Epistemic politics, knowledge warfare 

In 1965, the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow gave his infamous Rede lecture The Two Cultures in which he lamented the state of the perennial debate on the relative merits of scientific and humanistic thought. In an oft-quoted passage, Snow described asking his literary colleagues about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. “The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”[1]C P Snow and S Collini, The Two Cultures, ACLS Humanities E-Book, e-pub (Cambridge University Press (Canto Classics), 1993), chap. 1. This comical situation might seem familiar today. How many literary critics keep up with current research in mathematics? Do material scientists follow the developments in critical theory? Equally pointedly: how do gender scholars understand the basics of human biology? Do pharmaceutical researchers have the tools to consider the socio-ethical effects of their lab research?

 CP Snow in 1970. Photograph: Jane Bown.

If these latter examples court controversy, it is because I want to argue that the conflict between the disciplines is as much one of competition for who can offer the most compelling description of reality or most effectively control resources, as it is one of fundamental attitudes to what knowledge is. How, for example, is it possible for an evolutionary biologist to maintain that there are only two human sexes[2]Xi, Meimei. ‘Biology Lecturer’s Comments on Biological Sex Draw Backlash’. The Harvard Crimson, 12 August 2021. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2021/8/11/biology-lecturer-gender-comments-backlash/. but for a historian to propose that the variety of gender expressions invalidates the sex binary?[3]The Washington Times, ‘University of Toronto Historian: Biological Sex a “Very Popular Misconception”’, The Washington Times, 2016 <https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/dec/2/university-historian-biological-sex-misconception/> … see more Without evaluating the merits of their positions, I’ll observe that the two scholars are not simply making competing interpretations of the available evidence. They are, in fact, in profound disagreement over what and how it is possible for them to know. Once they have staked their positions, it is in the interest of each to insist that those epistemic beliefs are beyond the reach of politics. After all, biology looks at nature objectively by definition, right? And gender theory, surely, always produces only impeccable politics. Best, then, not to query either.

Such differences originate at the disciplines’ epistemic foundations, that is in their divergent answers to the question of what and how we can ever know about the world. We may be used to observing these disagreements as they manifest in everyday culture as in my example, but I propose that they are more appropriately understood as a matter of epistemic politics that pertains to the nature and practice of research itself. A discipline’s epistemic politics (a term I borrow from the cultural theorist Tom Holert)[4]Tom Holert, Knowledge Beside Itself: Contemporary Art’s Epistemic Politics (Sternberg Press, 2020). is the propensity of a knowledge system to engage with others on adversarial terms. And so, science’s epistemic politics suggests that there is something politically particular to how scientists know science that makes them resilient to accepting the validity of humanist thought. In the humanities, vice-versa.

Epistemic politics emanates from the very first principles of knowledge-making and its primary applications. These politics do not easily translate to the everyday politics of progressivism and conservatism. In the liberal everyday, for example, we may be perfectly capable of holding conflicting knowledges, simultaneously embracing the certainty of science when it comes to climate change and rejecting it in favour of the social construction of gender. At the level of epistemic politics, this is nothing short of cognitive dissonance.

War of the disciplines

Epistemic politics has long been mixed up with political conflict. More than five decades ago, Snow identified that the knowledge gap between the humanities and the sciences was nearly irreconcilable. Not only would the 20th century Renaissance man struggle to cover the vast ground of multiple disciplines, but he lacked the conviction to do so. By the 1960s, it had become a point of pride for literary intellectuals who were for Snow synonymous with the incumbent ruling classes to maintain a pointed ignorance of the sciences. The day’s scientists and technologists reciprocated by ignoring the basic assumptions of the humanities as they challenged the traditional forms of power. The critic Stefan Collini highlighted the intensely political nature of The Two Cultures controversy.[5]C P Snow and S Collini, The Two Cultures, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Cambridge University Press (Canto Classics), 1993). This was a time of two opposing revolutions: one technological and one social. From his bench, Snow argued that for the literary scholar to remain ignorant of the scientific could only impede human progress because the uninformed humanities would waste everybody’s time attempting to invalidate scientific thought.

The faces of the technological revolution. Photo Yngvar/Wikimedia Commons.

