Science Studies and its Mea Culpas

Note that this piece was written to accompany an excellent radio documentary series produced by the award winning Cited, and called “Technocracy and its Discontents.” Click here to catch the first episode, “The Science Wars”.

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There has been something rather strange happening in a marginal corner of the humanities called science studies. Science studies is claiming itself responsible for creating our ‘post-truth’ political climate. These left-wing scholars are reckoning with the uncomfortable possibility that their sophisticated sociological investigations of science enabled climate denialism, Donald Trump, and the Brexit campaign (Fuller, 2018; Latour, 2004). What are we to make of their claims? Are they an insignificant group of scholars who have reached “the height of hybris” (Lynch, 2017, p. 597), or did their ideas radically transform our politics?

In what follows, I try to find an answer. I find no evidence of a direct causal link, or even a weaker incidental link, between so-called ‘post-truth’ politics and science studies. However, I do endorse an earlier criticism that science studies would weaken the left’s ability to counter the anti-science political right. That criticisms were levied by leftist physicist Alan Sokal. Sokal rose to prominence when he wrote a hoax article in the cultural studies journal Social Text (Sokal, 1996)Sokal’s article is widely cited as the culmination of a period called “the science wars,” a high-profile intellectual squabble which pitted scientists against those in science studies. Lost in this acrimonious debate (which largely focused on obtuse postmodern prose) was Sokal’s central political contention: science studies would weaken the left. In light of the left’s confused and ineffectual response to ‘post-truth’ politics, I essentially endorse Sokal’s claim.

am not convinced by science studies’ own self-debasing claims of moral culpability in arming the right; I think science studies and the science wars says little of the right, but it says much of the left. Further, I even question the very notion that we are living through ‘post-truth’ times. Instead, I suggest that our contemporary political moment is grounded in a recognition of a number of uncomfortable truths, and so-called post-truth politics amounts to a reckoning of who caused these troubles and what alternative political visions are commensurate to the challenge of confronting them. In my view, the choice is between two options: a populist right that speaks to wide-spread material concerns but eschews science and blames scapegoats; or a left that must propose an alternative, democratic, and rationalist vision. Put simply, the choice is between socialism or barbarism.

My article proceeds in four parts. First, I define science studies, providing a brief historical overview and summarizing their key contentions. Second, I tell the story of Alan Sokal and the science wars. Sokal’s side of the science wars were motivated by concerns that science studies hinted towards a possible post-truth future, and therefore our contemporary politics appear vindication for Sokal’s hoax. Third, I evaluate whether that was the case and summarize the state of the debate. Finally, I suggest an alternative reading of post-truth, and conclude with suggestions for how the left ought to confront these challenges. 

1. Introduction to Science Studies

 Science studies is a crude term I am using to generalize a broad interdisciplinary area (with scholars from sociology, history, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies, and others), and a variety of fields and subfields (the social studies of knowledge, science and technology studies, social epistemology, the history of science, the philosophy of science). What connects these disparate areas is their focus on the social dimensions of knowledge. While traditional epistemology focused narrowly on building universalized and stable conceptions of knowing (i.e. rules of logic, forms of reasoning, etc.) for the individual knower, science studies examines how features of systems and groups (scientific organizations, scientific cultures, historical conditions, political ideologies, etc.) come to shape scientific knowledge. Put simply, their focus is on the social conditions, not the material stuff.

Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) ushered in this era. Since Kuhn, science studies scholars are less likely to see science as a lens through which to access objective reality; instead, that reality mediated/constructed through scientific communities. Kuhn’s foremost contribution was to popularize the term “scientific paradigm,” which argued that ordinary scientific practice is characterized by narrow “puzzle solving,” in which scientists follow a set of prescribed rules provided by the paradigm. Therefore, the scope of the scientific imagination is radically curtailed by the particular social circumstances that scientists find themselves in.

