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Original Article

THE FORCE OF
SCIENTIFIC AUTHORITY
 
Nima Bassiri

From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 2 ("Authority and Knowledge"). 
Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.

In the years leading up to the 1975 publication of Against Method, Paul Feyerabend rehearsed many of the monograph’s provocative and polemical claims in a series of earlier articles and lectures. Against Method earned Feyerabend the inauspicious title of “currently the worst enemy of science” in the pages of Nature and the moniker “anti-science philosopher” in the New York Times. But the spirit of that book, his distinctive rebuke against the authoritative reach of scientific knowledge, can be found in one such early article, “How to Defend Society Against Science”. First delivered as a public talk, the goading essay begins with a preamble in which Feyerabend describes the incendiary supposition that first underwrote his arguments, that “science is a religion”. It was not simply the integrity of scientific epistemology that Feyerabend sought to impugn; he wanted to question the ethical-political dominance of scientific authority itself. Science is a “truth that reigns without checks and balances”, Feyerabend brazenly declared. And any truth that reigns in such a way “is a tyrant who must be overthrown and any falsehood that can aid us in the overthrow of this tyrant is to be welcomed”.

 

The one feature of institutional scientific authority that Feyerabend most strongly renounced was the fact that scientific knowledge could only be checked by scientific knowledge. While members of the lay public were certainly not precluded in principle from refuting scientific knowledge claims, they could only do so according to the terms set by these institutions. To object to scientific truths – particularly those that had been secured and stabilized through scholarly consensus – on terms that were incompatible with the conventions of scientific ratification was not merely an epistemic blunder; rather, using unscientific methods to critique science amounted to a veritable moral transgression, an impropriety of conduct, an irrationalism that was treated as pathological as well as politically dangerous. It was not anti-science as such that Feyerabend wanted to defend so much as it was the inclination to label anti-science behaviours as “irrational” that Feyerabend wanted to reproach. As he wrote at the end of Against Method, “science has no greater authority than any other form of life”.

 

Given the most recent proliferations of science denialism, Feyerabend might seem like a particularly infelicitous thinker to call on (especially given his penchant to admonish science in the name of “freedom”, a virtue which so often denotes little more than the vagaries of self-entitlement). However, there is something in Feyerabend’s provocations that facilitates not a defence of anti-scientific thought but, rather, an elucidation of it – one that is rooted precisely in the nature of scientific authority itself.

 

A pervasive supposition holds that the institutions and infrastructures of scientific knowledge production set the terms for the most dominant and normalized conception of truth today. Georges Canguilhem pointed out once that the phrase “scientific knowledge” had effectively become something of a pleonasm, a redundancy. For Canguilhem, “true knowledge”, “scientific knowledge”, and “science and truth” were all pleonastic expressions. “A knowledge which is not scientific is not a knowledge”, he contended – though by no means naively or uncritically, for much of Canguilhem’s scholarship was devoted to understanding how and why the sciences had come to secure their particular epistemic and veracious status. As the guarantor of the most securely garnered truth claims, and as the veritable model for what true knowledge could or should be, scientific institutions have come to wield a substantial degree of epistemic, administrative, and even moral authority. 

 

Feyerabend’s critique, however, is underwritten by the supposition that scientific authority is not simply a benign source of truth to which people deliberatively turn. It is instead something that demands and is animated by particular behaviours – namely, tacit enactments of acceptance, adherence, and compliance, the transgressions of which can be met with moral condemnation. Feyerabend’s provocations are helpful (but also troubling) because they begin to see beyond, and even displace, the valorization of the notion of truth and its relation to institutional authority, for which scientific knowledge has functioned as a prevailing archetype. For Feyerabend, scientific authority is not simply an institution animated and legitimated by truth; it is a form of power that demands devotion to the belief that the phrase “science and truth” is indeed a pleonastic redundancy.

 

We are inclined to believe that we conduct ourselves purposefully in relation to the administrative and moral authority of science because it has truth on its side. For this reason, we reject anti-scientific behaviours as obfuscatory efforts to contravene the authority of science and thus truth itself. I suggest in this essay, however, that we must reconsider the relationship between truth, authority, and conduct. I propose, drawing in part on Feyerabend, that scientific authority is actually something that we are asked to do, performances of adherence and confidence that non-scientists are called upon to enact in their everyday behaviours. Scientific authority is itself the very expression of conduct that has been organized in certain ways. From that standpoint, anti-scientific attitudes may not necessarily amount to the contravention of scientific authority; such attitudes may in fact be an effect of that authority, an effect of its incitements upon our behaviour. In the remainder of this essay, I will attempt to address somewhat schematically the following questions: What really differentiates trust from distrust in scientific authority? And what precisely is this “truth” which animates the authoritative force of scientific knowledge?

