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[+]

On not being led by The Science

I do not experience any joy at needing to write this text. The ideas that I am about to engage with are neither revelatory nor original. My exposition will be detailed and lengthy because the subject matter relies on nuance and the congruity of opposing ideas. My thesis, however, is simple: the scientific method is vulnerable to social influence, politics is socially driven even when it claims it isn’t, and under conditions of stress both, as well as our individual decisions, can be less rational than we’d like to believe. I feel that for some of my friends and acquaintances who are gripped by fear or ideological fervour even in the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, an introduction to the ideas of the philosophy of science and basic ideas of political decision-making may be of some use. I will attempt to convince you that the rationality of science has been a myth that has led you, your government, and your scientists into a potentially perilous territory in which ideological decisions masquerade as benevolent reason.


“We have, of course, been following the science throughout the pandemic.” This once reassuring refrain from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, adopted and adapted by politicians and public health officials around the world, has had to do a lot of work in the past two years. It became the background for demands like stay home, save lives and get boosted now. It has also had to cover for a lot of politics, including at one time the prioritising of health over the economy, at another the opening of the economy despite ongoing public health concerns. Once, ‘the science’ justified delegating the responsibility for interpreting public health principles to individuals, shops, or opera houses, while at another it called for tight state control over daily life. Science has had to be flexible enough to allow for exemptions and excuses, as well as the odd media bust-up of politicians in Christmas party hats.

In as much as Johnson’s mantra has attracted widespread derision, its ongoing success in motivating public health policy points to a fundamental need that we all feel in navigating the second year of the pandemic: it all must have been for a reason. ‘The science’ did the demanding work of shaping the public realm but it also helped us all individually. We want to understand the pandemic in terms that relate to our rational understanding of the world, we need to see our reaction to it as reasonable, and we hope that by ‘following the science,’ we too are giving ourselves the best chance of coming out unscathed. Who decides to barricade themselves at home for weeks unless there is a good reason for it? Who wants their five-year-old to wear a mask in kindergarten unless a scientist suggests that they should? This is why ‘in this house, we believe that science is real’: without it, we could not account for our individual and collective behaviours. 

Is there a limit to what we can expect from science? Would we know if we have passed the threshold of reason? How can we be sure that while shaping political and personal decisions, science remains independent, transparent, consistent, benevolent, unambiguous, and preferably easy-to-understand? These are some fundamental questions to ask of science that become even more crucial when ‘the science’ paradigm takes centre stage. I will hazard some answers. Yes, there is an end to any science of the day and politics permeates its boundary. No, we are no good at knowing when we are out of our depth and where we have abandoned reason. And no, again, we cannot expect science to answer our questions in a way that we ask ‘the science’ to. Not the questions we are asking right now, in any case. 

Of course, this does not mean that the pandemic is a hoax or that the vaccination programmes are a conspiracy. The scientific method is not in trouble. However, it does mean that when you spent your Christmas lunch trying to out fact-check your vaccine-sceptical uncle or cited studies to argue with your brother about the effects of mask-wearing, you were relying on what is at best good taste in authority figures and at worst a naïve belief in how science works. And this is likely the case even if you happen to be an epidemiologist.

I am not merely accusing most of us of a profound collective lack of scientific literacy: the reasons are more difficult to overcome. There is a fundamental mismatch between the complexity of science, its public application, and how we individually experience it. We’re lost in ‘the science’ because there is a great distance between data, scientific theory, medical advice, public health policy, and finally, implementation. Each point of this value change involves uncertainty, error, belief and bias, potential for corruption and miscommunication, or may simply be subject to handling with a lack of expertise.