Inspired by Kuhn, a radical form of social constructivism emerges, originating from scholars of the so-called ‘strong programme’ in Edinburg (Barry Barnes and David Bloor, Harry Collins, Steven Shapin, and others). Methodologically, Barnes et. al (1996) espouse the maxim of ‘methodological relativism,’ which claims all knowledge should be understood and explained in the same manner, i.e. socially. To them, scientists come to make facts as a consequence of social processes. This work is later taken up by anthropologists who study scientific labs (notably Knorr-Cetina, 1999 and Latour, 1987), and focus on how the daily interaction of scientists work to construct ‘facts.’

This brief tour of the social dimensions of scientific knowledge is necessarily crude, omitting a wide swath of contributions. For instance, feminist epistemologists (see for instance Longino, 1990; Keller, 1995) have been particular influential, as well as post-structuralist and postmodern accounts (for instance, Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, and others, all critically reviewed in Sokal and Bricmont, 1998), as well as more traditional analytic philosophers of social epistemology (Goldman and Whitcomb, 2011). I provide this survey only to demonstrate a broadly ‘social turn’ in understanding science. For purposes here, I am especially focused on the strong version of social constructivism, as exemplified by the Edinburg school (Barnes et. al, 1996) and those who follow them. Their point is not merely that the social influences scientific practice (a point that a traditional epistemologist would easily concede), but that the social is constitutive of scientific knowledge. It is impossible to properly capture this wide range of disciplinary diversity within one name, but for the sake of simplicity, I will use the term science studies. When I write the term, that should be taken to mean all members of the various fields and subfields who espouse a strong form of social constructivism.

2. Scientists Wage Their War

Science studies came under attack by biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt in their polemical book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (1994). Gross and Levitt mount a wide-ranging attack on science studies, with particular scorn for the postmodern and poststructuralist French intellectuals, including the Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan, and others. Their fiery polemic was met with harsh rejoinders from science studies. This is a time now referred to as “the Science Wars,” a term introduced by cultural studies scholar Andrew Ross (1996). The culmination of those wars was Alan Sokal. Sokal, a mathematician and physicist, lampooned the left-wing journal Social Text by writing a hoax article that claimed to argue quantum gravity had progressive political potential (Sokal, 1996). Below, I recount the story of the hoax as Sokal tells it in the academic magazine Lingua Franca (in Sokal, 2000)as well as his own follow-up books (Sokal, 2008; Sokal and Bricmont, 1998).

Sokal describes himself as the old-fashioned leftist, following the rationalist spirit of Enlightenment, who believes in the emancipatory power of science to discover truths and hold powerful people accountable (2000, pp. 52-53). In writing his hoax, Sokal describes his concerns in primarily political terms: relativism is bad for the left (1998, pp. 205-209). A similar claim has been made by Noam Chomsky (1993), Barbara Epstein (1995, 1997), and others. Chomsky (1993) makes the further claim that epistemic relativism could be appropriated by the right:

“Remarkably, their left counterparts today often seek to deprive working people of these tools of emancipation, inform­ing us that the “project of the Enlightenment” is dead, that we must abandon the “illusions” of science and rationality— a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, de­lighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use (emphasis mine, in Sokal, 1998, p. 204).”

As Sokal (2000) tells it, his hoax article is meaningless. He merely quotes a number of science studies scholars, praises them, and connects their quotes together in a nonsensical argument. To him, the article was postmodern gobbledygook that made no coherent argument; to the reviewers, it was good enough to publish. In the aftermath, Social Text editors admitted that they did not understand the mathematics in his submissions (which was laden with mistakes), but they nevertheless published the article partly because Sokal was a scientist (in Sokal, 2000, p. 55). The hoax made Social Text a laughingstock and vaulted the small journal to front page of the New York Times. Major newspapers and publications across the globe covered the hoax, discrediting Social Text and the broader fields (see Sokal, 2000 for a reprint of the New York Times coverage, as well a collection of other articles).