 

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SCIENCE AND LIBERALISM ARE NOT CONTINGENTLY CONTEMPORANEOUS BUT SHARE A POWERFUL HISTORICAL ENTWINEMENT

Scepticism towards science is not a univocal attitude. Climate denialism, anti-vaccination movements, anti-evolutionary convictions – to list the common examples – are motivated by disparate interests, exhibit differing political and economic ambitions, and have diverse and situated histories. Nor is such scepticism totalizing: given how extensively scientific knowledge and technology suffuse our everyday lives, the absolute and total abnegation of science is rare and actually somewhat difficult to engineer. What really seems to unite anti-science attitudes, what gives to them a sense of coherence, is how they are collectively framed as allied expressions of a profound and dangerous socio-political irrationalism.

 

This is true even when expressions of scientific distrust seem entirely justifiable, for example, among Black communities and publics whose historical relationship with American medicine is, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reminds us, “replete with acts of cruelty and depravity”. Scientific trust is often an abstracted and implicitly encoded form of “white trust”, writes Ruha Benjamin, and, as such, suspicion among the dispossessed becomes an entirely rational form of behaviour. Yet even in the context of racial violence, scientific distrust remains a symptom of social irrationalism – not on the part of those who are sceptical, but on the part of the structures of institutional racism and classism that give rise to those doubts. Anti-science is never the expression of mere epistemic nonsense; it is an indication that, one way or another, the social body is contaminated with a virulent moral-political ailment.

 

The concern of this essay is not in deciphering the many diverse expressions of scientific scepticism; my concern instead relates to what we might call the “spectre” of anti-science, as it is viewed from the position of political liberalism. It is a menace that is seen to be systematic and unified insofar as it is framed as a general expression of the failure to trust the right practices of truth-making in the right ways. Trusting the right truths in the right ways is, if you like, the behavioural correlate of scientific authority. But trusting the right truth in the right ways has also been an integral historical feature of liberal democracy; identifying the right form of trust has often been transposed into a question of where exactly democratic truth lies – whether among technocratic elites or among the public (and in the latter case, appeals to the so-called democratization of truth have vacillated between advocacy for citizen science on the one hand and a turn to populism on the other).

 

At the same time, modern science and liberal democracy have long shared profoundly overlapping “moral economies”, a common “form of life” in which the social assemblages of modern scientific knowledge-production have coincided with, even bled into, the formations of the modern polity and its attendant social orders. This idea, first proposed decades ago in the formative Leviathan and the Air Pump by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, has become something of a core postulate in the academic fields of science studies and the history of science. Science and liberalism, in other words, are not contingently contemporaneous but share a powerful historical entwinement. This entwinement has at least partly underwritten the supposition that a flourishing democracy avails itself to scientific truth and that the conditions of scientific practice act as a litmus test for the operational status of democracy itself.

 

To the extent that the administration of truth is a constitutive feature of modern liberalism, a “well-ordered science”, to use Philip Kitcher’s designation, signals the likelihood of a well-ordered society. For just as scientific truths cannot be autocratically pronounced, neither can a democratic truth be set forth by a tyrant. Consensus becomes the moral ideal for science, just as an informed democracy becomes the idealized model of a rational society. The proper trust in (scientific) truth is not, therefore, a prerequisite so much as it is a barometer for democracy, since it is ultimately the failures of such forms of trust – like outward symptoms of an underlying political pathology – that appear to denote political crises. For Theodor Adorno, such symptoms could be identified in something as innocuous as the astrology column in the Los Angeles Times, an everyday irrationalism that promoted an ideology resembling “in all its major characteristics, the mentality of the ‘high scorers’ of the ‘Authoritarian Personality’”.

 

However, trust in scientific truth is not our only purported political barometer. Perhaps the most commonly invoked post-war gauge of political wellbeing has been the market economy. Indeed, in its proximity to the market as a metric of a polity’s presumed democratic viability, scientific authority has adopted aspects of liberalism’s most dominant forms of economic governance. An economic rationality, in other words, has quietly suffused the value of scientific truth and the valuations of scientific trust; to appreciate how deeply, one need only look to one of the most striking features of the anti-science attitude: its parodic quality.

