this was one of the most unacceptable features of Postmodernism where, wittingly or unwittingly self-confessed progressive thinkers were making common cause with reactionary philosophers from Spengler and Heidegger to the apologists for Islamism.

Here is a clear statement of the sort of postmodern thinking about the Enlightenment that has worried me for a long time:

“the Enlightenment commitment to truth and reason, we can now see, has meant historically a single truth and a single rationality, which have conspired in practice to legitimate the subordination of black people, the non-Western world, women… None of these groups has any political interest in clinging to the values which have consistently undervalued them. The plurality of the postmodern, by contrast, discredits supremacism on the part of any single group. It celebrates differences of all kinds, but divorces difference from power. Postmodernism is in all these senses the ally of feminism. (Belsey quoted in Norris 1993:287).

Belsey and other postmodern critics of science, its practices and institutions, are right in pointing to the exclusionary practise of these institutions. Women, non-whites, and other marginalised groups have been systematically side-lined, undervalued and indeed humiliated by these institutions. But the reasons for these exclusionary actions actually run against the presuppositions of postmodernism. “Knowledge is power” is an old  that throws light into the role of knowledge in our social and political life. The ruling white men have used science and the norms of reason to exclude the “different others”  from the very centre of knowledge that rely on these norms. The response to these exclusionary practices is not to abandon the powerful claims of scientific knowledge but to make them one’s own. Something that, paradisaically, Iranian women are managing to do very well by flocking into traditionally male-dominated STEM subjects in universities in Iran and out- performing men.

Despite my rejection of both postmodernism and relativism, I do not agree with the commentators who blame these theoretical positions for the rise of Trump. Trump, in part,  is a product of social and political forces and currents negatively affecting the day to day lives of many Americans.  Paradoxically he is also supported by the very financial machinery that has inflicted misery on the many of Trump supporters by aiming at maximal profit-margins at the expense of all else. Having said that, I think we should accept that the post-modernist rejection of truth and objectivity, its normalisation of ideas such as ‘alternative facts’ or  “narrative truths vs. factual truths” have provided the Alt Right, or effectively New American Fascism,  with a vocabulary and even some intellectual tools to justify its vicious agenda. In this, postmodernism has come to play a similar  role to its close ally, relativism,  in other political contexts.

Q: Scepticism, even in the face of “obvious” truths, in itself, seems like an epistemic virtue rather than a vice. The problem is rather that of finding a criterion to stop the sceptical regress to a level of reasonable consensus. Is this an attainable goal, or does any critique of the notion of truth (especially in the public arena) necessarily lead to its hollowing?

A: Following the American Pragmatist Charles Sanders Pierce, I prefer to extoll the epistemic virtues of fallibilism rather than scepticism. Pierce argued that “people cannot attain absolute certainty concerning questions of fact”, I would like to go further and claim that people cannot attain absolute knowledge, period. To be an epistemic fallibilist, at least when dealing with questions that go beyond the mundane – to admit that no epistemic claim of any substance can be conclusively verified, justified or conclusively shown to be true – is to acknowledge both the difficulty of the task of knowing and the limitations of our own cognitive capabilities. But to admit to our fallibility does not mean to insist that we can never know, as the sceptics do. Scepticism, when pushed to its logical conclusion, condemns us to silence, fallibilism encourages epistemic humility and caution. However,  in these dangerous times, even the virtue of intellectual humility should be brought under careful scrutiny. So often these days, I am reminded of W. B. Yeats’ justly well-known lines “The best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. At a time when voices of prejudice and ignorance are beginning to dominate, speaking with conviction about important issues, about truth, justice, accountability and fair-mindedness is as important as the virtue of intellectual humility and fallibilism.

Q: Whatever the merits of the critiques of postmodernism may be, it is clear that the problem we face today regards?? what philosophers call social epistemology. More than the belief (or lack thereof) in external reality (an ontological question far removed from the preoccupations of the public), the problem pertains to the processes of justification and of crystallization of public opinion. Two recent philosophical monographs that have had great resonance in Anglo-American academia—How Propaganda Works and Epistemic Injustice—seem to address this need to apply philosophical tools to the analysis of social problems like the constitution of political consensus (in the first case) and the marginalization of minority voices in public and private life (in the second case). Even within the philosophical community, then, there seems to be a desire to make relatively esoteric disciplines like the philosophy of language or epistemology relevant to our present predicament. In order to achieve this effect, is it necessary for philosophy (arguably the academic discipline seen by the public as most disengaged from everyday life) to make itself more accessible? And if so, how can this accessibility be achieved, without compromising quality?