Harsh but fair? No wonder Snow failed to win the sympathy of his audiences and his lecture is perhaps the first exhibit in the museum of the culture wars. But the power-play he identified persists. Today, we worry about holding runaway technological innovation in check using the tools of the humanities that often prove inadequate to the task[6]Gerard Delanty and Neal Harris, ‘Critical Theory and the Question of Technology: The Frankfurt School Revisited’, Thesis Eleven, 2021, 07255136211002055 <https://doi.org/10.1177/07255136211002055>. just as Snow had predicted. In the decades since his call, disciplines have staked their positions across an ideological divide[7]T Becher and P Trowler, Academic Tribes And Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Culture of Disciplines, SRHE and Open University Press Imprint (Open University Press, 2001). in what we may observe as the politicization of the academy. 

This is a grotesquely simplified view of disciplinary discourses, but it highlights a key problem of the academy’s epistemic rifts: that each faculty’s fundamental outlooks are inescapably political. As the disciplines develop a growing range of epistemic idiosyncrasies, we ignore them at our peril.

Academic drifts

It is easy to forget that the modern academy, with its disciplinary categories and faculty divisions, is effectively an 18th-century invention. Before the advent of the Humboldtian model of the university what knowledge meant was in part a matter of local fashion. In a world in which disciplinary boundaries were porous,[8]G. E. R. Lloyd, Disciplines in the Making: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Elites, Learning, and Innovation (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). ‘real world’ politics and the politics of research were nearly synonymous. But as much as this integrated knowledge world looks like an idyll from the perspective of today’s politically polarized academy, it was but a fiction. 

However much we might pine after a knowledge culture in which different fields complement each other and compete to find the best answers in areas of common interest, as the sciences, humanities, and the arts went their ways, each carried away the conviction that its fundamental dogmas were reality’s best bet. Are such narratives the result of the ongoing marketization of the academy[9]Geoff Whitty, ‘Marketization and Post-Marketization in Education’, in Second International Handbook of Educational Change, ed. by Andy Hargreaves and others, Springer International Handbooks of Education (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, … see more that sees researchers compete for resources and attention? If so, then epistemic specialization could be understood as a productive strategy in the marketplace of ideas and it would only be natural that scientists pose and answer questions in ways unintelligible to humanists who, in turn, would have a range of subjects and idiosyncratic epistemic approaches of their own.

But market capitalism cannot be blamed for everything, and it is not merely the object of knowledge but the nature of thought itself that is in question. Epistemic politics, then, concerns not what we know, but how or even why: the human relationship to truth itself.

Interdisciplinary dystopias

In his lecture, Snow proposed investing in interdisciplinary collaborations that have become commonplace in the academy since.[10]Christina Raasch and others, ‘The Rise and Fall of Interdisciplinary Research: The Case of Open Source Innovation’, Research Policy, 42.5 (2013), 1138–51 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2013.01.010>. Could disparate knowledge forces be brought together through greater dialogue between the disciplines? To further examine the disciplines’ attitudes to knowledge is to stumble upon irreconcilable conflicts: the success of one discipline often relies on undermining the findings of another on grounds of epistemic ideology rather than evidence. This is a tactic that the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak described as epistemic violence.[11]Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–313. In the earlier question of the sex/gender binary, this tactic encompasses biology’s ideological refusal to accommodate the diversity of gender and the retaliation of critical humanities in undermining the validity of biological sex. One might seek to separate the disciplines and observe that their descriptions concern distinct aspects of a reality. But by the time we introduce a complaint of violence into the analysis, such nuance is unlikely to remain in the foreground.

How would we bring together today’s scientists and engineers with humanists and critical scholars in pursuit of unified theories when their beliefs are fundamentally misaligned? For the first camp, the idea of objective truth production and a rigorous approach to evidence is synonymous with political neutrality that nonetheless relies on the wholesale rejection of knowledges produced by the humanities and the liberal arts. For the latter, knowledge production depends on an investment in situatedness and complexity, and the freedom to disregard what to scientists look like incontrovertible facts, on grounds of the ethical and political superiority of this method.

Interdisciplinarity is difficult: any attempt to ignore the totalizing desires of competing schools of thought under its banner is at best naïve. Apart from relying on resources and conditions rarely present in the academy, interdisciplinarity requires a near-utopian non-hierarchical coming together of epistemes. But even under such rare circumstances, interdisciplinarity is not a practice for resolving the questions of epistemic politics. At best, it can create knowledge that builds an epistemic politics of its own.