 

Anti-science sentiments often inadvertently mimic, and imitatively distort, the discursive form of scientific truth claims; but more revealingly, they also unwittingly parody, and thereby accentuate, the market logic that typically defines the manner by which science is made available and accessible. After all, the mere existence of scientific knowledge, medicine, and technological innovation has not led to an equitable global distribution of those benefits. The more that research interests and the circulation of scientific goods attach themselves to market forces, the more entitled members of the public might feel that the choice to refuse scientific claims, or to replace them with alternative epistemic practices, is merely one choice among others, a way to express one’s individual (and invariably economic) freedom.

 

As Philip Mirowski has argued, in its continued portrayal as, and validation within, a “marketplace of ideas ... science has been recast as a primarily commercial endeavour distributed widely across many different corporate entities and organizations, and not confined to disciplinary or academic boundaries”. Knowledge economies become increasingly reduced to market economies, as the market is posited, particularly through a diffused neoliberal attitude, as “an ideal processor of information”. Within the context of a scientific “marketplace”, scepticism inevitably appears as an available option for the epistemic consumer. Foremost among the many reasons why science denialism possesses some degree of justifiability (however disagreeable) is the economic rationality upon which scientific authority has itself increasingly been propped. Science denialism does not resist or subvert the commercialization of science but, instead, emphatically accentuates it.

 

Describing anti-scientific attitudes as “irrational” is just a rejection of the particular reasons on which scientific scepticism is often based; such rejections, however, do not always interrogate the extent to which scientific trust and distrust might share, at least to some degree, overlapping rationalities. This is an unpleasant thought, but one made more persuasive if we admit that “good reasons” are not always, and certainly not necessarily, the reason why people trust science in the first place. Trust in scientific truth and the institutional authority in which it is embedded is, after all, a form of conduct like any other, that is, something we actively do, a performance of everyday life. Being able to rationally justify certain actions and behaviours does not necessarily imply that the conduct in question actually emerged through reasoned deliberation.

 

Analogously, possessing some good reasons to trust science does not mean that our trust in science is primarily grounded in those reasons. Indeed, excessive faith in the rationality and explicability of our actions, behaviours, attitudes, and dispositions may very well function to obscure the many forces that often imperceptibly act upon us, structuring the contours of our conduct (deliberative or otherwise) in ways we are not always aware. “What an individual says he does”, Erving Goffman once declared, “or what he likes that he does, has very little bearing very often on what he actually does”. This seems to me to at the heart of Feyerabend’s concern with scientific authority, namely that trust in and adherence to scientific truth ultimately remains a moral norm, an expression of behavioural propriety. 

 

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It is routinely taken for granted that truth is a property that can be wrenched from reality and that the epistemic practices best suited to do this today are the sciences. But why precisely has the extractability of truth become such an axiomatic given? In one of his later courses at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault considered precisely this question, making use of a genre of inquiry that Martin Heidegger had dubbed the “fundamental question of metaphysics”, namely, “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Was it possible, Foucault wondered, to reframe this question in epistemic, rather than ontological terms, and to ask instead, “why, in addition to reality, is there truth?” After all, Foucault observed, truth and reality are not synonymous; reality is not the unadulterated manifestation of truth itself. Truth is instead a “supplement” to reality, a “game of veridiction” which by being added to reality, “transmutes it, transforms it”.

 

But to what end? Truth is extracted, wrested, and derived from reality. For Foucault, this extraction fulfils one particular purpose: it constrains individuals, obliging them to enact certain performances of “veridiction” or “truth acts”. Truth imposes onto reality a binding power, a “supplement of force”, an obligatory effect, irreducible to observation or deduction. To the extent that reality is presumed to simply exist or to be ontologically given, Foucault explains, it does not on its own affect or shape conduct. Truth is reality rendered in such a way as to compel and incite actions, behaviours, and attitudes.

 

This is admittedly a very unconventional take on a concept that we tend to associate simply with the logical status of epistemic content. But for Foucault, truth points to something beyond the functions of reasoning, logical deduction, and observation. “In all reasoning”, Foucault explains, “there is always this assertion that consists in saying: if it is true, then I will submit; it is true, therefore I submit; it is true, therefore I am bound”. Truth is thus not something that merely designates logical status but, rather, something which incites behaviour, an impulse to submit and oblige oneself to any content dubbed true. The real power of truth lay not in its epistemic utility or descriptive capacities but in its moral efficacy, embodied in the “therefore” that follows any veridical affirmation, as a power which acts upon one’s actions, shaping the contours of behaviour.