A: Social epistemology, in my view, has been one of the most positive recent developments in philosophy. The development has multiple sources. On the one hand, the externalist views of language and belief content – the view that what we say and think is necessarily embedded within a natural and social world and context – freed philosophy from the Cartesian solipsism that had affected it for centuries and thereby allowed philosophers to develop a broader approach to established questions of what we know and how. . Simultaneously, partly in reaction to the excesses of postmodernism, philosophers from those traditions that continued to respect the values of reason and objectivity began to appreciate the need to apply their tools of trade to questions that were more directly relevant to our social and political life. The  outcome are the books you have mentioned as well as the proliferation of informed and insightful social commentaries on science by philosophers such as Heather Douglas and Neil Levy. The criticism they offer of the norms and practices of cultural institutions and not just science are constructive rather than nihilistic, they are not tearing down the inheritance of the Enlightenment but helping us to build a better one.

On your other interesting point about accessibility, in my opinion, to think of accessibility as the primary goal of engaged philosophy is to put the cart before the horse. Personally, I believe that philosophers should always aim at clarity of thought and expression. History of philosophy presents us with wonderful models for this, Descartes, Hume, Russell, Kripke, are just a few examples. But the virtue of clarity in their writings is primarily in service of philosophy itself. To write clearly is to expose your ideas to criticism and to take the risk of not having many places to hide. It is a remedy against intellectual self-indulgence and arrogance. These are virtues that philosophy should pursue independently of the question of accessibility that you raise. On the question of making the more technical end of philosophy relevant to our contemporary predicament, my advice to my students, the advice that I have tried to follow in my own career, is to focus on questions that you find genuinely interesting and important and not to follow any fads or publishing trends. Deep philosophical questions arise from even deeper intellectual needs, needs that inevitably connect with the human predicament, even if the connection may not be obvious at the time of their asking.

Q: Is it possible that the information overdose the public is exposed to today—mostly through digital media—has produced a relaxation of the distinction between truth and fiction? Is it conceivable that specific cognitive limits are in place, making it impossible for human beings to filter and elaborate such a vast amount of, often contradictory, information? And if so, what kind of filters can be put in place?

A: I think the profusion of data and information has exacerbated the perennial problem of deciding between conflicting ideas and information sources. The problem is not, or should not be, couched in terms of a relaxation of the distinction between truth and falsehood, that distinction, I believe, is written into the very notion of right and wrong ways of thinking about what is the case and what fails to obtain. The problem, rather, is in our inability to have adequate epistemic tools to distinguish between good and ‘fake’ or misleading information. Part of the problem relates to the diminished standing of testimonial authority. A great deal of what we know is based on what we learn from the testimonies we receive from other people. Testimony by experts, by those who have greater degree of competence and knowledge than we do, is one of the more important sources of testimonial knowledge. The democratisation of information via the internet, as well as having ready access to a multitude of ‘expert’ testimonies on any given subject has undermined the traditional role of testimony as a source of knowledge. With a click of a button, we are, or at least we think we are, in a position to check and question the advice given to us by our doctors, lawyers, bankers and other traditional experts.  Ultimately, I think, epistemic egalitarianism of the age of data is a positive development, but like all revolutions, this information revolution has brought along uncertainty regarding all sources of authority, reliable or not. Added to this is the well known problems of confirmation bias and selective exposure which has been studied quite extensively by psychologists. We tend to choose news and information sources that reinforce our favoured views. The proliferation of information sources exacerbates the problem. Each of us now has access to sources of information that match our prior biases quite closely and thus leave them unchallenged. Having said that, human beings are actually quite good at spotting lies and signs of deception and the more exposure we have to varying sources the more adept we can become at distinguishing truth from untruth.