Judging from the writing at the time, Sokal clearly won the science wars; the popular press was overwhelmingly supportive, and scientists became emboldened to mount further attacks against science studies. However, one might dismiss Sokals victory as primarily a PR victory; the more important question is, was he right? Now, with the benefit of history, we can begin to answer that question. Returning to Sokals initial justifications, he made or endorsed three key political claims about science studies: 1) science studies would waste the lefts time, because they ought to be focusing on more important questions 2) science studies would lead to a cultural confusion about how science operates, and 3) science studies would harm the left by weakening their arguments against the right, and/or by accidentally arming the right. All of these positions are impossible to adjudicate with any precise scholarly rigour; the issues are too broad (what do we mean by weaken the left?), the definitions too fuzzy (who counts as the ‘the left?’), and the number of potential confounding variables are limitless. Nonetheless, I will venture a partial answer. More precisely, I will evaluate the answers that other scholars have offered.

3. Did the science studies contribute to post-truth?

There have been three answers to this question: 1) yes, and therefore we must change; 2) yes, but we should stay the course; and 3) no, we had no part to play in this. In what follows, I explain and evaluate all three positions.

1) Science studies had some role to play in causing post-truth, and therefore it must reckon with what it wrought

The first major article of this genre came from Bruno Latour. In Has Critique Ran Out of Steam? (2004), he wonders if science studies enabled right-wing climate denialism, alternative medicine, and a politics of conspiratorial thinking. Latour says he made a career of asking critical questions of scientists, and now his political foes are using the same kinds of arguments to delegitimize science and breed excessive distrust (p. 227). Therefore, he suggests that science studies change course, likening himself to a general who alters strategies as the battlefield conditions change. His alternative is not entirely clear or specific, but he suggests the deconstructionist should become a constructivist, adding to reality rather than merely subtracting from it (p. 232).

Next, the journal Social Studies of Science featured a number science and technology studies (STS) scholars debating the question. STS is a major subset of the broader area I am calling science studies, but I will switch to the term STS when referring to the debate in Social Studies of Science. Collins et. al (2017) claim that STS caused a “revolution” by democratizing debate about the nature of scientific expertise, and showing how politics influences science (p. 581). In so doing, they gave post-truthers new political arguments in their war against scientific expertise. They call for a new ‘third way’ in STS that would find ways to defend the value of experts in a democratic society.

2) Science studies caused post-truth, and it need not charge nor apologize

Sociological Steve Fuller is the key proponent of this theory. Following Collins et. al (2017), he too claims STS created greater epistemic democratization by challenging the unquestioned authority of scientists. Going one step further, he lambasts his colleagues for their mea culpas—he even calls them ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’ in one blog post, borrowing words from Donald Rumsfeld (2017). In his book, Post Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (2018) Fuller labels Latour’s article the “white flag of surrender,” and admonishes the broader field for being afraid of the political ramifications of their own theories (p. 60). He argues that STS arguments are indeed employed by the political right-wing, but for STS, that merely ought to be viewed as independent verification of the validity of their arguments. Instead, Fuller argues that STS scholars are so worried about the political ramifications, they are abandoning their own theories. In support of this, he claims that the key proposition of STS is the symmetry principle (pp. 60-62). The symmetry principle is a methodological edict from sociologists Barnes et al. (1996) which claims that STS scholars should study the social conditions that give rise to belief, but be ambivalent to normative questions surrounding those beliefs as well as the supposed truth-value of those beliefs. Be the belief true or false, good or bad, the sociologist of science should not change their approach. The left-wing science studies scholar, troubled by the contemporary anti-science slide, is therefore left with two options: 1) renounce their own methods or purge them through historical revisionism; or 2), accept epistemic democracy, accept that knowledge is a social/political power game, and play the game. Fuller (2018) claims that his colleagues have chosen the former position, but they should have chosen the latter (pp. 53-68; see also earlier versions of this argument in Fuller 2016, Fuller 2017).

