12 minute read
Among the more surprising things I've been told by an intellectual acquaintance this year is that there was no point debating the evidence on a certain contentious issue because we could each cite our own supporting research. Yet this amounts to saying we've given up on empirical science - and honestly I rather fear this might be the case. But if this were so, how can it then be insisted by those who purport to possess authority that we must 'follow the science'...? There are questions here that matter and that can hardly be ignored without undermining any plausible concept of democracy.
When we encounter strangeness, the easiest psychological defences will always tend towards either denial or demonisation - hell, the whole of the political landscape in almost every democratic nation is almost entirely explicable through cognitive dissonance. The path less taken (especially by contemporary philosophers) is thinking. To borrow my mentor Mary Midgley's metaphor of philosophy as conceptual plumbing, this means tearing up the floorboards underneath our house of concepts in order to discover where the nasty smells are coming from.
In this instance, and indeed many like it, the problem originates in the loss of something we didn't even know we had: our shared framework of collective knowledge, that is, an epistemic commons. 'Epistemic' is the adjective for knowledge, and a 'commons' is something everyone makes free use of, while communally agreeing on the practices relating to it (for instance, a field that anyone can bring their sheep to for grazing, and the community itself decides how to organise this). A civic society requires an epistemic commons, not least of all to ensure we are talking about the same things. That major political arguments can now occur over such traditionally uncontroversial concepts as 'woman', 'man', 'climate' and 'weather' - not to mention 'safety' and 'efficacy' - are clear warning signs that something has gone horribly wrong with our epistemic commons.
This problem is rooted in radical and unprecedented changes to our academic circumstances. Up until the twentieth century, it could be claimed that the primary civic role of universities was to cultivate a community of virtuous scholarship that maintained the epistemic commons. Since then, alas, research investment has usurped and supplanted this purpose and arguably led to the end the university as such (see After Universities). The impression that this is 'how it is supposed to be' is merely back projection to justify the enslavement of scholarship to technology (that is, 'science plus money'). We have forgotten what a university was and now resolutely believe this to denote a research institution, a concept that arrives only after 90% of the history of universities to date has passed.
We cannot afford to leave this matter unattended, much less permit the cognitive dissonance it engenders to heighten our denial or our demonisation. Without either a newly negotiated epistemic commons (see No Reality without Representation) or an entirely unconceived alternative, we are slouching towards civil war on a global scale, the outcome of which could be far more catastrophic for human life than current anxieties about our every-growing environment impact. This question is thus a most urgent locus for thinking, perhaps the most urgent our species has yet faced, and it is no solution whatsoever to refuse to talk about it.
In order to trace possible solutions, I want to present two different metaphorical images for epistemic commons, one that I believe lies behind my academic acquaintance's ongoing allegiance to the ruling power structures, and another that I suspect underpins my own rejection of this new whirled order. Neither is 'right', both have strengths, weaknesses, and risks - both could be corrupted... indeed, my sense of the crisis we have sleepwalked into (see Awakening the Sleepwalkers) is precisely that both have been corrupted in radically different ways.
Termite Knowledge Networks
Of all the incredible aspects of the natural history of Africa I witnessed during my brief time in what is now Burkina Faso, little was more impressive than termite mounds. Towering above the ground - often at twice my height - these insect-built skyscrapers are constructed above underground nests that are home to thousands of termites, each specialised to different roles within the colony. Workers, soldiers, reproductives... specialisation is key to the extraordinary achievements of these relatives of the earliest winged insects, who in parts of Africa have transformed the entire local ecology in ways that have benefitted all the local wildlife.
The names of 'queen' and 'king' termites are misleading - they do not rule as such, but merely provide the eggs for the huge number of nymphs that then differentiate into specialist roles. Rather, each termite colony is a collective (a so-called 'superorganism'), where the contributions of each insect is vital to the prospering of all. This kind of eusocial arrangement has developed among many other largely unrelated insect species such as ants and bees, and the key in every case is specialisation and not - as the regal euphemisms imply - hierarchy. This is not hierarchical monarchic rule but a network of mutually defined purposes.
By analogy, then, we can speak of a termite knowledge network, where specialisation of roles is the underlying principle. Indeed, intuitively this what we imagine underpins our industrial knowledge economy. Specialist researchers and non-researcher experts (whom today we often forget exist) maintain knowledge in compartmentalised domains. Journalists with their own specialisations (sometimes asininely conceived, as with the absurdly broad term 'science reporter') then propagate changes with respect to this knowledge as 'news', while book publishers try to capture lightning in reference books.
I feel confident that faith in the efficacy and reliability of these networks are the reason so many, including my aforementioned academic acquaintance, place their trust in government and industry sponsored narratives, despite a lack of trust in both government officials and corporate CEOs. Indeed, this is the only way to explain the widespread acceptance of such diverse and otherwise arcane popular beliefs such as 'climate change is so vital we must not research it', 'vaccine candidates without pharmacovigilance are safer than with rigorous oversight', or 'pornography in school libraries saves lives'. Yet the strangeness of these claims is not prima facie evidence that our termite knowledge network has been corrupted. Remember the oddness uncovered in quantum mechanics, after all...
