Notes on the Occupation 7: Knowledge and the New Class War

A very, very good column from Andrew Coyne in the Globe and Mail this morning, in which he argues that the true dividing line revealed by the Ottawa Occupation involves competing claims over knowledge itself:

Previous generations of class warriors wanted to smash capital, first physical then financial. But in an age in which capital resides in knowledge, the objective must be to smash knowledge itself, together with its repositories – the universities, the courts, the media. All are not merely fallible but hostile, enemies of the people, filled with lies – which is to say, with facts they refuse to believe.

In their place, the new class warriors must attempt to make sense of the world unaided. They are “doing their own research,” via the internet, and sharing their findings with each other, via social media. They are, in short, defenceless, vulnerable to any number of bad actors looking to manipulate them.

Coyne here uses the language of marks and grifters when bemoaning (correctly) how susceptible so many people are to straight-up nonsense, and paints a picture of an assault on the concept of knowledge itself.

What he’s describing, though, is not a war on knowledge by anti-knowledge, but a contest over what we consider to be knowledge. It’s a contest between contending views on what is reality.

At issue is what IPE scholar Susan Strange called the power to determine what knowledge is legitimate knowledge. It’s about who is considered to be an authority worth listening to, and how their authority is legitimized.

It doesn’t happen often, but sources of authority do change over the long course of history, and when they do literally everything changes with it. Strange argues that the last big change in this form of power, at least in Europe, occurred when scientific knowledge replaced religious knowledge as the most legitimate form of knowledge, and scientists replaced priests as the holders of legitimate knowledge.

Even though religion has persisted, science dominates, to the extent that even the most religious feel the need to justify their beliefs in scientific terms. Think about the Creation Museum, which is devoted to proving the biblical creation myth: What is a museum but a temple to science?

Changes in what Strange called the “knowledge structure” lead to changes in what people believe counts as evidence. Coyne attacks those who are “spreading falsehoods, validating lunacy, crossing lines previously considered uncrossable,” but these charges only hold weight within our (still-dominant, though under siege) scientific-based knowledge structure. Outside it, they hold no weight at all.

Writing in the 1980s, way before the commercial internet, Strange correctly recognized that the most likely challenger to the scientific knowledge structure would be New Age thinking. Think homeopathy, anti-vaccines, the healing power of crystals. New Age thinking rejects science and, by necessity, the authority of those who embrace science and rationality as a standard of knowledge. That it’s all nonsense and anti-science matters a lot to me because I’m a very big fan of science, liberalism and rational thought. But for someone who doesn’t believe in science, these arguments are unlikely to be convincing.

If anything, thinking of our current moment as people being deluded by snake-oil-selling charlatans underplays the very deep dynamics at play. We are witnessing a schism in the knowledge structure potentially on the scale of what ended the dominance of the Catholic Church in Europe.

This is a very, very big deal.

A contest of legitimacy

This knowledge crisis is not, or at least not completely, a demand-driven phenomenon. Individuals and groups are attempting to claim for themselves the right to determine what counts as legitimate knowledge. These charlatans and cranks (or fearless truth-tellers, if you will) are the ones supplying mis- and dis-information to people who reject science.

There is also a structural component to all this. New Age woo-wooism predates the internet, but the internet and social media as it is currently constituted has acted as an accelerant for this anti-scientific worldview. It has also been helped along by fundamentalist interpretations of the US First Amendment, which has treated Fox News, an anti-science, anti-democracy propaganda outfit, as a legitimate journalism outfit. New media, bad regulation and anti-science worldviews are an explosive combination.

Not all knowledge structures are created equal

In highlighting how religious, scientific and New Age perspectives don’t really overlap, I’m not claiming that one is as good as the other. I ride for Team Science, not because it’s the knowledge of the elites, but because vaccines save lives. I support it because it embodies what the poet and cultural commentator Clive James called a liberalism of doubt, where knowledge is contingent, ideological certainty is to be avoided, and we should work to verify our beliefs. I support it because it’s also the most friendly to liberal-democratic government, and I’m a big fan of self-determination.

In contrast, there is little to recommend New Age thinking. Most obviously, it fails to support life itself (see: homeopathy). But it also is remarkably open to con artists who spin a good, emotional story, and leaves its adherents with few ways to extricate themselves from its grasp. At the extreme, as we’ve seen with Donald (“I alone can fix it”) Trump and the anti-democratic Ottawa Occupation, it breeds dictatorship.

No thanks to all that.

What to do

It’s tempting to think of these battles as amorphous cultural contests with no solutions beyond weak exhortations for “more education!” or “more media literacy!” Thankfully, we can do more than that to defend the scientific worldview.

Strange wrongly argued that power in the knowledge structure is “unquantifiable.” But knowledge, as Coyne remarks, is a social process. It is spread by people and through communication systems. Knowledge has a very material, corporeal component.

Coyne’s identification of the problem is a good and necessary start. Actually doing something about it is possible, but more difficult. Dealing with this attack on science, rationality and democracy itself will require, among other things, bringing social media regulation into line with the standards of truth that we expect from our other communications media.

It will require enforcing anti-hate laws in Canada. In the United States, it will require (deep breath) adjusting their First Amendment thinking along the lines suggested by legal scholar Mary Anne Franks, so that Fox News is no longer treated as a legitimate news outlet.

All this is doubtlessly a heavy lift, but it has the virtue of addressing our current moment with the seriousness it deserves. If knowledge is social, then our actions will decide whether or not science will prevail.

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