Arrogant and gullible
In addition to the antagonism between right and left, there are others to which we should pay more attention. One of those great confrontations is the one that pits the arrogant against the credulous, those who trust too much in knowledge against those who trust too little in it and believe anything. When the political battle is carried out in the territory of knowledge there is nothing strange that, in addition to the disputes between the experts, a bizarre rejection of knowledge in general appears, which today adopts very different forms of skepticism and credulity, such as disinformation. , denialism or conspiracy theories. All this would not happen if there had not been a phenomenon of epistemologization of the political that has very positive aspects and other dysfunctional ones.
Nothing seems better to combat our particular confusion than to understand political conflicts, primarily or exclusively, as epistemic matters, that is, as questions of knowledge and competence; Within this framework, the problems of democracy are interpreted as a consequence of the ignorance of the people or the incompetence of the politicians. The central question would then be to determine who has the best knowledge or expert knowledge, the most accurate figures, the correct interpretation of the data, who is more competent. The problems of an overloaded or incapable policy would be solved by delegating more and more matters to the guild of experts. Social conflicts turn into conflicts between experts of various kinds and are resolved based on the reliability of the data they wield. The disparity around values and interests is parked or is not made explicit because methodical and safe knowledge is considered to be a major source of legitimation. This trend reflects the nostalgia for an interest-free policy where everything was resolved with objectivity, scientific evidence, and expert consensus. Policy would no longer consist of organizing majorities and forging compromises to temporarily resolve differences of values and interests, but rather of identifying who knows or is more competent.
We would thus be facing a new version of the old dream of rationalizing politics, its desire to strip politics of the political, that is, of managing conflicting interests, making decisions with insufficient knowledge and effort. for achieving sustainable commitments. Behind it all is the assumption that there is a direct path from evidence to correct policy. This is an unfounded belief, since nothing guarantees us that the best knowledge will lead to the best policy. It is possible to have good expert knowledge and make a bad policy. The fact that a good part of political decisions try to justify themselves by appealing to evidence does not mean that they are necessarily available. And even if there were indisputable scientific knowledge, a specific political decision does not automatically follow from the scientific verification of certain facts. Would this epistemocratic context somehow explain the apparently contrary phenomenon of what we generically call negationism? In my opinion, yes. Resistance to the colonization of society by science has very reasonable aspects (response to experts, precautions against technology …) and other disturbing aspects. This movement tells us something about the dark side of the knowledge society. Conspiracy theories and so-called “alternative facts” are virulent where data, numbers and expert knowledge play a dominant role in deciding the right policy.
In many sectors of society, the idea that science has gradually become an institution that decides without legitimacy on what is technically feasible, what is economically profitable and what is politically convenient has been established. The rebellion of the deniers can be interpreted as a reaction against the colonization of politics by the experts, regardless of how reasonable their recommendations may be in each specific case. The deniers, although they are not right, inform us about the risks posed by the dissolution of politics in a dispute over objectivity, which they politicize, they question the scientification of reality, despite the fact that they do so a completely irrational way. The proliferation of conspiracy theories and misinformation during the coronavirus crisis can be understood as an ideological reaction to a policy dictated by epidemiology and virology in a way that became unassailable except by taking all science ahead; what could have been political protests turned into an unscientific demonstration; it was the reaction against a supposedly authorized instance that tried to dictate what was real, rational and political.
What do we do, then, with the deniers? The best way to combat denialism is not so much to insist on the truth that they deny as to re-politicize conflicts and allow an articulation between facts and decisions that is not seen as an imposition, but as an exercise of freedom. There are objective facts, of course, but there is also the political freedom that is reflected in the fact that these facts, except in exceptional cases, do not oblige us to submit to a single policy. It would be as absurd to not take into account the scientific knowledge available as to fail to explore the options that this knowledge allows. Presenting politics as a constriction (justified in a supposed indisputable knowledge, in the final authority of the experts or appealing to a context that does not allow otherwise) has the consequence that those who answer it (sometimes, from delusional positions) appear as the defenders of freedom. Of course it is very important that political decisions are well informed, but that is something that is achieved with a greater circulation of knowledge, plurality in the media and a culture of debate, not excluding those considered stupid.
It is logical that in the post-factual constellation science has great authority, since a good part of political disputes are played on its terrain, but exaggerating its role in an epistocratic regime may not be good either for science or for science. politics. Putting science in its place is a recognition and appreciation that prevents its degradation into a mere instrument of power. Science must be presented with due modesty and politics must be right in communicating adequately the risks that we still have to learn to manage (and the confusion surrounding the reliability of the AstraZeneca vaccine is the most eloquent example of how much remains to be learned). Although they may be fools, those who despise science warn us that it may not be well articulated with politics and society. This protest is useful for democracy insofar as it reminds us that dissolving political problems into cognitive problems leaves those problems unsolved. Democracy is a political system that supports much more ignorance than we suppose; When it is well designed and its political culture is alive, it can afford the luxury of trial and error, even surviving the incompetence of the representatives and the irrationality of the people.
Daniel Innerarity He is a professor of Political Philosophy and an Ikerbasque researcher at the University of the Basque Country.