Outside the ivory tower

If epistemic politics is only a minor constituent of the politics of the ballot box, does it matter outside the academy or indeed outside the rarefied discourse of epistemology? Nowhere have the conflicts of epistemic politics been more visible than in the recent arguments over the role of science in the public policy responses to Covid-19. Many political leaders repeated the mantras of ‘following the science’ while taking momentous decisions. And they would have got away with it because ‘the science’ was happy to maintain the politicians’ fiction of apoliticality as long as that fiction supported science’s epistemic politics. It took a significant amount of debate and pressure before that ‘science’ conceded that its findings weren’t always conclusive and that it had little to say about the trade-offs of policy decisions. 

The University of Oxford

And this denial of sciences’ epistemic politics did not go unnoticed as attention turned towards vaccine hesitancy and mask-mandate dissent. On the surface, some of the arguments put forward by the opponents of the more restrictive public health measures have been almost scientific in pointing to the limited evidence of vaccine safety or mask efficacy. Without suggesting that these concerns indeed have scientific grounds, shouldn’t mainstream science encourage calls for independent evaluation and effortlessly incorporate them into the balance of narratives? Aren’t questions of medication safety easily answered by well-practised evidentiary practices? 

It should, and they are, but science’s epistemic politics led it to concentrate on discrediting the political motivations of anti-vax, anti-mask, and anti-mandate sentiments rather than responding to their knowledge claims on their own grounds. In its misguided bid to appear apolitical while so doing, ‘the science’ gave up its ability to engage with fundamental questions such as the relationship between scientific determinism and human autonomy. As a result, science’s attempts of fighting misinformation proved to be largely ineffective and science was left open to attacks from disciplines with conflicting ideological priorities.

This is important because a science unaware of its own epistemic politics cannot participate in politics proper. And yet, the self-preservation instinct of scientists is to deny the possibility of any bias in knowledge-making politics. Latour and Woolgar’s 1979 exposé of the socially constructed nature of scientific practice[12]Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, 2013. did not convince scientists that their universalist and determinist paths to knowledge were more winding than they may have thought. If anything, the idea that science may be in some sense human-made has invited defences like Jonathan Rauch’s recent The Constitution of Knowledge[13]Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2021). which argues that scientific reason should be protected from corrupting social ideologies.[14]Laura Ford addresses some of the political limitations of this approach in her review of Rauch’s book. Laura Ford, ‘The Limits of Liberal Science’, The Bulwark, 4 November 2021, https://www.thebulwark.com/the-limits-of-liberal-science/ Which knowledge and whose politics take primacy when such differences remain unresolved?

At the limits of knowledge

In his recent work, the philosopher Nathan Ballantyne has addressed the problems of intellectual trespass and humility that affect scholars of all disciplines and the difficulty they pose for lay members of the public navigating between logically exclusive epistemic regimes.[15]Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Epistemic Trespassing’, Mind, 128.510 (2019), 367–95 <https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzx042>; Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Recent Work on Intellectual Humility: A Philosopher’s Perspective’, The Journal of … see more The bad news is that even knowing when one has considered enough evidence to solve a particular problem requires a high degree of epistemic flexibility. If we accept that choosing where to place one’s trust is an inherently political decision for a layperson, why wouldn’t we assume an even greater level of political investment of a scholar? 

Of course, this problem is present in the humanities and the liberal arts just as readily as it appeared in the sciences. The gender and sex debates that I alluded to are another example of political action hiding behind a ‘pure knowledge’ discourse. In one of her YouTube appearances, the feminist critic Camille Paglia lamented the fact that gender studies refused to involve biologists in mapping the field at the outset.[16]Camille Paglia and Jordan Peterson, ‘Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson’, 2017 <https://youtu.be/v-hIVnmUdXM?t=1701> [accessed 18 September 2021]. This is another example of a discipline excluding whole classes of evidence on political grounds. It isn’t that gender studies lack the understanding of biological sex: their epistemic politics dictates that they must deny the epistemic validity of thinking about their central question in scientific terms.

This epistemic politics comes long before the radical politics of that we recognize in liberation discourses of the critical humanities. So much so that the profoundly partisan politics of gender studies can be understood as a mere byproduct of the discipline’s epistemic disposition. And as with science, the political claims of the humanities are often unfounded: when humanistic disciplines present themselves as political antidotes to forms of fascism, they do so in a propagandistic manner that does little to support knowledge production, let alone the integration of disparate epistemic systems.

Like in my example of the vaccination drive, the success of gender constructionism relies on the complete invalidation of biology’s epistemic methods because the social theory of gender is unwilling to question its own epistemic politics in a manner legible to its perceived adversaries. As science inadvertently contributed to the anti-science sentiments of anti-vaxxers, so does the political certainty of gender theory give rise to the very opposition it seeks to fight.

