Science and Scientism in the ‘Post-truth’ Age
For the last five years, we have heard frequent reference to the idea that we live in a ‘post-truth’ age. Certainly, in this time, the status of formal expertise has fallen, and experts increasingly find that, to a sizeable and growing minority, their very role as ‘authorities’ renders them suspect—supposed agents of nefarious agendas.
Among most reasonable people, this state of affairs is viewed as something of an epistemic apocalypse—a cataclysm for Western culture and reason itself, as a significant minority not only ‘irrationally’ dismiss authoritative narratives and frames of reference and the technocratic authorities who produce them, but also turn instead to alternative—and often dubious—sources of information, usually found online. In the social media age, algorithmically promoted authors are increasingly replacing institutionally curated authorities as the sculptors of our worldview.
However, at this stage it is worth noting that the word ‘apocalypse’ in fact has two meanings. While we tend these days to use it as a synonym for ‘cataclysm’, its original meaning was more interesting: the revelation of what had previously been concealed.
Far from being a sign of growing irrationalism, could the loss of faith we are seeing, in authority and expertise in general, perhaps be interpreted as an example of apocalypse in the original, not the modern, sense of the word? Might it reflect a dawning realization which, far from being an unhealthy development, could in fact reflect a growth in healthy, reasonable, and perhaps even overdue scepticism, when it comes to the authority of certain forms of technocratic expertise?
In his fascinating 2009 book, The Master and His Emissary, 11Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
(Yale University Press, 2009). the British psychologist and literary scholar Iain McGilchrist tackled the question of what makes the two hemispheres of our brain different and distinct. This is an old question that has of course elicited many competing theories. Some have argued that the left hemisphere is ‘scientific’ and the right ‘artistic’; or that the left is ‘rational’ and the right ‘emotional’; or that the left hemisphere is ‘male’, and its counterpart ‘female’.
Adopting a less outcome-oriented approach, McGilchrist compellingly argues that the difference between the two hemispheres is simply in how they pay attention. The right hemisphere—what he terms the ‘master’—is interested in the contextual whole, while the left—what he terms ‘the emissary’—is instead concerned with the detailed content of the parts. Put simply, in evolutionary terms the left hemisphere is for ‘zooming in’ on detail (i.e. on what we are hunting or eating), while the right one is for ‘zooming out’ (i.e. on what may be planning to eat us).
While the terms ‘master’ and ‘emissary’ might seem to imply a hierarchy, McGilchrist argues that the two hemispheres are—or rather, in a functioning brain, ought to be—cooperative, not competitive. We of course need both abilities—to zoom in on content, while also keeping an eye on context—in order to live our lives. We see these distinctions manifesting not only in how we think, but also in the roles we play in society.
In the military or indeed in a business or organization, for instance, there is a distinction between what we might term ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ work, the former dealing with details, and the latter with broader, contextual priorities in light of the bigger picture of what is going on. The same applies when we look at construction—the architect envisions the whole subjective form and character of a building in its broader context, while engineers busy themselves with the objective, mathematical parts to realize that whole. The same pattern exists across most areas of human activity.
In a startlingly interesting leap from the evolutionary to the historical, and from the psychological to the political, McGilchrist proposes that this distinction between hemispheric concerns for context and content not only explains what we do and how we do it, but also sheds light on the course of human history itself, arguing that when a culture prizes both hemispheres’ ways of seeing and paying attention, those societies flourish. But in tracing the collapse of cultures, he notices a pattern—in the art and literature—of privileging the parts over the whole, tactics over strategy, engineering over architecture. In such societies, he says, the contextual ways of paying attention typical of the right brain—the ‘master’—are dismissed, and the society begins to be shaped by the more ‘left-brained’ ways of thinking and seeing of the ‘emissary’.
McGilchrist, however, does not only discern this pattern in the past. He also sees it in the contemporary world, across a Western culture which while once reasonably well-balanced, is now increasingly technocratic in its worldview, literal in its understanding of language, and given to thinking that our most fundamental human problems are matters of objective fact that may be made explicit, and thereby taught, rather than matters of subjective perspective, dependent on what is implicit, and revealed only to our intuition.
All this brings us to the problem with some forms of contemporary expertise. We call people ‘experts’ if they know a lot about a little. However, knowing a little about a lot—enough to weave a tapestry from disparate threads of culture—has lost a great deal of its status in the contemporary West. An isolated fact is, these days, almost always valued over a broader perspective, as while the latter typically reveals complexity and thus encourages restraint and humility in action, the former fosters the hubristic belief that the truth is simple, and thus that actions are possible.
It is the figment of this belief—this promise—that so appeals to those in power. An expert can legitimate decisions, but can also absolve the decision-maker from any real responsibility when things do go wrong. ‘We were following the science’ is a reliable way to get through a crisis without losing political capital.
What might some examples of the difference between content and contextoriented thinking be? Three may suffice.