Q: No scientific community is conceivable without internal disagreement: a recent research project at University College Dublin, called “When Experts Disagree” has got the objective of examining the social and? epistemological dynamics guiding the progress of the scientific community, and the process of disagreement among individual scientists. This is one of the biggest obstacles to be overcome when explaining to the non-specialist public how scientific progress works. The vast majority of scientific truths cannot be read directly into the facts, but, in order to be established with certainty, they require the application of theoretical structures, discussion among peers, and the interpretation of data (in other words, the work of a community open to dissenting opinions). How can this process be explained to the public without producing, on the one hand, more scepticism towards science or, on the other, the conviction that, if disagreement fosters scientific knowledge, anyone can disagree with scientific consensus?

A: Yes, I agree, disagreement is essential to science and it makes a positive contribution to it. Matters are more complicated when science and scientists are relied upon for policy advice and decisions. Obviously, no coherent policy decision can be made based on conflicting scientific opinions. Moreover, the sort of trust we accord to scientists and scientific findings, when they are dealing with large-scale impersonal issues, begin to erode once they take positions on matters that impact our lives and well-beings directly. It is important to remember that reliance on scientists for policy directions, in a systematic manner, is a relatively new phenomenon. Most historians of science take the World War II as the turning point in the new age of the dealings between governments and scientific advisers. The needs of modern warfare established a strong link between science and policy,  as dramatically demonstrated in the Manhattan Project in the US and Bletchley Park in UK. The words of Robert Oppenheimer, quoting Bhagavad Gita “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” colours the background of our assessment of the relationship between science and policy. So, while the public may be willing to trust the scientists’ judgements on technical matters, they feel justified in withholding trust when it comes to the issues that links their scientific findings to our daily lives and well-being. The deficit in trust is created by suspicion about the moral concern of the scientists rather than the standing of their scientific theories. The sense of uncertainty generated by disagreement among scientists, along the lines you suggested, reinforces this deep sense of mistrust and in effect becomes one more piece of evidence in justifying it. So, the solution is not to cover up disagreements among scientists as it has sometimes been attempted or to think that all will be well when the general public? gets clear and precise education about science. Rather, the solution is to ensure that scientific institutions and scientists are aware of the vulnerability experienced by the general public in the face of the all-powerful reach of science.

Q: There often seems to be confusion between, on the one hand, the authority conferred by knowledge (the fact of knowing and being able to explain the processes that produce a given phenomenon) and by the respect of shared argumentative norms and, on the other, the “authority” of normalizing and authoritarian structures. Consequently, those who want to defend the epistemic prestige of expertise are accused of elitism, in name of the principle (a correct one, only if properly contextualized) that “everyone has the right to have an opinion”. How can the concept of epistemic authority be defended without sliding into the dictatorship of “authorities” or into technocracy? How can public opinion be shaped without anti-democratic impositions?

A: It is unfortunate that the notion of expertise, or ‘epistemic authority’, has become coupled with elitism and even authoritarian impulses. The division of linguistic and epistemic labour and the specialisation that comes with it are essential for the functioning of communities of speakers and thinkers, particularly in advanced and complex societies. To take one example, science, as practiced today, is a collective enterprise whose conduct requires a great deal of division of epistemic labour and sub-specialisation. Without trust in the expertise of those working in different sub-fields, science will not advance or even function in its modern form.  I believe the reaction to the ‘elitism’ of expertise is propelled by and should be explained by economic rather than philosophical reasons.  The Neo-liberal economic order has celebrated expertise and given it pride of place in social and economic decision making. The frequently well-grounded reliance on expert knowledge has often been accompanied by financial rewards, particularly in banking, financial, and legal sectors that are out of proportion to the contribution such experts make to the general well-being of the society. A second, not wholly unrelated problem, once again,  rests in the linkage between knowledge and power. Knowledge does give us authority beyond the epistemic field, it is often a tool in the service of the will to power. To know, and to be in the know, enable us to influence others, to get our way. We do not need to believe with Tim Williamson that knowledge is the norm of assertion, or that  knowledge comes first, to appreciate the central role it has in all social interchanges. It is almost a truism, but not a banal one, that knowledge empowers people but that power, like all others, needs to be answerable to the needs of others and to their and our own vulnerabilities. We see early signs of expressions of concern about the exercise of knowledge and expertise with no sense of answerability in Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, an almost prescient novel given that modern science was still in its infancy. Knowing and acting on the power and authority it gives us, without the safety net of answerability to ethical the demands that such knowledge brings, is a danger that we need to keep at the forefront at all times.