As a result, we are witnessing first-hand a breakdown between the complex nature of scientific practice and how we are individually and institutionally prepared to act on it. Consider the following sequence of questions, all of which have contributed to shaping our responses to the pandemic. Does 5G cause Covid-19? How does the vaccine work? Do lockdowns speed up or slow down the mutation of the virus? When a booster jab decreases the likelihood of hospitalisation by 70% but increases transmissibility two-fold, what can you learn about the new variant if you observe it within the conditions of a circuit-breaker lockdown? Would prioritising vaccinating everyone worldwide over boosting certain populations still have been a better idea, now that we know of the Omicron variant? What can you say about the relative benefits of prevention programmes of Florida and New York, given their different climates, population density and demographics, and different approaches to public service provision?

Each of these questions, either already answered or answerable in principle, relies on a different level of engagement with the scientific method and the predictions of a vast array of scientific processes. To understand how we may continue to make decisions under the conditions of uncertainty, three questions are relevant: does it matter if we understand the science, does it matter if our politicians do, and do scientists themselves know what they’re talking about? I will attempt to address these problems in reverse, beginning at the source of ‘the science’.

The Science doesn’t exist

Beginning with a consideration of the scientific method itself seems necessary given the proliferation of scientific and pseudoscientific claims that the pandemic has attracted. What we commonly refer to as science, put simply, is a set of processes described by Isaac Newton in the 17th century aimed at confirming theoretical hypotheses through observation, data gathering, and analysis, twinned with scepticism and neutrality towards any set of results.[1]Newton, Isaac. Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1st ed., 1687. This is the science we know from our school science classes in which we saw with our own eyes that a feather falls to the ground just as quickly as a stone in a vacuum tube and the science that allows a simple pill to alleviate our headaches. Simple, tested, observable, rational, and all the result of generations of iterative developments.

Seen in this light, science is the engine of progress, providing answers to ever more challenging questions. Indeed, the stories of medicine or engineering have inspired plenty of confidence in science’s ability to solve increasingly challenging problems. Science put humans on the moon. Science will, eventually, cure cancer. However, the idea that the scientific method as it is daily practised by thousands of researchers, theorists, lab technicians, and data analysts in a vast array of disciplines is in and of itself directed towards some greater good is naïve. In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn suggested that the scientific method is incompatible with inevitable progress because any significant re-evaluation of an accepted scientific truth may at any point change the course of development.[2]T S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, ISSR Collection (University of Chicago Press, 1996). A decade later, Bruno Latour’s and Steve Woolgar’s observation of Laboratory Life suggested that far from being driven by some grand search for truth, scientists approach their work with the same prosaic attitudes and social pressures as the rest of us.[3]Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific FactsLaboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, 2013. Not much later, Peter Freyerband argued Against Method that the understanding of the social constructions of knowledge posed a significant threat to the ideal of the scientific method altogether, proposing that it be replaced with a theory more familiar from the humanities.[4]Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (Atlantic Highlands, N.J: Humanities Press, 1975). Together, such accounts should have changed plenty of how those of us who do not practice science try to understand it. For those, like me, who have been trained in science, it should have drastically altered the way we are taught.

These observations point to a certain fallibility of the scientific method: scientific disciplines are not any more isolated from human, social, or political influence than their counterparts in the arts and humanities. At a base level, science remains a practice of judgment based on the evaluation of clear-cut evidence. Evidence, however, takes many shapes and forms, presents different degrees of confidence, makes itself subject to some types of scrutiny more readily than others, and is always subject to human manipulation. This inescapably means that in its iterations, the scientific method relies in part on trust, that is on knowing which knowledge and expertise, including their own, a scientist may take for granted, and where they are better off deferring to others or reserving their own. Nathan Ballantyne’s recent work on epistemic trespass and humility suggests that many may struggle with finding the right balance in making such calls, not because scientists are more prone to error than non-scientists, but because much of contemporary scientific research relies on the synthesis of the knowledges from multiple disciplines and fields.[5]Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Epistemic Trespassing’, Mind 128, no. 510 (2019): 367–95, https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzx042. [6]Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Recent Work on Intellectual Humility: A Philosopher’s Perspective’, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5 September 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2021.1940252.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The scientific disciplines also have their internal politics. Take, for example, the competition for funding of various research endeavours, or the competition for publication and attention within the community itself. Science, like other branches of knowledge, thrives on novelty, bold claims, and a degree of glamour. That this is prone to produce deeply flawed knowledge should be evident from the 1989 cold fusion hoax as much as it is from the ongoing replication crisis.