3) Science studies has no relationship to post-truth

Sergio Sismundo (2017a, 2017b), the editor of Social Studies of Science, sees in post-truth little to ring one’s hands over. Post-truth, whatever that is — Sismundo looks to Kellyanne Conway’s phrase ‘alternative facts,’ the wild oscillations of Donald Trump, fake news, and conspiracy-minded Twitter accounts — has little resemblance to the kinds of social organizations that STS scholars examine. STS offers detailed accounts of the complicated ways scientific knowledge is constructed, but “a Twitter account lone does not make what we have been calling knowledge,” he argues (2017b, p. 3). In a follow up (2017a), he further elaborates that the epistemic authority of science is far more stable than the wild conspiracy theories of the post-truth era. Similarly, Lynch (2017) problematizes the notion that the idea of ‘post-truth’ corresponds to how science scholars understand knowledge. Here, the Oxford Dictionary Definition is generally cited. In 2016, the dictionary made post-truth their word of the year, defining it as: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (in Lynch, p. 594). However, Lynch claims that this is not how STS scholars think of knowledge; in fact, he says the fact/emotion distinction would not pass muster in an undergraduate STS seminar. Further, Lynch challenges Fuller’s (2018) reading of the symmetry principle in post-truth politics. For Lynch, the symmetry principle is a narrow “procedural maxim,” or simply a style of explanation. The symmetry principle need not invite the denigration of truth. By definition, it is ambivalent to truth. Lynch demands stronger evidence that post-truthers employ STS arguments, otherwise it is just “the height of hubris” (p. 597).

These competing explanations never quite hit the mark; they talk over, around, and past enough one another. To get some clarity, we have to ask ourselves a more basic question: what would count as a satisfying evidence of a post-truth/STS link? I suggest that there is a possible causal argument, and the incidental argument.

 The casual argument would provide evidence of a direct relationship between STS/science studies and the post-truth campaigners.  It would show that some post-truth political movement directly referencing STS scholars in their in their own literature, political mobilizing, etc. Fuller is not entirely clear if he supports the casual explanation, often oscillating between arguments that suggest a causal link and arguments that suggest a weaker incidental link. In some instances, he clearly does use causal language, with phrases like “post-truth is the offspring that science and technologies studies (STS) has been always trying to disown,” and STS “set [post-truth] loose on the general public—if not invented [it]” (pp. 58-59). Nevertheless, he provides no compelling evidence to support that vocabulary. In fact, none of these scholars — not Latour, Collins, nor Fuller — provide detailed empirical evidence, save for some marginal cases. For example, Fuller (2018) notes that Peter Berger, a prominent sociologist of science, was supported by the tobacco lobby because his work challenged smoking bans (pp. 53-54). Fuller himself defended creationists in the Dover case, which was about having creationism taught in the classroom (Fuller, 2015). However, both these examples are of STS, not the political right. Not only do Fuller/Latour/Collins provide little empirical evidence of their own, they makes no attempt of examining the work of other researchers who study the rise of the emergent right (see for instance Bar-On 2013, 2014, 2018; Cas Mudde, 2007, 2016; Sedgwick, 2019). To my knowledge, these scholars make no mention of the political right/STS link. If STS arguments were a prominent feature of the resurgent post-truth right, should we not expect to see some evidence there?

A serious empirical appraisal might actually lead to the exact opposite conclusion. I would suggest that many right-wing actors seem to be reviving a kind of biologically reductionist argument to justify social hierarchy and traditional gender norms (for the paradigmatic case, consider Jordan Petersons work, reviewed by Bowles, 2018 and Gotcalves 2018), as well as racial difference (Klein, 2018) and ethnonationalism (Bar-On, 2018). These seem like vulgar positivistic arguments, not vulgar STS arguments. Admittedly, both could be true of the post-truthers: they might employ STS-like arguments in one setting (“the climate consensus is a conspiracy of scientists enforcing their left-wing ideologies upon us!”), while employing enlightenment-like arguments in another (biology is real, stop making girls become boys! free speech is of the utmost importance!, etc.). Latour (2004) makes a similar claim, suggesting it might be the case that the political right employs a grab bag of contradictory arguments, “naturalized facts when it suits them and social construction when it suits them” (p. 227). Clearly, much more robust empirical work needs to be done to evaluate which groups are in fact using STS arguments, and to what extent. In short, I find no compelling evidence for the causal argument.

