We are all postliberals now: teaching Popper in the era of post-truth politics

blackswan
Adelaide, South Australia, December 2014

Late in the morning after the US election, I am sitting down to read student essays for the course on social theory I’m supervising. This part of the course involves the work of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend, and its application in the social sciences. The essay question is: do theories need to be falsifiable, and how to choose between competing theories if they aren’t? The first part is a standard essay question; I added the second a bit more than a week ago, interested to see how students would think about criteria of verification in absence of an overarching regime of truth.

This is one of my favourite topics in the philosophy of science. When I was a student at the University of Belgrade, feeling increasingly out of place in the post-truth and intensely ethnographic though anti-representationalist anthropology, the Popper-Kuhn debate in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge held the promise that, beyond classification of elements of material culture of the Western Balkans, lurked bigger questions of the politics and sociology of knowledge (paradoxically, this may have been why it took me very long to realize I actually wanted to do sociology).

I was Popper-primed well before that, though: the principle of falsification is integral to the practice of parliamentary-style academic debating, in which the task of the opposing team(s) is to ‘disprove’ the motion. In the UK, this practice is usually associated with debate societies such as the Oxford and Cambridge Union, but it is widespread in the US as well as the rest of the world; during my undergraduate studies, I was an active member of Yugoslav (now Serbian) Universities Debating Network, known as Open Communication. Furthermore, Popper’s political ideas – especially those in Open Society and its Enemies – formed the ideological core of the Open Society Foundation, founded by the billionaire George Soros to help the promotion of democracy and civil society in Central and Eastern Europe.

In addition to debate societies, the Open Society Foundation supported and funded a greater part of civil society activism in Serbia. At the time, most of it was conceived as the opposition to the regime of Slobodan Milošević, a one-time-banker-turned-politician who ascended to power in the wake of the dissolution of the Socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia. Milošević played a major role in the conflicts in its former republics, simultaneously plunging Serbia deeper into economic and political crisis exacerbated by international isolation and sanctions, culminating in the NATO intervention in 1999. Milošević’s rule ended in a coup following a disputed election in 2000.

I had been part of the opposition from the earliest moment conceivable, skipping classes in secondary school to go to anti-government demos in 1996 and 1997. The day of the coup – 5 October 2000 – should have been my first day at university, but, together with most students and staff, I was at what would turn out to be the final public protest that ended up in the storming of the Parliament. I swallowed quite a bit of tear gas, twice in situations I expected not to get out of alive (or at the very least unharmed), but somehow made it to a friend’s house, where, together with her mom and grandma, we sat in the living room and watched one of Serbia’s hitherto banned TV and radio stations – the then-oppositional B92 – come back on air. This is when we knew it was over.

Sixteen years and little more than a month later, I am reading students’ essays on truth and falsehood in science. This, by comparison, is a breeze, and it’s always exciting to read different takes on the issue. Of course, in the course of my undergraduate studies, my own appreciation of Popper was replaced by excitement at the discovery of Kuhn – and the concomitant realization of the inertia of social structures, which, just like normal science, are incredibly slow to change – and succeeded by light perplexity by Lakatos (research programmes seemed equal parts reassuring and inherently volatile – not unlike political coalitions). At the end, obviously, came infatuation with Feyerabend: like every self-respecting former liberal, I reckoned myself a methodological (and not only methodological) anarchist.

Unsurprisingly, most of the essays I read exhibit the same trajectory. Popper is, quite obviously, passé; his critique of Marxism (and other forms of historicism) not particularly useful, his idea of falsificationism too strict a criterion for demarcation, and his association with the ideologues of neoliberalism did probably not help much either.

Except that…. this is what Popper has to say:

It is undoubtedly true that we have a more direct knowledge of the ‘inside of the human atom’ than we have of physical atoms; but this knowledge is intuitive. In other words, we certainly use our knowledge of ourselves in order to frame hypotheses about some other people, or about all people. But these hypotheses must be tested, they must be submitted to the method of selection by elimination.

(The Poverty of Historicism, 127)

Our knowledge of ourselves: for instance, our knowledge that we could never, ever, elect a racist, misogynist, reality TV star for the president of one of world’s superpowers. That we would never vote to leave the European Union, despite the fact that, like all supranational entities, it has flaws, but look at how much it invests in our infrastructure. Surely – as Popper would argue – we are rational animals: and rational animals would not do anything that puts them in unnecessary danger.

Of course, we are correct. The problem, however, is that we have forgotten about the second part of Popper’s claim: we use knowledge of ourselves to form hypotheses about other people. For instance: since we understand that a rich businessman is not likely to introduce economic policies that harm the elite, the poor would never vote for him. For instance: since we remember the victims of Nazism and fascism, everyone must understand how frail is the liberal consensus in Europe.

This is why the academia came to be “shocked” by Trump’s victory, just like it was shocked by the outcome of the Brexit referendum. This is also the key to the question of why polls “failed” to predict either of these outcomes. Perhaps we were too focused on extrapolating our assumptions to other people, and not enough on checking whether they hold.

By failing to understand that the world is not composed of left-leaning liberals with a predilection for social justice, we commit, time and again, what Bourdieu termed scholastic fallacy – propensity to attribute categories of our own thinking to those we study. Alternatively, and much worse, we deny them common standards of rationality: the voters whose political choices differ from ours are then cast as uneducated, deluded, suffering from false consciousness. And even if they’re not, they must be a small minority, right?

Well, as far as hypotheses are concerned, that one has definitely failed. Maybe it’s time we started considering alternatives.