The current climate of scepticism towards ‘experts’ has put many research practitioners and users on the defensive.  Is it enough simply to assert the value of rigorous methods, or should we be checking, sharpening and improving our tools?  If ‘post-truth’ carries real meaning then the pressure is on researchers to find a positive response – such as clearly communicating our findings and why they matter; and demonstrating how high standards in design, conduct and analysis are built in to our research.

At this stage we are looking for up to 500 words to describe and explain what you’d like to present – with a focus on one or more of these topic areas:

  • Getting the message across
  • The value of narratives
  • Policy evaluation
  • Embedding quality assurance
  • The value of quality in evidence
  • Qualitative innovation
  • Quantitative innovation
  • Involving research participants
  • Dealing with the unexpected

The deadline for submissions is Monday 7 August.  The SRA Events Group will assess all entries and aim to let you know the outcome in September/October.

Presentations will be in parallel workshop sessions of 20 minutes (followed by a 10 minute Q&A).  One presenter per submission will pay a reduced delegate rate of £55.

Abstracts and other details must be submitted using the template Word doc that can be downloaded on our website here:  www.the-sra.org.uk/events

We hope you will consider making a submission for the conference.  And of course please feel free to share this call with colleagues and networks.

Call for Proposals

BAAL Language and New Media Sig Annual Meeting

MINI-CONFERENCE

Language, New Media and Alt.Realities

April 21, 2017

University of Reading

Proposals are invited for 20 minute paper presentations as well as posters/web-based presentations addressing the theme of ‘language, new media and alt.realties’.

Possible areas of interest include:

·       New media epistemologies and ontologies

·       New media discourse and political polarisation

·       Algorithmic pragmatics and political debate

·       Authoritarian and populist discourses online

·       ‘Trolling’ as a form of political discourse

·       Agnotology (the cultural construction of ignorance)

·       The crisis of ‘expertise’

·       ‘Fake news’ and ‘clickbait’

·       Hacking and disinformation

·       Infotainment and spectacle

·       Conspiracy theories and memes

·       Journalism in the age of social media

Please send your proposals in the form of a 250-word abstract to Prof Rodney Jones, University of Reading r.h.jones@reading.ac.uk <mailto:r.h.jones@reading.ac.uk>.

Deadline for Submitting Proposals: April 5, 2017

What we are seeing with the growth of ‘fake news’ is perhaps the weaponisation of epistemology. In other words, ‘fake news’ as a construct is becoming a discursive component of our repertoire of contention. Far from entering a post-truth era, we are seeing truth becoming a mobilising device in a new way, encouraging ‘us’ to defend ourselves from ‘them’ predicated on the absolute falsity of their worldview. It’s the playing out in an epistemic register of what Chantal Mouffe, drawing on Carl Schmitt, describes as a friend/enemy distinction. Rather than the political other being an adversary to be struggled against, nonetheless regarded as legitimate, they are cast as an enemy to be destroyed. Rush Limbaugh offered a pure expression of the epistemological logic of the friend/enemy distinction in this 2009 rant:

What this fraud, what the uncovering of this hoax, exposes,” he said, “is the corruption that exists between government and academia and science and the media. Science has been corrupted. We know the media has been corrupted for a long time. Academia has been corrupted. None of what they do is real. It’s all lies!

We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/3/22/14762030/donald-trump-tribal-epistemology

The origins of this can be understood agnotologically: neo-sophists, with corporate funding, seeking to manufacture doubt where none previously existed. What’s being described as post-truth emerges at the intersection between corporate agnotology, political polarisation and post-democracy. The possibility to weaponise epistemology emerges coterminously with the breakdown of social solidarity. Agnotology contributes to the erosion of shared certainties in cumulative ways. It creates the conditions for what David Roberts calls tribal epistemology:

Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House.

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/3/22/14762030/donald-trump-tribal-epistemology

What I’m suggesting is that at this point we see epistemology move from being an elite weapon of war to part of the repertoire of contention. Once Trump begins to seriously struggle, how easy is it to imagine Whitehouse statements being dismissed as ‘fake news’ by the grassroots they used this notion to mobilise? How effectively could a nascent leader use this epistemic playbook against those who have brought it into the mainstream? As Roberts points out, this is a cultural tendency which has been present in American politics for quite some time:

That is the classic, some might say naive, view. But there has always been a powerful strain in conservatism (think the John Birch Society) that resists seeing itself as a participant in the game at all. It sees the game itself, its rules and referees, as captured by the other side, operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of transpartisan authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which one tribe seeks to dominate another.