The incidental argument could run two ways: the strong incidental, and the weak incidental. The strong incidental would show that a post-truth political movement employed STS-like arguments that would stand up as impressive arguments in the eyes of STS scholars. For instance, a proponent of alternative medicine might provide a detailed analysis of the web of actors and institutions that go into the social construction of pharmaceutical knowledge. They could point out that industry sponsors research trials, hires marketing firms, uses medical ghost writers, pays doctors, runs television commercials, and conducts political lobbying. That is just the analysis that Sergio Sismundo offers in his book Ghost Managed Medicine (2018)but his book is no defense of dubious ‘alternative medicines.’ This is a serious theoretical and empirical work that asks how the industry shapes our knowledge of pharmaceuticals and of illness. Further, he suggests possible reforms. However, the post-truth campaigners could mobilize the same kind of argument to simply discredit ‘western medicine’ full-stop. If that happened, we would have a case of what I am calling the strong incidental argument. However, none of the scholars arguing the post-truth/STS connection provide this sort of incidental evidence.

The weak incidental argument is similar, only the STS-like argument is of a much weaker sort. For example, an anti-vaccine movement might claim vaccines are a sham because they are funded by greedy pharmaceutical companies. This argument might be called a vulgar STS argument, because it vaguely resembles the spirit of an STS argument. To use another analogy, we might say that the Stalinist gulags were a reflection of a kind of vulgar Marxism; we could not hold Marx responsible for the gulags, but we might say that he holds some small responsibility for the transmutation of his ideas, because there is a kernel that traces from Das Capital to the gulags. To be clear, I think the case for culpability in both these cases (Marx and the gulags, STS and the anti-vaccine crusader) is very thin. However, the incidental weak argument is the one most well-defended by the post-truth/STS connectors. For example, Latour (2004) writes that he has spent a career destabilizing the idea that we should put much stock in ‘scientific certainty.’ Climate deniers have posed similar arguments, claiming that there is reason to doubt the scientific consensus on climate change (p. 227). If this is what STS responsibility amounts to, it does not amount to very much.

Despite the shortcomings of the post-truth/STS connectors, there are also shortcomings on the other side. Sismundo and Lynch both dismisses the post-truth/STS connection by asserting that post-truth does not correspond to the way that STS scholars think of knowledge. However, Sismundo and Lynch are wrong to privilege the OED’s dictionary definition of post-truth. As Fuller has suggested (2018), as well as Jasanoff and Hilton (2017), that definition of post-truth is a self-serving one that liberal elites have used to besmirch their political enemies. It may be true that the OED dictionary definition does not correspond to STS thinking, but nor does it correspond to the thinking of post-truthers!

Secondly, Lynch (2017) argues that symmetry does not invite a post-truth sensibility as Fuller claims. Narrowly focused, Lynch is correct that the symmetry principle is a procedural maxim that does not entail the depreciation of facts. However, I suggest that the symmetry principle nevertheless invites post-truth sensibilities in practice, even if not by definition. Barnes et. al. (1996), the originators of the symmetry principle, were leaders of the so-called ‘strong programme,’ an avowedly relativistic sociology of science that completely eschewed the natural world in their explanations of scientific discoveries. One might maintain, like Lynch, that this is a kind of methodological focus that is actually only ambivalent to the natural world. However, narrowly focusing on the symmetry principle’s methodological relativism, it is easy to see how that principle might slip into a kind of de facto epistemic relativism. As the saying goes, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For the STS scholar with their finely tuned methodologies for understanding the social organization of science, every scientific fact is explained away socially.