In normal times, none of this warrants excessive levels of scepticism towards the body of science itself. Science remains a reliable way of describing the world and the method’s relationship with itself and its products is such that any erroneous knowledge produced through mishap or manipulation can be rectified as such knowledge is applied at scale and in the long term. It may take time to discover that certain medical interventions do more harm than good but the principle by which such rogue ideas were designed is the very same one that eventually invalidates them. Once knowledge has been tested, applied, and tested again multiple times, it eventually passes into the realm of scientific fact, even if its journey wasn’t straightforward.

Time on a longer scale also allows for the discovery and eventual correction of other biases present within scientific disciplines that may be more difficult to observe within the context of the laboratory. For example, Andrew Curran has argued that the relationship between the Enlightenment rise of the scientific method and the colonialism of the British Empire was more than a unilateral application or misapplication of scientific ideas by non-scientists.[7]Andrew S. Curran, The Anatomy of Blackness: Science & Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment, Johns Hopkins paperback ed (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2013).

But there is little space for these reflexive processes to set in a rapidly changing situation. There has barely been enough time at any stage of the Covid-19 pandemic for scientific communities to reach ordered consensus, hence their repeated reminders that the virus remains relatively unknown. Under normal conditions, scientific discovery requires collaboration, corroboration, and verification, processes that take place through experiments as much as they do in the notoriously slow process of academic publishing, international conferences, and cycles of research funding. During the pandemic, scientific opinion has been solicited continuously, with high stakes, often without sensitivity to the context in which such opinion can be understood. In this context, scientists may be incentivised to rely more heavily on judgment and less on verification than they would have otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, there is no guarantee that two scientific inquiries testing the same hypothesis may produce identical results just because the world’s lives depend on it. For example, two studies evaluating the relative merits of ‘natural immunity’ against vaccination have both found strong evidence (by factors of 5 and 13), but in opposing directions.[8]Ari Schulman and Brendan Foht, ‘Is “Natural Immunity” Better Than Vaccination?’, The New Atlantis (blog), 20 December 2021, https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/is-natural-immunity-better-than-vaccination. Comparing the two requires a significant amount of scientific proficiency in the art of reading scientific papers, plenty of background knowledge, and a fair amount of goodwill towards the assumptions the studies’ authors make on behalf of their research. Science communicators Schulman and Foht expend a couple of thousand words on explaining why the studies do not compare like for like even if that may be what their headlines indicated. We don’t know for sure whether it’s better to catch Covid or to avoid it through vaccination because the studies were not designed to answer such questions definitively.

What about those recurring questions that scientific advice in many European countries appears to be very confident in: do lockdowns save lives? To pick the best solution for the next phase should then be easy and the scientific recommendations of lockdowns have been forthright. What the scientific answers to such an important question lack is falsifiability: because we cannot at the same time run an experiment in which Italy was tightly locked down and another in which the virus is allowed to rip, we cannot know the precise impact of the intervention with absolute certainty. We know that France and Italy locked down early and tightly, we blamed the British Government for waiting too late, and we envied the Swedes for coming out relatively unscathed without imposing any onerous measures, but because a great number of factors such as levels of social trust and the population’s compliance are difficult to account for, any comparisons are likely to be heavily caveated in ways that may or may not sway their validity in repetition.