That’s the view Limbaugh and others in right-wing media have consistently articulated. And it has found an increasingly receptive audience. Over time, the right’s base — unlike the left’s fractious and heterogeneous coalition of interest groups — has become increasingly homogeneous (mostly white, non-urban, and Christian) and like-minded (traditionalist, zero-sum values).

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/3/22/14762030/donald-trump-tribal-epistemology

The friend/enemy distinction is, for lack of a better term, viral. At least under current conditions. Once people begin to think in these terms, it’s hard to counter it. Not least of all because reluctantly accepting the ‘rules of the game’ inevitably comes to be coded as either giving up or buying in. The reason for this is in part epistemological because tribal epistemology destroys the possibility for syncretism: people can no longer see A and B as elements that can be combined, even if unstable and contested ways. Instead and become an absolute disjunction. One sees the social world in terms that allow for no choice other than to choose between positions. The playing out of this, in the digital capitalism of 2017, rather terrifies me.

As the workings of civil society are being disrupted by the challenges of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and notions of post-truth, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Journal has decided to devote a special issue to this topic. Our approach is broad; the flow of information is fundamental to civil society and that flow and its interactions with the structures of society and the individuals in society takes many forms. The following list is by no means exhaustive: Journalism (and fact checking); Cultural Studies and the World of Make-Believe; the scientific record and predatory publishing; climate change and climate deniers; Civic literacy and democracy; Public Relations and Spin; social media, experience and opinion; state strategy and astro-turfing; the new right and post-facts; dramaturgy of post-factoids …
We are calling for papers between 4,000 and 8,000 words which reflect in some way on the concepts of alternative facts/fake news/post truth either on our understandings of civil society or on professional practices within civil society.

Our deadline for submission is Friday 31 March. Decisions on acceptance will be communicated by 28 April. The issue will be published in July 2017.

See the journal at:

http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/mcs

For more information please contact Hilary Yerby at: Hilary.yerby@uts.edu.au

In The Making of Donald Trump, David Johnston identifies the tactics used by Trump to deflect inquiries into his many shady dealings and questionable decisions. Sometimes this is a matter of outright threats, with an enthusiasm for litigation (1,900 suits as plaintiffs coupled with an explicitly articulated philosophy of vengeance proving a dangerous combination for any who dare to cross him. But somewhat contrary to his public image as a blundering fool, he is often much more subtle than this, engaging in strategies of deflection and misdirection with all the deftness of the most accomplished public relations manager. In other cases, it just becomes weird, with Trump willing to publicly deny that a recording he had previously admitted to be of his own voice was anything other than a hoax:

This combination of viciousness, skilfulness and brazenness has left him insulated from meaningful scrutiny. But what has he averted in this way? What might have happened but hasn’t? On page 154 Johnston offers a description which has caught my imagination:

Together, these strategies – muddying the facts and deflecting inquiries into past conduct – help ensure that Trump’s carefully crafted public persona will not be unmade. He will not suffer the curtain to be pulled back to reveal a man who tricked society into thinking he was all wise and all powerful.

This public persona which has been crafted, sometimes deliberately while at other times impulsively, remains intact. I’m interested in what such a ‘pulling back of the curtain’ requires to be effective: the sustained attention of an audience, a sufficient familiarity with the person(a) in question, a prolonged campaign to sort fact from fiction and a lack of contestation concerning this process of sorting.

What is being framed somewhat unhelpfully as a ‘post-truth era’ are the conditions under which this ceases to be possible. There’s lots of ways in which we could try and explain them, not all of which are necessarily mutually exclusive. The collapse of authority in late modernity. The acceleration of communication. The weakening of journalism and the dominance of public relations. Theories of social change should be able to account for the specifics of such cases, rather than simply allowing them to be rendered thematically.

In his InfoGlut, Mark Andrejevic takes issue with the assumption that fostering ‘disbelief’ or ‘challenge’ is necessarily subversive.  As he puts it, “strategies of debunkery and information proliferation can work to reinforce, rather than threaten, relations of power and control” (loc 293). Recognising this in the abstract is important but I intend to read more about the specific cases in which these tactics are used regressively, as I’m increasingly fascinated by the extent to which these tactics are informed (or not) by epistemological and ontological understandings (even if these words are not used).