For example, imagine a STS-inspired post-truther studying the scientific consensus on climate change. The post-truther might offer us a rich sociological analysis of the various institutions (grant-making bodies, prestigious journals, university hiring committees, etc.) and professional cultures that condition to kind of research conducted by the climate scientist. Within this culture, climate denialism could be career suicide. Given their training and professional inculcation, all signs point to accepting the climate change consensus; indeed, they might not even be incapable of imagining an alternative within that existing scientific paradigm. I think we would be right to criticize this STS-wielding climate denier for not even attempting to analyze the extent to which the natural world played some contributing factor in the development of this scientific consensus. However, their explanation is entirely consistent with the symmetry principle because it studies the social conditions alone. To the reader, it will seem the social is the major cause of the climate consensus. In a banal sense, of course it is—all science is social. The question should be whether or not this particular social arrangement is the primary driver of the consensus (i.e. the constructivist position), or if the material world places certain limitations on the climate scientist which leads them inevitably towards the current consensus (i.e. the positivist position). 

These objections to Sismundo and Lynch point to an unrealized possibility for a connection. Even if there is no empirical evidence that post-truthers are using STS ideas, perhaps they should. If a post-truther properly understood STS ideas, they might be able to mount robust STS arguments to serve their political ends.

4. Rethinking Post-Truth

However, possible future worlds are one matter; what are we to make of STS’s alleged role in the post-truth politics of this world? Very little, I am arguing. Further, I think the entire debate is on shaky ground; the terms of the debate are ill-defined, ever-shifting, and potentially incoherent. As we have seen, there is some disagreement and what we mean by post-truth. If we have no stable definition, how do we tie STS to post-truth? As Jasanoff and Simmet (2017) argue, we might simply question the overall premise that we are in anything resembling post-truth. Perhaps, I contend, we are witnessing a political culture finally coming to terms with uncomfortable truths. In what follows, I lay out this alternative reading by analyzing the candidacy of Donald Trump. The argument I offer amounts to little more than a series of anecdotes amounting to a sweeping generalization of our political culture, but perhaps it is the best I can do in short order; at the very least, if my generalization is equally plausible to the post-truth generalization, we have strong reasons to question the post-truth generalization.

Contrary of what liberals often say of Donald Trump, his campaign was grounded firmly in material reality. In particular, he focused on the material reality of those struggling in the ravished industrial heartland. On the campaign trail, Trump spoke frequently of the falling standard of living and the flight of manufacturing jobs (Duesterberg, 2019), the mounting opioid epidemic and declining life expectancy (Horsley, 2018), and the heavy material and human costs of US wars (New York Times, 2017). Further, contrary to popular perception, his campaign frequently cited genuine policy issues and proposals. In fact, Fowler et al. (2016) evaluated the amount of personal content compared to policy content within Trump and Clinton campaign ads. Trump spoke predominantly of policy and was in-line with all other major candidates in US presidential elections since 2000—save for one exception, Hilary Clinton. Clinton overwhelmingly spoke of personal issues, rarely of concrete policy proposals, despite the perception of Clinton as a so-called wonk. To the extent that Clinton had policy proposals, left-wing commentators have argued that the public saw them as milquetoast technocratic fixes not appropriate to the scale of the issues (see for instance Savage, 2017). Conversely, Trump spoke to material concerns, offering a radical alternative solution: a return to a glorious American past, where the factories come back and the troops come home. Of course, I believe Trump should be condemned for selling a fantasy, as well as his anti-immigrant nativism, rank sexism, and so on. However, these criticisms do not make him a post-truth candidate. Rather, he just offers the wrong explanations for these truths he highlights, and the wrong proposals for fixing them. 