The connection between the normative parameters of knowledge and the mantra “everyone has the right to have an opinion”, which sounds tolerant and inclusive, is interesting. So often in debates and conversation, particularly on moral and political issues in the United States, the line “I have a right to my opinion” is used as a clinching argument line. But this is simply an error. If you are asserting your opinion then you are responsible, at a minimum, for its rational acceptability, if not truth. Opinions are no different than other kinds of beliefs. We should only hold those opinions that we have reason to hold true. We are publically answerable for our opinions just as we are for our claims to knowledge. Contemporary uses of the mantra ignore this normative requirement.

Q: One of the most severe conceptual obstacles to be overcome for those interested in social epistemology is that of reason. Many recent studies, between psychology and philosophy, suggest that the concept of reason as a rigid method of logical deduction regulated by non-contextual rules is an ideal that cannot be applied to social creatures like us. Moreover, our search for certainty and our sharing of the majority opinion of our immediate social group is, evolutionarily speaking, a rational choice indeed. Reason would then need to be reconceptualised as an instrument of mediation between contrasting opinions, in order to navigate an hybrid environment, between the natural and the social, never completely mirroring logical structures. The problem, then, seems to be: why does the public consider the community of experts (scientific experts, economic experts, medical experts and so on) as “another group”, in competition with their interests? Does the solution to this problem reside in a greater degree (or quality of) communication or greater participation?

A: There are important differences between the norm of reason and logic, as  limit concepts, and the day to day uses of rules of inference in ordinary language. For instance, it is well known that that the firmly established logical rule of material implication does not have many parallels in ordinary language. Also, it has been known for a long time, at least since Watson’s 1983 selection task experiment, that almost everyone has difficulty applying abstract principles of formal logic to ordinary instances of reasoning. Moreover, even the most die-hard analytic philosophers, Russell and Strawson, for instance, were in agreement that “ordinary language has no exact logic.”  This is all well established. On the other side of the equation is the fact that we routinely engage in making inferences – inductive and deductive – draw conclusions from what we read, see and hear, give reasons as explanations for actions and events, and justify our actions and choices. The centrality of these activities to our cognitive life, I believe, encourages us, rightly, to think of ourselves as creatures of reason. But there is a difference between the abstract ideals of reason, which are the limit concepts of our thought, and the sort of ‘inference tickets’, to borrow a turn of phrase from Gilbert Ryle, that we use in our daily relies on reason. There is a useful analogy, if not a perfect one, between the role of folk or commons sense physics in our daily lives and what scientists says about physics in their labs  and the role of logic in our day to day inferences with the abstract well-established rules of logic. The fact that folk physics does not match the discoveries of physics does not delegitimises what scientist do nor does it show that there is no need for relying on basic rules of thumb on how to navigate the world based on folk scientific assumptions. The same is true of logic we do not need to mirror logical structures perfectly in order to be reliant on them in thought and speech.

The question of the relationship, or lack thereof, between scientists and non-scientists is more complex. I should first say that the data available does not indicate any major break in trust in scientists.  A PEW Research Centre study shows that Americans trust scientists much more than other categories of experts, e.g. school principals, the clergy, the media, business people  or politicians. Only the military is accorded a greater degree of trust (I have added the table below in case you want to use it). Moreover, these levels of trust have remained steady since the 1970s. However, the politicisation of science, which was always present, has taken  new forms and has intensified. Belief in or the rejection of climate science, and even evolution, have become makers for our political and social identity, rather than expressions of opinion on a scientific theory . Indeed, in the US but not only there, a person’s position on climate change is one of the best indicators of their political views. And correspondingly and predictability we see a much greater decrease in levels of trust in science among conservative Republications in the US. There are some quite obvious reasons for this, for instance Al Gore turning climate change into a political campaign issue and economic libertarians, who are on the conservative side of the political spectrum, objecting to the regulatory measures proposed by climate scientists who advise on the risks of global warming. But contrary to much of the standard thinking on this issue, as I have indicated before, I do not think that improving communication  between scientists and the general public, will be sufficient for addressing the perceived deficit in trust in science, or at least in selected areas of science. Scientists also need to address concerns about their involvement with the military-industrial complex as well as the long-standing worry, at least since Mary Shelley, that a concern for others is not one of the main motivators of their work. I believe these are genuine concerns and to voice them should not be seen as a sign of mistrusting the procedures or the findings of science.



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