 

In this particular rendering, truth plays a pivotal role in what Foucault elsewhere calls the “historical ontology of ourselves”. Truth is the obligatory bind that shapes subjectivities, interiorities, and behaviours. The subject, after all, does not simply represent reality as it is given. Rather, the subject takes a stance or a position with regards to reality. Truth is what we call such a stance, a position fashioned through the binding constraint of certain truth-acts – such as knowing, professing, or enacting the truth of oneself; indeed, it is precisely the obligation or incitement to perform such truth-acts that defines what Foucault would call the very essence of subjectivity.

 

This is, furthermore, what Foucault meant by a “regime of truth”. A regime of truth is what gives to reality not only an epistemic coherence but also a moral coherence, a behavioural efficacy. Although it produces a binding effect on one’s behaviour, truth is not a form of coercion or subjugation abrogating a subject’s autonomy; it is, rather, an incitement to particular performances that relies upon, and indeed gives shape to, the freedom to act. Our tacit compliance to the forces that shape and animate our (even agential) behaviour is normally, and sometimes uncannily, a feature of ourselves that often remains just out of reach. Spinoza long ago cautioned that “a person’s judgment may be subjected to another’s in many different and sometimes almost unbelievable ways to such an extent that, even though he may not be directly under the person’s command, he may be so dependent on him that he may properly be said to be under his authority to that extent”. Regimes of truth underwrite these “unbelievable” effects of authority. 

 

One permutation of an obligatory truth-act is trust. “[T]rust is only possible where truth is possible”, writes Niklas Luhmann – trust being “the correct and appropriate starting point for the derivation of rules for proper conduct [Verhaltens]”. Trust, much like its antonym, is not a genre of deliberative behaviour but a binding obligation which demands enactment in the right ways and towards the right things. Trust, in other words, is not precipitated on epistemic grounds alone. After all, complete and absolute distrust poses no real epistemic threat, since extreme doubt does not invalidate the project of knowledge-production as such (as Descartes established in his First Meditation). The real peril of distrust, as Steven Shapin has argued, lies not in its epistemic menace but in its “moral terminus: expulsion from the community”. Trust, therefore, is the scaffolding that maintains much of the integrity and stability of the social order.

 

There are, of course, multiple forms of social trust (in governments, markets, loved ones, etc.), not all of which are reducible to expressions of epistemic confidence in science. However, as a leading – if not the leading – “regime of truth” today, science plays a dominant part in shaping the nature and attributes of trust in general. Not all trust, in other words, is epistemic trust (in science), but I would wager that epistemic trust remains a gold standard, a behavioural benchmark, against which most other modern performances of trust are measured. Trust in science, in other words, is itself grounded in a general and diffuse form of conduct which is not simply reducible to declarations of confidence in scientific knowledge production. What this implies is that doubting scientific claims does not extinguish one’s epistemic trust (in science) since this mode of conduct is perpetuated in other behaviours and performances of belief, confidence, and credulity.

 

Indeed, doubting science is not the absence of trust so much as its misdirection. As strange as it might sound, this misplaced trust nevertheless replicates the very same form of trust, the very same manner of “veridictive” or truth-enacting conduct, that was organized by a scientific regime of truth in the first place. Anti-vaxxers, climate deniers, and creationists, even as they profess scepticism towards specific scientific doctrines and norms, nevertheless still perform an underlying epistemic trust throughout much of their remaining behaviour. Their commitments to heterodox doctrines make use of the same structures of comportment, the same professions of fidelity, that we would see in scientific adherence. The fundamental form of conduct – the underlying truth-act, in other words – is the same. Why, then, would someone come to trust one doctrine over another? Whatever the reasons, we should not assume that reason alone prompts some to embrace science for, as I’ve suggested, trust in science is not itself a transparent, deliberative act, nor a singular form of behaviour. After all, performances of trust in science are themselves heterogeneous in nature; we trust science for different reasons, not all of which are lucid and sound.

 

Trust and distrust, therefore, are part and parcel of the same overlapping “games of veridiction”. Even as scientific sceptics attempt to resist the authority of science, they nevertheless adhere to core behavioural traits that are bound up with the underlying preconditions of scientific authority itself.  Science denialism as we know it today is not opposed to scientific authority but actually closely linked to the dominant regime of truth that animates that authority in the first place. For behaviours to genuinely oppose scientific authority, they would need to be instigated by entirely different truth regimes (which undoubtedly persist, even if they do not dominate); such behaviours, however, would not appear legibly deviant, oppositional, and dangerous but, instead, quite unintelligible. There likely are behaviours that we should more properly label as anti-science, but they simply appear too nonsensical to warrant moral, social, and political apprehension.