Photo: No Swan So Fine/Wikimedia Commons

Finally, what happens when study results are wrong but are not treated seriously enough to re-examine other findings? A recent study promoted by the Centres for Disease Control suggested that masking kindergarten children was of proven clinical benefits,[9]Megan Jehn et al., ‘Association Between K–12 School Mask Policies and School-Associated COVID-19 Outbreaks — Maricopa and Pima Counties, Arizona, July–August 2021’, Centers for Disease Control and Protection; MMWR. Morbidity and … see more despite gaping errors in the authors’ analysis being pointed out by a mere journalist.[10]David Zweig, ‘The CDC’s Flawed Case for Wearing Masks in School’, The Atlantic, 16 December 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/12/mask-guidelines-cdc-walensky/621035/. In the UK, the chair of the modelling committee of the scientific advisory body SAGE has all but admitted that their attention is focused on pursuing only a limited range of scenarios and outcomes, leaving little space for potential falsification.[11]Fraser Nelson, ‘My Twitter Conversation with the Chairman of the Sage Covid Modelling Committee | The Spectator’, The Spectator(blog), 18 December 2021, … see more

Again, these examples do not invalidate the nature of scientific discovery, nor do they throw the validity of epidemiology as a science into doubt. Plenty of the questions I posed here have unambiguous answers: we know how the virus transmits, we know what lockdowns do, we can make predictions about mortality rates and treatment options. These aren’t mere speculations. However, the degrees of scepticism I have proposed here range from the purely scientific to the political and I present them here to underline the difficulty of conducting and acting on science under strain and pressure. There is a sour paradox to a method that relies on experimental verification for the very constitution of its ideas and theories that it is required to make binding predictions that affect lives in their very first application. In principle, even this will be overcome by the scientific method, given sufficient ability to develop iterative protocols and a reduction in the degrees of complexity. Meteorology is one example of this process working well: the intricate weather patterns of the world are described daily by a large but finite set of observations, models are developed, predictions are made and their predictions are eventually compared with the weather states observed the following day. The work of thousands of scientists, the expense of considerable computing power, and the collaboration of many nations have meant that we are now pretty good at telling the weather. Still, people continue to die in hurricanes and floods, whether these are predicted or not.

Politics does not care for evidence

Preparing for the devastation of a flood is not unlike coordinating the resources of a country in response to a pandemic, in as much as they both rely on translating scientific predictions into action through a process of politics. One of the early paradigms of the pandemic was the stark choice between saving lives and protecting the economy. This choice was presented as binary, as though the economy could benefit from an increase in the population’s death rates. While many critics rightly protested that such a dichotomy was false, the draconian nature of the early interventions such as lockdowns and travel restrictions effectively enforced that impossibility of imagining any half-measures. Governments worldwide have thus gone for all-or-nothing approaches: Stay home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS.

The theorist Keller Easterling has proposed that the unnecessary binary is a feature of a system that protects its hegemony.[12]Keller Easterling, Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World (Verso Books, 2020). The binary is a political system’s retaliation against nuance, conflicting information, designed as a response to what it may perceive or project as the alternative of chaos and disinformation. Politics as we know it is, therefore, the perfect antithesis of the nuance of the ideal of the scientific method: it despises uncertainty, avoids verification, ignores the second opinion.

Photo: Number 10/Flickr

Politics is, however, also the perfect companion to science. In a democratic state, the function of politics is to evaluate scientific advice and act on it under the political mandate afforded to the state. And what is the mandate of the state? Is it the protection of its people? Is it the preservation of life in the immediate term, the utilitarian goal of maximising the collective happiness? Or is it, in practice, the maintenance of good scores on the matrix of economic, social, and cultural such as GDP, the divorce rate, or museum attendance numbers?

Because answers to these questions are often as elusive as those of science, even narrowly defined politics is a practice shaped by bounded rationality,[13]Paul Cairney, Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Issues, Textbooks in Policy Studies (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), chap. 5. that is the limitation imposed by the sheer difficulty of weighing up the pros and cons of all the possible policy options, predicting its outcomes, and remaining accountable to the electorate within an electoral cycle. Politics, therefore, is a way of translating the complex recommendations of science through the prism of complex and sometimes conflicting imperatives and implementing them through imperfect mechanisms. It’s a terrible system, but we are yet to develop an alternative. 