However, the termite knowledge network absolutely requires that those who have been specialised to a role are able to fulfil it. The sign of the corruption of our knowledge network - and the consequent collapse of the epistemic commons - is that those who are best positioned to advise are prevented from doing so if they do not align with pre-prescribed positions. The strongest evidence of this can be found in the lawsuit Missouri vs Biden administration (now, Murthy vs Missouri), legal discovery for which showed how epidemiologists and health economists were censored on social media at the command of the US government (shredding the First Amendment), solely because they brought attention to the lack of reliable knowledge behind what were very odd courses of action to undertake. Likewise, despite their evident qualification to speak on the topic, detransitioners are routinely excluded from the conversation about how to approach the fraught political quagmire that is gender metaphysics (see Were You Born This Way?).
As always, denial and demonisation remain the most common result of confronting any aspect of this corruption of our termite knowledge network. Ever wondered how a diverse range of people are suddenly 'far right' - even committed lefties like Russell Brand! - and thus necessarily deplorable...? The tremendous desire to believe that there's no reason to be concerned and that the problem is entirely up to those terrible Others is in itself a sign of the problem. But to truly get to grips with the situation requires us to wrestle with the other go-to cognitive dissonance avoidance phrase: conspiracy theory. And this brings us to the meerkats.
Meerkat Knowledge Communities
Unusually for social mammals, meerkats do not have a strict hierarchy. It is not that no meerkat is dominant - there is always a pair 'in charge' - but unlike wolves (or indeed chickens) there isn't a strict 'pecking order'. Up to thirty meerkat cooperate in each mob, pursuing a variety of communal activities including keeping watch for predators. There are even birds, drongo, that will stand guard in return for some of the food the meerkats gather - a situation that sometimes becomes a real life Prisoner's Dilemma when the bird proves less than trustworthy.
Again, by analogy we can speak of a meerkat knowledge community, where trust and cooperative practice underpins the activities, the groupings are smaller, and roles are mutable and overlapping. Historically speaking, many academic fields went through a stage like this: when Isaac Newton wrote about the mathematics of planetary motion, the number of 'natural philosophers' with skin in the game was few enough that everyone had read everyone else with anything to say on the matter. Anyone with an interest in Newton's physics simply read Newton's own book. (Of course, a printer also produced the book itself - but they changed nothing in what Newton wrote, which is never true of publishers today.)
The impression that this form of knowledge curation is no longer around is caused by our false association between knowledge and research. But maintaining knowledge is a much older and indeed far more crucial practice than research, which has only risen in importance owing to the commercialisation of the sciences through technology. We can find meerkat knowledge communities at every church, temple, mosque, and synagogue; in every scout and guide troop; at every gun range and bowling alley - even pubs and bars can be meerkat knowledge communities. Wherever knowledge is conserved and propagated, there will be a knowledge community... and the communities entailed are typically small and localised.
An authentic meerkat knowledge community maintains the practices of a form of knowledge, and these are legion. Such communities can also adapt to almost any change in the circumstances surrounding their practices - consider the enormous transformations entailed by raised row gardening as a brilliant example of how even successful knowledge practices can undergo radical and unexpected transformations, even within comparatively short intervals.
Furthermore, because such communities are usually comparatively small (many have no more than a hundred or so people) they can also maintain practices which may or may not constitute knowledge as such. Some may be metaphysical, such as theology or faith in the sciences; some may be speculative in other ways - and this is where we find conspiracy theories being shared. Despite the archetype of the lone kook, communities of one kind or another connect almost all conspiracy theorists (by which I mean people speculating about actual conspiracies, not people being censored for holding inconvenient views).
Now it is an interesting feature of our times that 'conspiracy theory' has been massaged into the implication of being false. Because this could only be a plausible assumption if nobody was ever involved in conspiring - which would be a ludicrous assumption. Indeed, the people who benefit from a blanket dismissal of conspiratorial thinking are precisely those most likely to conspire. Still, most conspiracy theories are not knowledge as such but rather speculative scenarios that seek to provide explanations of events in terms of the causal actions of people who would plausibly deny wrongdoing (i.e. everyone). Authentic conspiracy theories inevitable lack decisive evidence (although evidently some of the reports that are now dismissed under this term are well-evidenced e.g. that the Biden administration has censored inconvenient discourse, which disclosure in Missouri versus Biden confirmed as factual).
The meerkat knowledge communities of conspiracy theories are thus engaged in discussing speculative models of events that run ahead of the evidence to some degree. As such, they perhaps ought to be called speculative hypotheses, and we might therefore talk of meerkat speculation communities as a specialist kind of knowledge network. It is my conclusion after observing the discussions of this kind of community online that they occur in a pattern of layers, from the surface layer of a meerkat knowledge community that constrains its speculations to the available evidence, to the most fanciful deep layers that explain half a century or more of events as the result of interlocking conspiracies. I cannot prove these hypotheses false, and if they become extremely fanciful in the depths they are not more fanciful than the hypothesis that everything done by government politicians and corporate executives is strictly for the good of humanity.