My alternative reading of the Trump candidacy, albeit brief, undermines the post-truth narrative. One might point to a number of blatant falsehoods to serve as counterexamples (his fabricating inauguration crowd numbers, his denial of climate change, and so on), but this is not enough. All politicians lie. The post-truth label is stronger than that; the post-truth label suggests that Trump is rooted in a kind of social constructivism. However, I am suggesting that Trump’s candidacy is rooted on a set of ‘truths’ that the liberal establishment largely ignored. Therefore, the liberal establishment does not stand on stronger footing than the so-called post-truth reactionaries. For instance, Democrats responded to Trump with their laughable slogan “America is already Great” (Roberts and Siddiqui, 2016). This slogan is completely devoid of any recognition of uncomfortable truths and is simply an embrace of the existing political order. However, we know that order is rather precarious (a falling standard of living, mounting inequality, repeated financial shocks, climate catastrophe, global pandemics, etc.). How can one say, “America is already great”? Is that not a ‘post-truth’ position? Conversely, the populist resurgence (both on the left and right) seems to reflect a reemergence of truth—an honest reckoning. People across the ideological spectrum are seeking to clarify political values (i.e. do we embrace inclusivity, or nativism?) and proposing alternative political visions (i.e. socialism or barbarism?) to cure our ills.

In my view, Sokal’s primary motivation in writing his hoax — his worry that relativism would be bad for the left — is on the mark. The science studies-inspired left is woefully underprepared to offer a compelling alternative vision to the resurgent right, as evidenced by their muddled debate about their own responsibility for post-truth. Going forward, something will have to change. Critique is not enough, as Latour (2004) conceded. It is a point Epstein (1995, 1997) made more forcefully in her earlier criticisms of post-structuralism, which asserted that you cannot make a political movement on deconstruction alone. We do not have the time to fully articulate an alternative vision here, but I can hint at some future directions. Feminist and pragmatist philosophers of science point to a potential way out. For example, Longino (1990) and Wilye (2009) have stressed that scientific objectivity can be increased through a diversity of perspectives and standpoints. Further, Douglas (2009) maintains that science is not value-neutral; it does serve interests and values. During the excesses of the science wars, those kinds of ideas lead some to maintain that scientific ‘ways of knowing’ are always inherently capitalist (Aronowitz, 1988) or inherently patriarchal and sexed (Irigaray and Oberle, 1985). However, Douglas (2009) does not go so far; values can be desirable or undesirable—therefore, they can be forefront, debated, and changed. Further, the pragmatist Philip Kitcher (2011) proposes the ideal of well-ordered science, which calls for the democratization of science, and better aligns scientific values with the public and democratic values. I suggest that we extend the notion of values to argue for a science that is anti-capitalist in orientation. In my view, the real issue is not science itself; the real issue is what interests are served by the dominate scientific paradigms. If the earlier scholars made that case during the science wars, the left would be better positioned to mount a robust response and an alternative political vision to our so-called post-truth politics.

In conclusion, I adjudicated the question of whether science studies holds some responsibility for post-truth politics. I evaluated the prominent arguments for and against the science studies/post-truth connection and found them all wanting. To clarify the debate, I proposed that we look for evidence of a causal link between science studies and post-truth, as well as an incidental link. I found no evidence of a causal link, but some evidence for a weaker incidental link. In short, this does not amount to responsibility. However, I left open the possibility that post-truthers might use science studies ideas in the future. Next, I upended the debate by challenged the very notion that we are even in post-truth times. Rather, I suggested that resurgent populism represents an honest reckoning with grave societal ills. In such a moment, the left ought to present an alternative political vision. In my view, that vision should be clear (i.e. not muddled by obtuse jargon), attractive (i.e. directly addressing the material concerns of the population), rationalist (i.e. leveraging the resources of science), and democratic (i.e. aligning scientific expertise with public values). I claimed that the radical social constructivism of science studies harmed the left’s ability to present that vision. Therefore, I largely agreed with Sokal’s political motivations for writing his infamous hoax. That is, science studies would harm the left. I concluded by suggested that the left instead turn to feminist and pragmatists philosophers of science who appreciate the social elements of science but offer a constructive way out of the post-truth morass.