Under these conditions, what  Andrejevic describes as the ‘big data divide’ seems ever more prescient by the day. From loc 464:

The dystopian version of information glut anticipates a world in which control over the tremendous amount of information generated by interactive devices is concentrated in the hands of the few who use it to sort, manage, and manipulate. Those without access to the database are left with the “poor person’s” strategies for cutting through the clutter: gut instinct, affective response, and “thin- slicing” (making a snap decision based on a tiny fraction of the evidence). The asymmetric strategies for using data highlight an all- too- often overlooked truth of the digital era: infrastructure matters. Behind the airy rhetoric of “the cloud,” the factories of the big data era are sprouting up across the landscape: huge server farms that consume as much energy as a small city. Here is where data is put to work – generating correlations and patterns, shaping decisions and sorting people into categories for marketers, employers, intelligence agencies, healthcare providers, financial institutions, the police, and so on. Herein resides an important dimension of the knowledge asymmetry of the big data era – the divide between those who generate the data and those who put it to use by turning it back upon the population. This divide is, at least in part, an infrastructural one shaped by ownership and control of the material resources for data storage and mining. But it is also an epistemological one –a difference in the forms of practical knowledge available to those with access to the database, in the way they think about and use information.

 

This 4S panel looks fascinating:

I’d like to invite you to consider submitting a paper abstract to the panel
I’m co-convening for 4S in Boston this year.

Abstracts are due March 1.

It would be great to have critical internet/digital media studies folks
working with STS to speak to the themes of this panel. Rich, timely topic!
We need your good work!

Thanks for your consideration ~

Monika Sengul-Jones & Amanda Menking

*89. Feelings and Doubt in Technoscience*

*Organized by:* Monika Sengul-Jones, UC San Diego; Amanda Menking,
University of Washington

“Post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016. This
neologism refers to how appeals to emotion—and even deliberate
deception—influence the ignorance of, or rejection of facts. Feelings, and
subjectivities more generally, have long been a focus of STS work. STS
scholars have sought to mete out the complex relationships between
positionality, affects, and networks that lead to knowledge-making claims
and their role in truth-regimes. This panel seeks to address our
contemporary moment’s crises about “truth” in critical retrospective: to
use the methodological tools of STS to offer a nuanced examination of the
longstanding, complex relationships between feelings and doubts about
technoscience historically and today. This panel invites papers that speak
to a range of topics including: feelings of morality and postcolonialism
(see Schiebinger 2004); the feelings that engender the spread of ignorance
(see Proctor 2016); gender, feelings, and science (Harding 1991; Keller
1983); entanglements of affects and biology (Wilson, 2015); commercial
industries and doubt about scientific consensus (Oreskes and Conway 2011);
and gender and attachments to personal beliefs, such as vaccinations (see
Reich 2014). This panel will facilitate inter-generational conversations
around an important topic harmonized with the theme of 4S in 2017.
“Feelings and Doubt in Technoscience” will interrogate thoughtfully and
reflectively the conference’s call to bring attention to “(in)sensibilities
of contemporary technoscience,” by addressing the technological and
cultural means by which feelings about technoscience lead to it being
ridiculed as nonsense, marshaled to incense, and/or make sense.

Rarely can a film have been as timely as Denial. It tells the story of the libel action the holocaust denying historian David Irving took against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, alleging that she had damaged his professional reputation as a historian by claiming he had wilfully distorted evidence. The film recounts the events leading up to the trial, before focusing on the trial itself and ending with the judge’s ruling that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism…[4][65] therefore the defence of justification succeeds…[5] It follows that there must be judgment for the Defendants.[66]

The film seems remarkably salient at a time when the liberal punditry seems to have uniformly endorsed the notion that we have entered a post-truth era, concisely defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief“. The importance of truth, the urgency of fighting for it, runs through the film and is explicitly invoked in the framing of it as a cultural product, as Rachel Weisz makes clear here: “It’s a true story, it’s a fight for truth and justice“.

The writer David Hare expands on this point in the same clip, explaining how “it’s not based on a true story, it is a true story … the words from the trial are the exact words. I don’t attribute to David Irving any line that he is not on record as having said, everything he says, we know he said“. It was great to discover this because I found the trial scenes riveting, though found it hard to wonder if the whole thing would have worked better on stage. The film seems to have underwhelmed critics, rather unfairly from my point of view, perhaps suggesting it was motivated by a commitment to realism of a sort liable to prove underwhelming on the big screen. However what struck me most about the film was the epistemological confusion underlying it, something which I think reflects a lot about the contemporary discourse of ‘post-truth’ and its limitations.