First, climate change. Our collective interest in this topic stems from a general sense that, in its consequences, it will be of widespread societal significance. Indeed, there is a widespread presumption that the magnitude of climate change will dictate the degree of societal impact. In this sense, society is implicitly understood in a rather classical, mechanical manner, inclusive of the three laws of motion: first, it is implicitly assumed that society will remain as it is unless acted on by climate change; second, it is assumed that, once acted on, the degree of societal impact will be proportional to the degree of climate change; and third, it is presumed that this impact will be proportionally disruptive, requiring an equal and opposite set of reactions from society to cope.
Yet, research has suggested that the reality might be quite different, once we take into account the nature of the societal context within which we care about the impact of climate change. In fact, for several decades, disaster risk reduction scholars have argued that there is in fact no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster. While there are natural hazards, the degree to which they are disastrous is determined by social, political, and economic variables. The standard statement of this is as follows: earthquakes do not kill people; collapsing buildings kill people. 22 Phil McKenna, ‘Quake Engineer: Earthquakes Don’t Kill, Buildings Do’, New Scientist (18 May
Thus, an earthquake of the same magnitude that strikes both Los Angeles and Haiti will, inevitably, have a greater proportional impact in Haiti. This is because of the differing standards of building regulations, different degrees of their enforcement, different levels of institutional corruption, and the different states of emergency readiness and responsiveness.
The point is that it is not enough to know a lot about seismology, or even about climate change, in order to draw conclusions about their relevance to or impact on people. The human impact of any set of environmental factors is always dependent on the conditions of the specific societal context, in all its complexity. Thus, with climate change, the real question is not ‘is it happening?’, or ‘are we responsible?’, but rather, ‘to what extent should we be focused on climate change as the key variable in any analysis of the problems that beset people in a given societal context, even if climate change is happening, and even if our carbon dioxide emissions are causing it?’
One of the basic truisms of the world is that even as the problems we face may change, they tend to fall with the most weight on the same people. Indeed, the people in ‘Third World’ contexts whose problems were seen as to do with famine in the 1980s, or a lack of development in the 1990s, are the same people who today’s policy-makers have in mind when they talk of failed ‘climate adaptation’. When experts focus on the thème-du-jour—such as climate change—as a way of framing an analysis of suffering, they arguably do the people in question a disservice. In focusing on the content of the theme, what is ignored, and presumed to be a neutral backdrop, is the cultural, political, and economic context that renders the marginal so vulnerable to processes such as famine, or now climate change.
A second example of the problem of prioritizing content over context can be found in the now conclusively failed efforts at ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan. Twelve years ago, the British writer and then-politician Rory Stewart and political economist Gerald Knaus argued that Western plans for ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan were assembled using constellations of abstract jargon and buzzwords, with strategy documents on how this could be achieved tending to be replete with generic thematic concerns such as ‘governance’, ‘achieving our vision through social compact’, ‘linking strategy to sectors’ and ‘crosscutting themes’, but devoid of context-specific concepts like ‘Pushtun, Hazara, Tajik, Islam, Sharia, jihad, communism, Northern Alliance, warlord’. As Stewart and Knaus note, ‘were you to delete the word Afghanistan [from a document] and replace it with the word Botswana, it would be very difficult to know of which country you were speaking’.33 Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus, Can Intervention Work? (Norton, 2011), 36–37.
In the wake of the dramatic collapse of the Afghan Government in the autumn of 2021, and the Taliban’s return to power, it is clear that Stewart’s and Knaus’s concerns were well-founded. The technocratic interventions in Afghanistan— which were orchestrated in no small part by an army of consultants educated at the management and government schools of the world’s best universities—failed not because they did not understand the content of their own general theories of political economic intervention, but because they did not understand, or sufficiently consider, the real and particular cultural context in which those interventions would be made. What the liberal interventionists were engaged in was, it seems, a naive effort to impose what we might call a sort of artificial, ‘political economic Esperanto’ onto a bemused Afghan society. That it failed reflects the paucity of a worldview that privileged technical know-how over contextual awareness.
As a final example, we can turn to COVID-19. The epidemiology and virology during the pandemic has, of course, been very good, and invaluable in understanding the nature of the virus, and how to treat it. However, throughout the pandemic, we have also heard political figures repeatedly claim that in their policy decisions, particularly regarding so-called ‘lockdowns’, they have been ‘guided by the science’.
This is odd, as the question of what restrictions are proportional in the face of a pandemic is not, in fact, a question science can answer. It is a question that is as much about subjective values and culture as it is about objective facts and data. What is the balance between lives and livelihoods? Is there more to life than the avoidance of death? What is an acceptable level of risk for a population to endure? These are not scientific questions, but rather, philosophical and cultural ones. They are not about objective factual content, but about subjective societal context.
Throughout the pandemic, there has been a startling absence of dispassionate, rigorous, and good-faith debate and discussion of these questions. The cost of this lack of debate is itself—ironically enough—a matter of debate. But it is a debate that has barely occurred, and we are surely poorer for its absence. If character is revealed in a crisis, the pandemic has revealed a society that lacks the character for robust debate on our collective concerns.