The bounded rationality of political decision-making stands in contrast with the ideal of evidence-based policymaking, which is a decision-making process that takes account of all the implications of its implementation. Evidence-based policy, in principle, delivers precisely what it purports to, never falters, and can account for its side effects. The closest we come to this in UK healthcare may be the role fulfilled by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) which evaluates the benefits of therapies against their costs to assess their viability as solutions for the NHS. Given the seriousness of the pandemic and our investment in the evidence-driven scientific solutions to it, should we not insist that politicians now more than ever follow the evidence trail in designing policy responses? Isn’t it good that Johnson’s Cabinet has been led by ‘the science’? There are multiple reasons for which the expectation of perfect rationality and evidence-responsiveness is a phantasy under current conditions. Firstly, the ideal of evidence-based policy is only useful as a frame by which to assess the failure of real political processes:[14]Cairney, Understanding Public Policy. only a perfect technocracy would be able to follow the suggestions of scientists and statisticians and that at the cost of choosing its own objectives. 

Secondly, there is scant evidence that our politicians understand the scientific evidence with which they are presented. It was widely assumed that in the early days of the pandemic, Donal Trump remained wilfully ignorant of the threat to public health and this led to sometimes comical disagreements between his administration and his medical advisor Anthony Fauci. The recent controversy over the quality of the data presented to the Government by SAGE has suggested that British politicians are far from able to maintain an ongoing in-depth understanding of all the advice, evidence, counterevidence, and interpretation they are required to absorb daily. 

Photo: Ivan Radic/Flickr

What may the solution be? Sam Freedman of the think-tank Institute for Government has called for a complete overhaul of how scientific advice is solicited and evaluated by government and media, an effort that would be enhanced by additional maths education for all.[15]Sam Freedman, ‘New Approach Needed to Avoid Covid Data Disputes and Modelling Misunderstanding’, The Institute for Government (blog), 22 December 2021, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/covid-data-modelling. This proposal, as much as it is a step towards the paradigm of evidence-based policy, is strikingly unrealistic. Would it not be simpler to accept that the political decisions based on scientific advice are inherently political, that is that they involve judgment, the very faculty we elect politicians for?

Our collective refusal to understand the elusive nature of ‘the science’ allows us to blame politics and politicians for any adverse effects of their decisions, whether these decisions are rooted in scientific advice or now. When thousands of people died in the early months of the UK pandemic, it must have been because politicians ignored sound scientific advice. Conversely, when many more hospitality workers lost their jobs as the result of health protection measures, it was again the politicians’ fault, not science’s. With this pattern, we have erected the perfect buffer that prevents us from confronting the arbitrary nature of the pandemic and the subjective nature of political judgment. Might this be because we already know that the judgments all involve difficult trade-offs and we wouldn’t want to be the ones making them? Faced with an endless stream of advice, reliable or not, a lobby full of competing interests, a desire for self-preservation, and an ethical instinct, would any of us be able to make decisions that strictly ‘follow the science?’

Your decisions are less rational than you think

How do individuals navigate the scaling complexities and ambiguities of science and its political representations? When we access scientific information, how do we evaluate its veracity? What is the likelihood that any scientific information we acquire corresponds to the truth?

The last substantial review of public attitudes to science in the UK dates to 2019.[16]‘Public Attitudes to Science 2019’ (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 16 July 2020), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-attitudes-to-science-2019. At the time, the population displayed increasing confidence in science and appreciated its positive contribution to society. A falling number (43%), however, thought that the science they had learnt at school had any relevance to their daily life. About half believed themselves to be confident followers of scientific developments, but over a quarter admitted to not feeling clever enough. Those who felt better informed, generally were, although the majority did not understand how scientific research is funded. Only half of the population believed that the information they received about science was generally true, and some 36% didn’t know how to evaluate the veracity of such content. TV and radio maintained the most trusted sources of scientific information, with Facebook and self-initiated online searches following closely.

