This is an excerpt from my Paolo Bozzi Prize address, "Realism and Moralism in Political Thought," last week in Turin at the conference on "Post-Truth, New Realism, and Democracy"; I'll put the whole paper on-line before long, but perhaps this bit will be of interest to some readers:
Most of what we think we know about the world is due to reliance on epistemic authorities, individuals or institutions that tell us what we ought to believe about Newtonian mechanics, evolution by natural selection, climate change, resurrection from the dead, or the Holocaust. The most practically fruitful epistemic norm of modernity, empiricism, demands that knowledge be grounded in sensory experience, but almost no one who believes in evolution by natural selection or the reality of the Holocaust has any sensory evidence in support of those beliefs. Instead, we rely on epistemic authorities—biologists and historians, for example. The dependence on epistemic authority is not confined to ordinary persons—most engineers, for example, do not have sensory evidence in support of the laws of Newtownian mechanics as applied to ordinary physical objects, but they have been told by their basic physics teachers that this evidence exists and that it is true (even as they have been told by their advanced physics teachers that Newtonian mechanics is false at the quantum level).
Epistemic authority cannot be sustained by empiricist criteria, for obvious reasons: salient anecdotal evidence, the favorite tool of propagandists, appeals to ordinary faith in the senses, but is easily exploited given that most people understand neither the perils of induction nor the finer points of sampling and Bayesian inference. Sustaining epistemic authority depends, crucially, on social institutions that inculcate reliable second-order norms about whom to believe about what. The media of mass communication were crucial, in the age of mass democracy, with promulgating and sustaining such norms. Consider the most important newspaper in my country, the New York Times, which has long been an ideological mouthpiece for the more-or-less prudent wing of the ruling class in America, a newspaper that supported, for example, the imperial war of aggression against Vietnam in the 1960s and supported the neoliberal Hillary Clinton against a social democratic challenger for the 2016 Democratic nomination for President. Notwithstanding that, the New York Times has served as a fairly good mediator of epistemic authority with respect to many other topics: it has provided a bulwark against those who deny the reality of climate change or the human contribution to it; it has debunked those who think vaccinations causes autism; it gives no comfort to creationists and other religious zealots; and it treats genuine epistemic authorities about the natural world—for example, members of the National Academy of Sciences in America--as epistemic authorities in its journalism. Genuine epistemic authority cannot exist in a population absent epistemic mediators like the New York Times.
The Internet is, as we all know, the great eliminator of intermediaries. This was its virtue for all those excluded, justly or unjustly in the past, from public discourse. But as cyberspace, with its lack of mediators and filters, has become the primary source of information for most people in the economically advanced nations, its ability to undermine epistemic authority has become alarmingly evident. The Internet is the epistemological crisis of the 21st century: it magnifies ignorance and stupidity and is now leading hundreds of millions, maybe now billions, of people to act on the basis of the fantasy world it constructs.
That brings us, of course, to the current President of the United States. Speaking to scholars, in Europe no less, it may seem mere pandering to observe that Trump is quite obviously, as his Secretary of State put it, a “fucking moron,” not fit to run a company, let alone a country, let alone to enjoy the power to destroy the entire world ten minutes from now. I was a lawyer involved in real estate litigation in New York City thirty years ago, so I can testify that his reputation then was no different. Indeed, his actual reputation explains why a member of the Republican ruling class, Michael Bloomberg, went to the Democratic convention in 2016 to denounce him. Alas, certainly not enough people listened to Bloomberg or any of the other normal members of the ruling class who denounced the buffoon. That fact is itself revealing.
In thinking about the Trump catastrophe for humanity, we should remember that qua individual Trump is irrelevant: he is at best a symptom, or a lens through which tendencies produced by socio-economic realities pass and find focus. That Trump is an idiot, psychologically disturbed, incompetent is not the real issue; the real issue is what kind of system could elevate him to the position he now holds. Moralists in political thought have had nothing interesting to say about the Trump phenomenon, just as little as they helped us to understand Reagan, Thatcher and Berlusconi, and as little as they help us understand juvenile stupidity about “alternative facts” and “post truth.” The ruling class in every society has always depended on “alternative facts,” it is part of what Marx called “ideology,” and which Thucydides recognized clearly two millennia ago: those in power try to deny or reinterpret the parts of reality that threaten their power and interests. We can never actually be “post truth” insofar as what is true exercises a causal constraint on what happens: when the door is locked, no amount of “post truth” will let you walk through it. Those politicians who talk the language of “post truth” are ideological apologists for powerful interests and the misery of its victims. What is new and important is that the Internet now makes “alternative” facts more viable than they have ever been in history because it undermines the second-order norms for sustaining epistemic authority.
Trump and his acolytes are not really “post-truth,” they very much want the practical advantages that flow from monopolizing what is taken to be true, since truth and knowledge, as Foucault’s entire corpus was devoted to demonstrating, are not normatively inert, but exercise a powerful influence on action (cf. Leiter forthcoming). The crucial phenomenon that has made Trump possible is the collapse of public mediation by reliable epistemic authorities who actually track what is true. Trump is the American President that Internet technology wrought.