Having laid out the bias, in Western culture, of focusing on content over context, and having illustrated this bias with the examples of climate change, Afghanistan, and COVID-19, it is worth returning to the general problem of ‘post-truth’.
Arguably, a great deal of the reaction against elites, and the establishment, in the last few years is due to many people recognizing—however subconsciously—that there is something wrong with the picture they are being sold by the so-called ‘experts’. Again and again, the promise of that picture has failed to materialize, as it is a picture that is simplistic, and which necessarily lacks a full appreciation of the broader context within which the given expert’s factual content exists.
Clearly, there is a need to evolve our thinking, as individuals and a broader culture. But in what way? What sort of evolution—or revolution—are we looking for, and is there any precedent for doing so?
We can perhaps again turn to the history of physics for an example of the latter. In 1687, Isaac Newton published his theory of mechanics, which provided equations for how physical objects interact. In this theory, he had assumed that the context of everything in the universe—space and time—was always static. That is, that space and time are a fixed ‘sandbox’ within which the events of the physical universe play out.
One hundred and seventy-eight years later, James Clerk Maxwell proposed that the speed of light was a constant to all observers, regardless of their respective rates of motion. This was a finding that spawned some existential uncertainty among physicists, as it proved an implicit challenge to Newton’s static understanding of space and time. It was only in 1905 that the famous solution was found.
Einstein’s solution revolutionized the way we conceive of the universe itself, as it required him to overthrow Newton’s assumption that space and time were in fact static. He realized that space and time were instead dynamic—that they were a continuum, dilating and contracting relative to each other. Put simply, light can remain at a constant speed relative to all observers because the context within which light travels—space/time itself—distorts.
In our understanding of society—of ourselves—we perhaps need a similar ‘relative’ evolution in how we think: we need to see that cultural context is not simply a neutral backdrop to the study of nature or impact of factual or scientific content, or a sandbox within which we play with ideas, but is rather constitutive of, and deeply implicated in, everything we do, and relevant to how we engage with all the content we know or presume to know.
Faced with ‘post-truth’ epistemic ruptures that are distorting the public sphere in liberal democratic society, there perhaps is a need to recognize that science is simply a tool for use, not a window on some deeper truth. By analogy, if you are building a house, you use tools to do so. However, the question of how to make an aesthetically pleasing and comfortable home is not a question a tool can solve. Similarly, science is a tool that can help us build the society we want. But we cannot let science be the architect of society. Content should serve context; things should serve people.
Too often, in the present era, we make the terrible category error of assuming that people can be understood, and subsumed under, the science of things. This is what we call ‘scientism’—the assumption that scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge, and thus a guide to what our values should be, rather than simply one form of knowledge, which must then be understood in service of our values.44 Ray Monk, ‘Wittgenstein’s Forgotten Lesson’, Prospect (20 July 1999), www.prospectmagazine.
What is called the ‘post-truth’ era, far from being an epistemic apocalypse, in the sense of cataclysm, might better be understood as a revelation of something that has previously been concealed. Namely, that experts are perhaps not as reliable as authorities as we would like to think, and indeed as we tend to think in this culture so marked by pervasive scientism.
Assuming this argument holds, the question becomes how we rebalance the culture, so as to restore the place of context-oriented thinking. There is no easy answer to this question. Some suggest we need some revolution in our politics. Others suggest that progress in science and technology holds the key, and that with more data we will achieve more insight.
Neither of these arguments is convincing. We would be naive to assume that a world shaped by algorithms and ‘big data’ would be one in which we are treated as ends in ourselves, rather than means to ends, and usually ends as cynical as they would be reductive—typically profit for the person setting the algorithm, and gathering the data.
Still less hope lies in our politics, as it increasingly seems true that the polarity we are seeing is more constitutive—or perhaps symptomatic—of our problems than it is the means by which we might cure them. The political left and the right see the other as the pathology and themselves as the cure. In truth, both Trumpism and the ‘woke’ movements are less pathologies in need of curing by the other, but rather symmetrical symptoms of a deeper, shared pathology that is indeed in need of a cure.
This shared pathology would seem, in fact, to be the pattern of scientism itself. If we are genuinely interested in finding a cure, we might begin by simply changing how we think, by restoring an appreciation of context in our increasingly ‘content’- hungry world and, in so doing, reconsidering the place and role of science in society.
This might be the only means by which we avoid both the scientism implied in so much contemporary forms of ‘authoritative’, technocratic expertise, and the epistemic perversity of the ‘alternative fact’ reactions that scientism has elicited. The solution to the era of ‘post-truth’, therefore, is perhaps not a restoration of science to a place of absolute authority, but a recognition that science itself can and should only ever be our emissary, not our master.
- 11Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
(Yale University Press, 2009).
- 22 Phil McKenna, ‘Quake Engineer: Earthquakes Don’t Kill, Buildings Do’, New Scientist (18 May
- 33 Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus, Can Intervention Work? (Norton, 2011), 36–37.
- 44 Ray Monk, ‘Wittgenstein’s Forgotten Lesson’, Prospect (20 July 1999), www.prospectmagazine.