This is a frustrating position from which to enter a global pandemic. In the early months, media became obsessed with graphs and numbers, introducing the public to logarithmic scales, rolling averages, although stopping short of correlation coefficient and confidence indicators. The UK Government’s press conferences, likewise, ended in a chorus of ‘next slide, please’, choreographing the appearance of transparent and consistent science-led decision making. On the surface, the relationships between data, politics, and the requirements placed on the individual were clear: the higher the chart, the more severe the restrictions on daily lives must be. But it remains an open question if the UK public understood the data presented to them. Did they know what questions were being asked and which were omitted? What was so magic about the virus’ replication number r0? Why the rule of six, and why two meters between us?

Was it possible for anyone not entirely invested in investigating a whole range of data, studies, interpretations, and precedents to follow these issues in detail and adjust their behaviour to them accordingly? Given the complexities of the scientific basis of outbreak management and prevention I outlined earlier, I suggest that this would have been impossible for anyone but a highly trained statistician epidemiologist with plenty of time on their hands. For any layperson, it has been nearly impossible to understand the link between data and the action required of them, let alone to know why this link may have legitimately changed in time.

The paradoxical, if not sinister, part of the situation has been the Government’s outsourcing of the interpretation of public safety rules to individuals and businesses. While ‘the science’ was clear, the guidance remained vague and at points arbitrary, as though the levels of compliance were of little importance to their success. In the UK, the messaging reached a level of absurdity with a variety of threat indicators of were introduced and abandoned: who remembers the traffic light severity level system? As result, public attention was diverted away from the facts and figures to a practical, if not irrelevant realm. When, for example, bars could only remain open if they were serving food, the definition of a ‘substantial meal’ became the subject of media jokes without any connection to the health concerns themselves. 

All this has undermined any possibility of the public’s understanding of the science behind the escalating and wavering measures imposed by governments. The incredible duplicity of this system is that it pretends to be neither authoritarian nor draconian while demanding the highest levels of compliance from the public. Whereas parts of the European Union have imposed strict requirements for vaccination passports or testing mandates as conditions for civil participation, the UK has avoided explicitly demanding that the public ‘to as they’re told’. Instead, though the constant reference to ‘the science’ that has become stripped of its truth-seeking function, the UK society has been conditioned to desire strict control measures lest the science enacted its revenge. And so in late 2021, public venues such as theatres and museums were left to decide for themselves whether mask-wearing should be compulsory or not, falling short of offering any new guidance. By then, the public attitude shifted towards a doctrine of maximum safety, all of the time. What did museum curators know about the Omicron variant that the Government’s scientific advisors did not?

A live feed of Covid-19 data provided by an amateur YouTube user.

Some have continued to cling to the notion of ‘the science’, picking arguments while armed with an array of facts and figures that have been easily accessible in just about any news outlet. This works well enough for a moment, as long as the choices are binary and simple. Do you want to convince someone that another lockdown is inevitable? The Guardian has a chart for that. Do you want to justify your dislike for wearing masks in public? The Telegraph lists some studies that will make you feel better. Do you want to learn about vaccine safety? Facebook will serve you some convincing pro and con data. None of these sources, however, will take into account any of the nuance, context, evolution, or indeed trade-offs involved in making individual and societal decisions based on the data they present. The media sources, just like politicians, have reverted to type and usually argue from ideological principles for which science is merely convenient background. At closer quarters, I am yet to see an individual deploy science against the public health position I had expected them to adopt knowing their general political alliances. 

Where do we go from here?