Sometimes this has unexpected and far-reaching consequences. Even the law, a practice intimately concerned with the nature of truth and invested in translating epistemic politics into politics proper has fallen foul of the clash of the disciplines. The American Civil Liberties Union’s recontextualization of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s position on the nature of the bodily autonomy of women is just one example of the epistemic drift from the positivist to the constructed notion of what makes a woman.[17]Michael Powell, ‘A.C.L.U. Apologizes for Tweet That Altered Quote by Justice Ginsburg’, The New York Times, 28 September 2021, section U.S. <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/27/us/aclu-apologizes-ginsburg-quote.html> [accessed 1 … see more By the time it came to Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s SCOTUS confirmation, the question was moot.[18]Jonathan Weisman, ‘A Demand to Define “Woman” Injects Gender Politics into Jackson’s Confirmation Hearings.’, The New York Times, 23 March 2022, sec. U.S., … see more

Whichever side one takes in the real-world politics of this issue, the fact that these legal arguments rely on unresolved epistemic conflicts can only be a weakness. To some, epistemic polarization may appear as an opportunity for subversion, but it leads to a dead end. And as science’s vaccination campaigns run aground because they couldn’t contend with politics, I believe that the epistemic politics of the politics of gender will falter because it is not open to anything other than a predetermined set of radical progressive politics.

Staking our claims again

It was ever thus. That politics rules the epistemic is evident from the historical record of knowledge breakthroughs. Did the Catholic Church, for example, refuse to acknowledge Galileo’s work because it wasn’t convinced by his arguments or because its power relied on not sharing an epistemic primacy with mere mortals? But such gains as those of the Church are short-lived and if we allow this epistemic struggle to continue, we may be trading claims of political neutrality and supremacy ad infinitum. Or, perhaps, we could try and find ways of breaking out of it. 

To do so, we must stop treating our epistemic toolkits as politically determined and refrain from delegating the politics of knowledges to the fields of their application where their discourse is inevitably adversarial. Would it not be easier to acknowledge our politics and then treat its forays into other fields as acts of epistemic and political trespass over which we must maintain full ethical control? I am not suggesting ridding the academy of politics. On the contrary, I call for making its epistemic politics active and transparent at a much more fundamental level.

Many formidable attempts to employ this method have already been made. Kathryn Paige Harden’s recent book The Genetic Lottery,[19]Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, 2021. for example, builds a humanist argument from scientific data. Beyond its urgent topicality, the greatest value of this work is that it is explicit about the political dimension of its epistemic approach and therefore it can test its thesis outside its customary controlled (and limited) environment.

In Humanist Reason, a rousing manifesto for the reconfiguration of the humanist method, Eric Hayot questions his discipline’s oppositional epistemic politics. Do humanities scholars today truly believe that gravity or biology are merely social constructs?[20]E Hayot, Humanist Reason: A History. an Argument. a Plan (Columbia University Press, 2021). Perhaps not. Hayot challenges the stasis of pretending to earnestly hold such irrational beliefs just because it is easier than re-reading Isaac Newton. The stalemate is systemic: a critical studies scholar would be out of a job if they were to concede the validity of scientific evidence that contravenes their own episteme’s assumptions. Likewise, any scientist despairing at the difficulties of applying the neatly deterministic solutions of science in the social realm may benefit from simply ignoring the unruly complexities of the real world.

Eric Hayot’s Humanist Reason

The key concern is not merely that the humanities and the sciences do not readily engage with dissenting forms of knowledge production, but that they fail to see their own worldviews as negotiable. This is because most knowledge understands itself as is produced through the application of only a singular set of epistemic tools. Science must owe nothing to poetry, the humanities would rather mathematics didn’t exist. Hayot’s response is to confront the humanities with an epistemic challenge that stems from within, reframing their epistemic politics in a manner that acknowledges the arbitrary nature of their dogma. To maintain its command over knowledge, any practice must continuously question its most basic assumptions. 

I may be displaying my own naïve bias here: I took my first degree in Physics and am currently writing a doctoral thesis in the liberal arts, but my training in neither began with an in-depth discussion of their epistemic positions. I could flatter myself that like C.P. Snow I am well-equipped to evaluate ideas using the tools of their political opponents, but this could be an illusion (Snow was far less successful as a scientist than as a man of letters). To know as a scientist and a humanist at once is difficult. To do politics, much easier.

Notes[+]