The avowed realism of the film obscures the inevitable cuts that the constraints of story telling necessitate. Irving had sued another historian at the same time, though the case did not go to court. He threatened a further historian with libel if passages concerning him weren’t removed from an upcoming book, prompting an American edition to be published with them but their erasure from the British edition. My point is not to criticise the film for excluding these details, despite their obvious relevance to the story, as much as to highlight the exclusions inherent in narrative. Likewise, with the court case itself, where the selection of a few incidents from a long trial were expertly used to dramatic effect. Again, these aren’t criticisms, just a reminder that even factual narratives (a term I prefer to ‘true story’) inevitably entail selecting from the pool of available facts, within the (media and genre specific) constraints of effective story-telling.

Much of the film can be read in terms of rallying forces for a defence of truth. The drama of the film rests on success in this endeavour, after overcoming much initial adversity. But framing the hard-drinking, hard-thinking Scottish barrister as a hero sits oddly with the commitment to truth in the film. After all, he’s lionised for his rhetorical skills, his capacity to pick apart the authority of Irving in a performatively compelling way. His most succesful tactics have nothing to do with the presentation of evidence, but rather involve getting under Irving’s skin in order to unsettle and undermine him. The concern here is not truth but persuasion. Specifically, the persuasion of a solitary judge, after Irving the litigant was persuaded to dispense with the jury because both sides agreed that the common folk could not be trusted to adjudicate on the truth when the relevant facts were as complex as they were in this case. Furthermore, the only thing that ensures the barrister is not cast as a mercenary is his deep commitment to this truth. This is slowly established over the course of the film, with Lipstadt eventually discovering that this is not just ‘another brief’ for him after all.

What made this film impressive to me was the way in which it explored the mechanics of persuasion in court, specifically how it was established convincingly that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence in order to establish the case for holocaust denial. In other words, it concerned the discursive machinery through which facts are consecrated and rendered socially efficacious. The apparent narratological inevitably of this being accompanied by a paean to truth speaks volumes about what has come to be accepted as ‘post-truth’. We might speak more accurately of post-fact. This is how Will Davies framed it in a New York times essay:

Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.

But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.

The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html?_r=0

The declining efficacy of facts is understood to be problematic because it undermines appreciation of truth. But reality always permits of multiple characterisations. As Roy Bhaskar put it on pg 55 of Reclaming Reality, “facts are things, but they are social not natural things, belonging to the transitive world of science, not the intransitive world of nature”. Facts are produced through interventions in the world, drawing on the labour of others and applying conceptual tools we rarely built ourselves. This is why a serious discussion of someone like Irving cannot avoid interrogating his proclaimed status as a professional historian, what this means and how it should shape our assessment of his capacity to marshal facts in authoritative ways. Indeed, this was crucial to making the case against him.

But if we see facts as self-grounded things, already made and waiting in the world to be discovered, it becomes difficult to acknowledge this. This might not matter when ‘our’ facts are socially efficacious, happily endorsed by all those we encounter and reflected back to us as common sense in the culture we engage with. But when these start to break down, the construction of ‘truth’ faces a fundamental tension: if facts are given then conflict over them must in some way reflect non-factual considerations, but if non-factual considerations consistently influence ‘matters of fact’ then facts cannot be given. This creates a crisis when we reach a situation in which facts have been ubiquitously weaponised. As Davies put it, “If you really want to find an expert willing to endorse a fact, and have sufficient money or political clout behind you, you probably can”.

This inconvenient truth could be ignored as long as there was a consensus in place. One which has now broken down, with the apparent mystery of our ‘post-truth’ era going hand-in-hand with a profound mystification of the political dimensions to how the consensual era of ‘truth’ preceding it was established. My point in writing this isn’t to preach constructionism. I share the ethos of Bhaskar’s book, one of the most powerful works of philosophy I’ve read: reclaim reality. Reclaiming reality involves recognising the reality of social construction, but resisting the dissolution of ‘truth’ into this. Figures like Irving thrive in the space opened up by the antinomies of (post)truth. If we reclaim reality, we can starve them at an epistemological level, before defeating them at a political level.