Thus much as strange conclusions from our termite knowledge networks are not evidence of their corruption, neither are conspiracy theories evidence of the corruption of meerkat knowledge communities: nobody is in a position to discredit or debunk speculation that further evidence might yet reveal to be true, and by definition conspiracies are underdetermined until such time as substantial evidence is unearthed (especially but not exclusively through legal disclosure). It is worth remembering, after all, how preposterous heliocentric cosmology, continental drift, and even hand washing to prevent infection were in their times. It is certain that some subset of conspiracy theories will be validated - and nobody can reliably predict which will come to be accepted. (Look at the utter reversal of beliefs about Emily Dickenson, for instance).
Rather, the corruption of meerkat knowledge communities is evidenced by the collapse of the community itself. The minimum knowledge any community possesses is an understanding of how to remain a community - a far more significant achievement these days than we give credit! No matter the weird and wacky beliefs of any group that associates, the fact of their continued association is a kind of knowledge (often of a habitual rather than a propositional kind), and it is the corruption of this knowledge that will destroy the association.
This provides a clue as to the other reason why the epistemic commons has collapsed. In addition to the corruption of our termite knowledge network through censorship, we have also thinned down our knowledge of how to maintain meerkat knowledge communities by supplanting them with an automated alternative: social media. Yet the knowledge entailed in participation with these digital tools is not knowledge of how to associate, but merely interface competence. Worse, the associations we make in such spaces (follows) and their opposite (blocks) serve not to foster community but rather to purify ideology - they group people into an illusion of community without providing any knowledge of how to associate. Indeed, the habit inculcated through participation in these non-communities is how to push a button in order to self-alienate from anyone remotely different from us - it is a sick joke to then make claims that our motivations are 'diversity and inclusion'!
We have thus corrupted both aspects of the epistemic commons, and the illusion that our collective knowledge is still functioning normally is scaffolded by the manipulation of the very tools that facilitated this wretched calamity. I am largely agnostic to the question of whether this dreadful state of affairs was intentionally manipulated or the consequence of a cascade of incompetence, although it is my default policy - we might call it hokum's razor - to avoid invoking conspiracy where ineptitude suffices as an explanation. Frankly, how this happened is far less important than what we do about it... and in this regard, it matters greatly that an enormous number of otherwise sapient people, like the associate I mentioned at the beginning, continue to have faith that our epistemological situation remains fundamentally trustworthy.
It will come as little surprise if I say that I place greater trust in meerkat knowledge communities than I currently can in our termite knowledge network. Yet I would be the first to admit that we do not currently have a means of maintaining a global epistemic commons without the help of the termites. It is a luxury I possess as a voracious reader that I am willing to negotiate the conflicted accounts of the meerkats with some confidence, sorting wild speculation from grounded interpretation with the care that flows from perpetual agnosticism. It is evident that this is not a general solution to the problem, but rather a situation evoking endless ambiguity, and whatever my competence I am limited by all the weaknesses inherent to any lone investigator.
Of course when the termites are causing more harm than good they become a pest - I find it easy to abandon premature certainty under such wretched circumstances, yet acknowledge the psychological costs involved will not appeal to most academics, who derive a great deal of their self-worth from the legitimacy claims of the network they participate in. This is also true of those downstream of academics, most obviously science reporters, who are apparently woefully incapable of the thinking required to operate without termites, or else perhaps have 'purified' their associations of anyone who might be so endowed with prudence.
The crisis here is exacerbated by the fact that all the oddest positions taken up by the termites are politically aligned with the blue team in the United States - this, indeed, is the most plausible explanation for why the termites have fallen into corruption: politicisation. This is why this nightmare could result in civil war if it is not resolved, since a nation of gun owners founded upon 'the shot heard around the world' requires an epistemic commons to bolster any stable national identity. Furthermore, the collapse of the US would trigger a global destabilisation (if indeed one is not already underway). The epistemic commons has been helping to stabilise international relations far longer than banking and commerce, which have failed to achieve the international peace Kant and others hoped for (see The Great Graveyard of Humanity).
If we want to escape the worst consequences of this ever-growing catastrophe, we must begin by admitting we have a problem. Termites see the problem in those who don't acknowledge their network's authority, but a great many meerkats don't seriously recognise any authority but their own liberty. Small wonder this dispute frequently manifests polemically as authoritarians versus libertarians. Yet we agree on one thing: we have a problem with our knowledge, and anyone who thinks the solution is going to come from a policy of 'shut up and accept what we say' is more naïve than the most credulous of conspiratorial speculators.
The only viable solutions begin by admitting failure and renegotiating the terms of our collective knowledge. There is more than enough political, historical, scientific, religious, and ethical knowledge held in our extraordinarily diverse meerkat knowledge communities to rebuild a termite knowledge network capable of acting as a viable epistemic commons. But to get there, we first have to recognise that a metaphorical wasteland we cannot bear to acknowledge has been encroaching upon our termite mound for decades. Now and forever, we need the wisdom of Socrates who warned "all I know is that I know nothing".
Comments always welcome, although my replies here may not appear swiftly.