Post-truth and other truths

In the aftermath of the American elections, discussions about knowledge and truth have been framed by concepts of post-truth and alternative facts. Even among those of us who consider themselves experts in the processes of truth-making and knowledge creation, this framing has stirred things up, reactivating old fault lines in the STS community (see the Sismondo vs Collins exchanges in Social Studies of Science).

There are many other, very insightful, discussions. For me, Helen Verran framed it best of all, in her examination of post-truth governance, which she recently summarized in a presentation at the ETHOS Lab, IT University in Copenhagen.

Verran characterizes post-truth governance as one of three imaginaries of truth. One of these, post-truth governance, is based on an epistemology of market values, rather than on ontological truth. In the post-truth imaginary, what matters, the knowledge that is sought out and produced and evaluated, is knowledge that will inform on the opportunities for return on investment.

This framing helps to understand the place of instruments and techniques of calculation and their dominance in global institutions that direct capital flow–whether for the alleviation of poverty, the energy transition or the survival of refugees. Think of the World Bank’s decision-making processes, think of the UN environmental agency’s evaluations, think of the procedures of EU funding for research. What is calculable can be valued–in all senses of the world–and if it can be valued, it is the kind of knowledge that can be funded. In other words, it is the kind of truth worth investing in.

For Verran, it is opposition to this line of reasoning that characterises many of the populist politicians who denounce the logic of calculation. When calculation takes on overly abstract forms, when the measures become too far removed from lived experience, when metrics are pursued within hermetic systems, a sense of alienation follows. What counts seems irrelevant to what matters.

These are the circumstances in which people appear to be ‘tired of experts’, to pick up on a particular polemic that arose during Brexit campaigns. Think for example of rebellions against technocratic approaches to visas and the appeals for pardons for long-time residents of the Netherlands: their rich, meaningful lives lived here “don’t count” in the visa and asylum procedures; the relationships and identities shaped by the many years spent in a community don’t seem to matter.

imaginaries of truth

To return to Verran, and her useful framework: she puts forth that there are currently three co-existing imaginaries of truth, each with their own knowledge-making technologies, political embedding and institutional supports:

  • correspondence theory of truth (abstract objects are derived from physical objects) (this is where Collins et al are most comfortable)
  • coherence theory of truth (there is no indexing; the focus is on coherence within a system. The IT world is an application of this, insofar as coherence with a system forms the basis for evaluating programming rules. (Sismondo tends to this view)
  • grounded theory of truth: empirical facts reveal themselves; truth is an event. (Perhaps Marres can be situated here)

She invites us to consider that we, as critical scholars, can translate between these imaginaries, but that ‘something happens’ when we do and that we should pay attention to this. What is lost-gained in translation?

This framework and its implications are well-articulated in Verran’s lecture and well worth a watch, especially given the focus on the prevalence of coherence theory of truth in the epistemology of IT–while giving a talk at  ITU. It is also worth noting that these distinctions are eminently relevant in the current context, but not so new:  Haraway set out grounded epistemology in her cyborg manifesto some decades ago.

What triggers me most in this lecture is the suggestion that translation may be not only a necessary step, but also a productive one. Verran warns us of the need for skills to translate and invites us to pay attention to what might happen when we do this translation. If we are to understand such translations, and if we are to see truth as an event unfolding on the ground, then we must also have expertise to apprehend this. This expertise lies not mainly in techniques of calculation but in the arts of listening.

A video recording of Helen Verran’s talk can be found on the Ethos Lab website. [Update 2023: the link to the video is broken and I have not been able to locate the recording. In a correspondence spirit… here is a functioning link to the event:

One Comment on “Post-truth and other truths

  1. Pingback: Tact | Anne Beaulieu

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