Why more facts are not the answer to post-truth

Ever since the phrase „alternative facts“ was coined, an eager avantgarde of fact-checkers, statistics-citers, and experts-on-everything has taken to fighting post-truth with anti-belief. An army of knowers is out and about to defend the Enlightened world with the weapons of Wissenschaft against the darker flavours of faith. But are myth busters like Steven Pinker or German YouTuber Rezo the answer? Is the problem one of truth versus lies, of ideology versus „real facts“? To understand what expert politics actually means, we need to take a closer look at that idea.

Are there un-alternative facts?

Whoever speaks of alternative facts implies some kind of „un-alternative“ facts out there, something philosophers of science call the Archimedean viewpoint: an ideal-typical perspective from which everything can be known so that truth can be distinguished from falsehood. This gives rise to the question whether or not such a viewpoint actually exists – that is, whether or not it is actually possible, with 100% certainty, to establish what we (think to) know as facts.

Often we rely on an inaccurate caricature of science here, idealising what scientists are up to as „establishing absolute certainty“. Most physicists, biologists, and neuroscientists will probably tell you that that’s something you hope for, not something you do on a daily basis. They can probably also tell you that the constant updating, revising, and making up of „facts“ is basically the story of their lives.

Without going too deep down that rabbit-hole, it does pay off to reflect on the problem of absolute certainty for a moment. One needs not be a postmodern relativist to question the possibility of objective truth. When we disagree with the notion of alternative facts, what do we propose instead? Usually: another interpretation. An alternative to the alternative. So what’s the lesson to be learned? Be humble. What does that mean for politics?

Politics is about judgement, not data-gathering

Politics is yet another can of worms. That, with Foucault, all knowledge is political is a rather plain statement. It is far from controversial, particularly eye-opening, or world-changing on its own. What we know – what we accept as fact rather than belief – is consequential. It is consequential for how we think the world hangs together; for how we think things and people relate; and for what we think is the best course of action to go about them. Ultimately, choosing the „best course of action“ is an act that requires power and an act of power; in other words: politics. But what does that tell us?

For one, it tells us what politics is about: that inherent to politics is, in some way, judgement. A politician makes a (more or less) informed judgement; s/he draws on selected sources of information and moral-ideological beliefs, to make an argument for what should be done about problem X.

It also tells us what politics is not about: data-gathering. Politics is not about collating all information available, comparing all possible scenarios, and consulting all knowledgeable kinds of people to come to the most optimal, best-informed decision. It is less than that, even though some rational-choice faithfuls will disagree with me here. Politics is a selective process that depends on predispositions that are not merely cognitive or psychological but – political. Let me illustrate this.

When „Britain had enough of experts“

Usually we recruit experts to arbitrate conflicting bits of information, diagnose a problem; predict some future development; or make a recommendation that requires a degree of understanding the issue that politicians don’t have. One example is climate change, for debates of which we nearly always refer to some study about the negative effects of, say, deforestation, meat-eating, or urban pollution.

An even more „textbook“ example is Brexit. In 2016, Brexiteer Michael Gove famously denounced the bleak predictions of leading economists about a UK outside of the EU, proclaiming: „Britain has had enough of experts.“ At the same time, the Leave campaign made use of its own claims to superior knowledge with the infamous statistical myth that after Brexit, the UK would be able to reinvest £350 million of contributions going to the EU in the NHS.

Even more ironically, Gove – like every other politician – depended himself on consulting advisors (experts) to make his statements. Yet crucially, as Reiner Grundmann from the University of Nottingham puts it in The Guardian, even after consulting expert assessment one „will agree with some experts more than with others“. Expertise does not simply feed into politics to improve it, but politics recruits expertise at its own behest.

So taken together, we can argue that doing politics well is perhaps not so much a matter of fact-gathering as it is one of judgement (however we may define it). Politics is then (if this argument makes sense) not improved by getting ever-better experts on board, but by improving our understanding of what expertise is and where it comes from – and how we think experts, politics, and the public do and should relate.

Experts on experts on experts

If expertise is fundamental to democratic deliberation, as liberal commentators from among the defenders of Enlightenment argue, will we solve the problem by understanding expertise better and integrating experts into politics more properly? Is it time for the Inception moment of expertise – for experts in expertise, for experts on experts (on experts)?

Grundmann argues that „technocratic competence“ was, in the case of British politics, the political sine qua non of the pre-Thatcher era. Ever since, he sees a novel trend in which „several politicians are trying their luck on a populist anti-expert ticket“ and where the right appropriates a leftist anti-establishment narrative.

Jude Kirton-Darling for the Huffington Post similarly argues that right now a „sea change in how we think about truth“ is taking place, and that at the heart of the matter lies a question of „how the public can learn to trust authority figures and experts once again“. Is it that simple? Restore faith and go back to the good old days?

Expertise has been around for a while – so has its contestation

The problem with these arguments is that they rely on an unfounded claim about the recency of the „expertise problem,“ or as Matt Wood from the University of Sheffield writing for the LSE Impact Blog calls it, „Gove’s predicament“. How new is the public contestation of expert authority, or public skepticism about the knowledge rulers have, use, manipulate?

A dialectic inherent to the Enlightenment between rationalists and Romanticists, a pendulum swinging from nineteenth-century industrialist euphoria to twentieth-century critiques of technocracy, a discourse, in short, that is around at least since „bureaucracy“ became a buzzword – all points to vast resources that could tell us much more about expertise than simply its defence against those questioning it.

There is some promise in taking a different angle than an artificial dichotomy between expertise and politics, between apolitical and political knowledge, as a starting point. If we wish to truly make sense of the concept, we must historicise our understanding of expertise first. And if we do this, we may well reach very different conclusions.

More facts are not the answer to post-truth just as post-truth wasn’t the answer to facts. Responding to one thing (we’ve had enough of experts!) with its opposite (we need more and better experts!) is not always helpful. Perhaps once we appreciate expertise in political terms we can better understand its contestation. Perhaps the starting point should not be wanting to understand expertise better, by isolating that concept from its use – but to understand politics better, by considering expertise as an instrument of authority.

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