 

The power of scientific authority ultimately lies in the strength of the truth acts and behaviours that, as an expression of an underlying truth regime, it can properly choreograph, even if some of those behaviours result in explicit disavowals of scientific knowledge claims themselves. We can see in Foucault’s discussion of the regimes of truth an echo of Emile Durkheim’s definition of an “institution” as “all the beliefs and modes of behaviour [conduite] instituted by the collectivity”. If an institution is indeed nothing more than the deepest stratum of our conduct, then scientific authority as one such modern institution is located nowhere else but in the very performance, the truth-act, of trust itself. Science does not establish its authority in the content (“the truth”) that it disseminates but, rather, in the conducts that it can guide, in the truth-acts and behaviours it can engineer, behaviours which cut across scientific adherence and denialism. Trust and distrust, in other words, together comprise the conduct of scientific authority.

 

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AN UNQUESTIONED MORAL-POLITICAL INVESTMENT IN THE INVIOLABILITY OF THE VALUE OF TRUTH MAY NOT ACTUALLY STAMP OUT THE MENACE OF ANTI-SCIENCE, BUT SERVE INSTEAD TO INFLAME IT 

In examining the phenomenon of scientific scepticism today, we often overlook the commonplace reactions to these performances – namely, repudiating efforts to pathologize them and label them irrational forms of social conduct. These repudiations neglect the possibility that expressions of anti-science might be more proximate to the performance of scientific adherence than we would like to admit. Indeed, in relation to truth regimes, resistance and adherence are so interwoven that the very same conduct might express both possibilities at once. What this allows us to discern, Foucault argued, is that the inciting force of any given truth regime, however dominant it might be at any historical moment, is never in itself fated or inevitable; truth merely denotes how we are, at any moment, bound or obliged to a particular rendering of reality.

 

But what the history of truth reveals, Foucault continues, is the profound contingency, the “essential non-necessity” of any given truth regime. The history of truth is not an archaeology, as Foucault had once used term, to refer to a method of understanding the conditions of the emergence and transformation of discourses and systems of knowledge. In its “essential non-necessity”, the history of truth is instead an “anarchaeology” (an anarchistic archaeology) – a regrettably forced neologism on Foucault’s part, but one that nevertheless allowed him to endorse Feyerabend’s Against Method, lamenting to his audience at the Collège de France that although the book had been recently translated into French, “no one is talking about it”.

 

Indeed, in “How to Defend Society Against Science” Feyerabend aspirationally imagined what Foucault might have characterized as the emergence of a somewhat reformed scientific truth regime, where scientists would be “more than balanced by magicians, or priests, or astrologers”, a prospect Feyerabend admitted would be “unbearable for many people, old and young, right and left”. Our current cosmology of truth, and its impinging orchestrations of conduct, “is due to a historical accident”, Feyerabend held. “[I]t does not lie in the nature of things”.

 

This essay is in no way an apologia for anti-scientific attitudes and behaviours. Nor do I possess Feyerabend’s will-to-audacity; I do not think we should welcome “any falsehood that can aid us in the overthrow of this tyrant”. I maintain that scientific denialism is indeed perilous, though not because of the behaviours in themselves but because of the economic and socio-political commitments to which those denialisms are often attached. My aim here has been to suggest that the virulence of anti-scientific conduct may not be cured through mechanisms of educative hygiene alone, for such behaviours are not opposed to, but actually intimately bound up with the nature of scientific authority and to the conduct-inciting truth regimes upon which that authority rests. An unquestioned moral-political investment in the inviolability of the value of truth may not actually stamp out the menace of anti-science, but serve instead to inflame it.


 

Nima Bassiri is a critical theorist, historian of the human sciences, and assistant professor at Duke University. He is co-editor of Plasticity and Pathology: On the Formation of the Neural Subject (2016), and his essays have appeared in journals including Critical Inquiry, Modern Intellectual History, and the Journal of the History of Ideas. He is completing his first book, Madness and Enterprise: The Emerging Value of Pathological Conduct. 

Website: nimabassiri.com

Twitter: twitter.com/nimabassiri

From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 2 ("Authority and Knowledge"). 
Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.