This lengthy analysis will be of limited use, lest it helps us to acknowledge that the relationship between science and political or individual action has the potential to be largely arbitrary and that the circumstances of the pandemic have made it highly likely that it indeed has been. I do not believe that even those of us who think they possess a degree of scientific fluency that would equip them to make sound judgments in principle have been able to make those judgments appropriately under the conditions of diminished trust and transparency. This is an issue distinct even from Ballantyne’s problem of epistemic trespassing to which practical solutions exist and consist of careful examination of the credentials and competences of experts from whom we draw advice.[17]David Dunning and Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Which Experts Should You Listen to during the Pandemic?’, Scientific American Blog Network, 8 June 2020, … see more

The problem we face now is one of programmatic disinformation and mistrust. The volume of conflicting information and the cognitive load required of any individual trying to make sense of it is such that they are unable to proceed without resorting to belief, simplification, or confirmation bias, often unconsciously. No wonder that many have interpreted any resistance to vaccination as a sure sign of antiscientific irrationality associated with the worst conspiracy theories, while those sceptical of the cycle of lockdowns have come to regard the safety-first faction as a cult. The net result is that whoever can make claims of controlling or following ‘the science’ is likely to command public consent.


None of the accusations I have levelled at science, politics, and society helps us in making the daily decisions that determine our health as well as the overall shape of the public sphere that we inhabit. My concern at the shape that politics takes if we simply comply and do not meaningfully engage with the interface of science and ideology is that it is likely to reaffirm a hegemony that we can ill-afford; as Easterling observed, the presence of conflicting information builds up a Teflon coating on which the very rationality we hope to achieve slips and slides.[18]Easterling, Medium Design. Opting out completely is a tempting option, but it also requires a sacrifice of rational principles.

I, for one, am ready to admit that many of my own ‘rational’ decisions during the pandemic have been driven by ideological convictions. I elected to take all three of my vaccine doses so far partly because I have had plenty of experience with other vaccinations and was satisfied that I could, should I have wished to, closely examine and understand their efficacy and safety profiles. I am in split mind over masks, finding them unnecessary outdoors, inefficient in venues when large groups spend long periods, but potentially worth the inconvenience for the protection they offer in short encounters at the corner shop. Where I know that my convictions remain purposefully unconcerned with science is the matter of vaccination passports or mandates that I oppose on purely political grounds.

I do not propose these as model behaviours but instead suggest that in many of the decisions we now face, understanding the fallibility of science, our lack of understanding of its detail, and the pervasive nature of ideological belief may help us to collectively arrive at a new understanding of what our goals are and how we may go about achieving them.

Notes[+]

Fuller, Weizman: Investigative Aesthetics

Investigative Aesthetics 
Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth

Matthew Fuller
Eyal Weizman

Published by Verso, 2021
ISBN 9781788739085

Today, journalists, legal professionals, activists, and artists challenge the state’s monopoly on investigation and the production of narratives of truth. They probe corruption, human rights violations, environmental crimes, and technological domination. Organisations such as WikiLeaks, Bellingcat, or Forensic Architecture pore over open-source videos and satellite imagery to undertake visual investigations. This combination of diverse fields is what Fuller and Weizman call ‘investigative aesthetics’: the mobilisation of sensibilities associated with art, architecture, and other such practices in order to challenge power.

Investigative Aesthetics draws on theories of knowledge, ecology and technology; evaluates the methods of citizen counter-forensics, micro-history and art. These new practices take place in the studio and the laboratory, the courtroom and the gallery, online and in the streets, as they strive towards the construction of a new common sense.

Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman speak to Pierre d’Alancaisez about the logics behind Forensic Architecture and the evidentiary turn: the aesthetics of distributed sensing, the investigative commons, and the condition of hyperaesthesia.

Matthew Fuller is a Professor of Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Media Ecologies, and with Andrew Goffey, Evil Media.

Eyal Weizman is the founder and director of Forensic Architecture and Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Hollow LandThe Least of All Possible Evils, and Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability.