by Owen Whooley
Like many, the presidential election has left me with a profound sense of unease. This unease operates on three registers, the combination of which concoct a veritable witch’s brew of angst. The first is the unease I feel as a citizen, concerned about the state of our democratic institutions. The second is the unease I feel as a sociologist, who despite claiming some expertise on, you know, society, didn’t see this coming (and worse, insisted throughout the election that a Trump presidency would never happen). Both of these sources of unease have received their due attention in election post-mortems and hallway discussions with my peers. However, it’s the last sources of disquiet that’s the bitterest to swallow, for it raises inconvenient questions regarding the way I think about the world. I fear that I, as a social constructionist, have contributed to the mess in which we find ourselves.
Did my research, and the research of my like-minded peers, lead us, in some small way, to this point? Can we draw a line, however circuitous and indirect, between decades of critical science studies and the Trump administration’s “alternative facts”? Is the phenomenon of fake news a logical, albeit extreme, destination on a slippery slope we created? And if so, what does that mean for SKAT going forward? How do we defend a politics of “truth” when we’ve published reams of paper problematizing that very notion?
For me, these questions have crystallized around the March for Science (https://www.marchforscience.com/). As someone dismayed by the administration’s denigration of science and its propagation of falsehoods, I’d like to support these efforts and not just from a distance. I want to create a clever sign and march along. But I can’t escape the tension between scientists’ professed commitments to objective, apolitical knowledge and my life’s work. Can a sociologist of science become a sociologist for science? Would marching be hypocritical? Would I even be welcomed?
After all, before the administration’s War on Science – waged via climate denialism, threats of defunding and hostile cabinet appointments – we had our own Science Wars – waged via laboratory studies, philosophical tracts and snarky hoaxes published in academic journals. Admittedly, our war carried more modest implications; at stake was disciplinary politicking and intellectual prestige, not the future of the planet. But I can’t shake the sense that our war has fueled theirs. I worry that what we’re witnessing has its roots in our critical research, which has (rightfully in my mind) taken science and expertise down a peg. I’m concerned that decades of undermining “that noble dream” of objectivity, of applying a symmetry principle in assessing knowledge claims, and of revealing the extra-scientific factors that shape “facts” have become parts of the arsenal for this administration’s full-throttled assault on reality.
My training antedated the height of the Science Wars. By the time I came around, an uneasy truce had been declared. And while social constructionism is by no means commonsense – at least not in my discipline of sociology – it won’t get you laughed out of the room or pilloried as a dangerous subversive. Under the big tent of sociology, we now have a home base in SKAT, from which to launch novel forays into social constructionism. With the headiest days of battle behind us, this cozy niche is sheltered from the vexing criticisms that were so often hurled at the social constructionists in the past. Perhaps naively, I have been able to avoid the stickier issues and tougher challenges that a commitment to social constructionism entails. I can avoid these no longer.
I wonder if, safely ensconced in our own bubble, we missed the political threats our research carries. In the wrong hands, our nuanced, laborious analyses have become weaponized. Sure, we’ve long known about the “production of doubt” and the venerable tradition of using science to serve political ends. But did we ever consider that our efforts might lead us to something like Trump?
This administration’s approach to knowledge – if we can call it one – represents something distinct, if not in kind, then certainly in degree. Their promotion of the most easily debunked falsehoods presents, simultaneously, a less sophisticated strategy and a more pervasive challenge. Curiously, in its baldness, it’s easier to identify (it fools nobody who hasn’t consented to being fooled), but harder to combat. In this way, the treatise of our time is not Orwell’s 1984 but a slim book by Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit. Read with an eye to contemporary events, Frankfurt seems to be describing Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Sean Spicer when he argues that bullshitting is more cynical than lying. At least liars, in lying, acknowledge that it matters what is true. Bullshitters are not at all concerned about whether anything is true; they assert what needs to be asserted to convey a desired impression, with no concern that these assertions meet any sort of empirical test or even should. The Trump administration feeds us a false dystopian picture of the U.S. in which the economy is in shambles (it’s not), the murder rate is at a 40-year high (wrong), the “inner city” is a war zone (it isn’t), hordes of violent immigrants are pouring over our Southern border (they’re not), and all Muslims are potential agents of ISIS (c’mon). Shameless, their bullshit is immune to practices like fact-checking, which draw their strength from shaming. The embarrassment that results from being caught in a lie serves as perhaps the most important failsafe for civic and civil discourse. Without it, everything becomes just bullshit noise meant to distract from the blunt exercise of power.
Has our social constructionism provided tools and legitimating cover for this excrement? At our core, social constructionists believe that argumentation, honest debate, and intellectual rigor matter; otherwise we would have chosen another craft. But by whittling away at truth, have we unwittingly undermined the possibility of reasoned discussion? By raising such concerns, I don’t intend to reignite the science wars. Nor do I think it’s productive to resort to tired debates over what social constructionism is, to spend hours cataloging and comparing its variations along a spectrum of weak to strong, or to once again take up arms against the bugaboo of relativism. Rather I want to call attention to the effects of social constructionism, however unintended they might be. I want to encourage a collective, sober reflection, to look ourselves in the mirror and assess our culpability.
My brand of social constructionism has deep roots in American pragmatist philosophy. With William James, I share an abiding appreciation of “blooming, buzzing confusion” of human experience and the limits of our minds to comprehend it in all its multidimensionality. With Charles Sanders Peirce, I recognize the social, communal nature of knowledge production. With John Dewey, I reject the “quest of certainty” and in its place, insist on democratic processes that engage an educated citizenry. With pragmatism in general, I refuse to separate thought from action and note that the acceptance of a belief is dictated by its practical effects, its “cash-value” to use James’s admittedly problematic metaphor. But where do these cherished notions leave me today? Having renounced external validators of truth and sullied science with practical political and social concerns, have I reduced knowledge to a mere trial of strength or worse, adjudication via the Electoral College? Trump often parries criticisms with the retort that he won the election. This rhetorical move, unsubtle as it is, speaks to the imbrication of knowledge and power, the way in which might can dictate right – essentially a key insight of social constructionism. As Trump puts this insight of ours into problematic action, a nettlesome doubt creeps in. Might everyone be better off if we left well enough alone?
Like so many things these days, I just don’t know. I’m not ready to jettison the project of social constructionism, which has achieved a deeper understanding of science. But I also fear that decades of deconstructing the soapbox have left us without a leg to stand on in the current fight. And worse, I’m worried that we have armed our enemies.
Given the urgency of the situation, I believe that it would be neither wise, nor responsible, for the SKAT community to duck these difficult questions. This moment demands of us the courage to interrogate our convictions. We need to talk about social constructionism in the Age of Trump.