In the second interview, Lapo Lappin and Åke Gafvelin talk to Åsa Wikforss, professor of theoretical philosophy at Stockholm University and member of the Swedish Academy. This is an English translation of the original interview, which was held in Swedish. In the interview we discuss ”alternative facts” and disinformation, in relation to the corona pandemic and populism. We get in to more metaphysical themes: why is the world such that it permits no such thing as alternative facts? And what is truth? Is the world dependent on our categorizations, and are there categories inscribed into nature, which we simply discover? What is the relation between ethics and epistemology? We discuss whether science can make progress, whether science is oppressive, whether science is free of values.
Åke Gafvelin: Hello and welcome everyone to the second episode of Metaphysical Laboratory. With us today we have Åsa Wikforss, professor of theoretical philosophy at Stockholm University and member of the Swedish Academy.
Åsa, you probably recognize our name – the Metaphysical Laboratory – as we have stolen it from the name of a seminar room at Stockholm University.
Åsa Wikforss: …and lunch room.
ÅG: When we talked to Torbjörn Tännsjö, we asked him what his most recent thought experiment in your metaphysical laboratory was. Do you hang there often, and, if so, what was the last thought experiment you performed?
ÅW: I’m not the one who usually does that many thought experiments. I don’t usually eat lunch there either, unlike many others. I personally like to eat cooked food. My last activity in the metaphysical laboratory is probably a thesis seminar where the graduate students got to discuss what essay topics they have chosen. That was the last thing we did before everything closed down [due to the corona pandemic] in the end of February.
ÅG: One question that we always ask in these interviews is which three philosophical influences have affected you the most. Could you name three people who have greatly influenced your thinking?
ÅW: The philosopher I did my doctorate on, read a lot of – and even met, as a doctoral student at Columbia University in the 1990s – was Donald Davidson. Davidson was one of the great analytic philosophers of language, working in the borderlands between the philosophy of mind and epistemology. In hindsight, I can say I was probably very inspired by him. Otherwise, I guess it is simply the great analytical philosophers: W.V.O. Quine, who was Davidson’s disciple [sic], Hilary Putnam, whom I have read a lot over the years, also an American philosopher. I was in the United States during a formative period in my education, which probably contributes to these choices.
Lapo Lappin: We tried to guess which names you would mention. We had Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke. But maybe that was a bad guess?
ÅW: No it’s not a bad guess at all. I’ve worked a lot with Kripke. But if we’re talking about being inspired… Well, I have devoted a lot of time to criticizing Kripke, which could be said to be a type of inspiration… If you think about how my thinking has been affected, however, it may be less Kripke than you might think, although I read and wrote a lot about Kripke in my doctoral dissertation. His book on Wittgenstein had just been published, and the question of norms and meaning was very current. But I must say it was good guess!
LL: Thank you. A very general question, then – you are very active in the public debate. What do you think the role of philosophy in the debate should be – does philosophy have a special role?
ÅW: I don’t know if philosophy has a special role. All researchers have a special role when their subjects become relevant in the public debate. That is why basic research is needed in all areas, because anything may become relevant. Someone who has been studying obscure Islamic texts for decades may suddenly become very relevant to something. When it comes to philosophy, there are certain topics that border on the social debate more clearly than others: moral philosophy and applied ethics, for example. I never could have imagined that the theory of knowledge would be relevant to the public discussion! But suddenly that happens, and issues of knowledge are at the top of the agenda. Then I felt it was important to contribute; and what you contribute as a philosopher is what all experts need to contribute: their knowledge, as well as the scientific expertise they have in what now happens to matter.
LL: Do you think the on-going pandemic has made certain philosophical issues more relevant?
ÅW: Yes, in all social crises, philosophical questions emerge. Some of the current questions I have pondered are the moral issues arising with scarcity of resources in health care. These are extremely difficult questions.
But also the epistemological questions come up, in a slightly different way than when I entered the debate in 2016. Back then it was very much about disinformation, and about people (like Donald Trump) who go out and say and spread information that is obviously false. Now we have a much trickier situation because we are in a situation where knowledge is unclear. There are some things we know, and there are some stupid things that are said as well (for example, by Trump) – he has a lot of excellent suggestions he has felt his way towards.
But in general – in the case of the big questions about the spread of the virus: who gets it, why some become sicker than others, how to best prevent the spread – there is a huge amount of uncertainty, with the knowledge growing before of our eyes in real time. The questions arise then, about how to relate to this. Partly regarding what I should believe as an expert. In that case, I must believe in what my research shows, and show humility towards research from elsewhere. It is extremely important that, as an expert, you adjust the degree of conviction to the evidence. As a non-expert with little knowledge of epidemiology, one should be very cautious about believing a great deal about anything, and be open that we may have to wait a while before anybody is allowed to be convinced of something. This is precisely because the experts do not agree.
This is one thing that another philosopher and colleague has talked to me about, that is, epistemic humility [Wikforss refers to Erik Angner’s article]. Being humble to the fact that there is so much we do not know, and even though knowledge about the virus is growing at an explosive rate right now, the uncertainty is still so great. What was new research becomes invalid two weeks later, because other evidence that points in a different direction has surfaced since then. That’s just something we need to live with.
What is truly difficult is this further question – how should we act? Politicians in particular have to make decisions based on uncertain knowledge. How should they relate to an uncertain field? It is interesting in terms of knowledge, but nonetheless a very different situation than in 2016, where people were questioning what was obvious.
LL: We can agree that Trump was and is very irresponsible in his distrust of experts – but where does the line go? How much should one trust the experts? In a case like our current one, where the experts are disagreeing, and there is a lot of uncertainty.
ÅW: But then you have to trust that! You have to trust the experts and the fact that the experts disagree should make you realize that there is a situation where our knowledge is unclear, and you just have to wait for the time being. In this situation, to ignore what the experts say and think: ”they say different things, then I can come up with something of my own”: that is the wrong conclusion. If there is a great deal of debate between experts and the evidence points in different directions, then relying on experts mean not to have any definite opinions. I think that is reasonable.
You may have some adjacent knowledge that allows you to take a stand, but you should have respect for the fact that specialized sciences and areas of knowledge are extremely difficult to evaluate if you do not have the knowledge-background yourself. You should be aware of that.
Is Trump a post-modernist?
ÅG: The main character in your book Alternativa fakta [Alternative Facts] is Donald Trump: the book even gets its name from a comment by his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway. Many people have linked this kind of disregard of facts to postmodernism – if you can use that term – a movement in Continental Europe that emerged in the mid-20th century. Postmodernism is polyvalent and multifaceted, we cannot expect to sum it up here. But some motifs that have seeped into the common discourse are the suspicion towards the universal claims latent in the scientific enterprise. These are backed up by arguments that the entire scientific enterprise is permeated by power structures. Doesn’t Trump argue something similar? That is: CNN should not be trusted because they embody a power structure capped by the liberal elite. I would like to ask if there is any connection here, between the populism that Trump stands for and the kind of ”postmodernism” that has been widely debated in academia and in wider culture?
ÅW: One should be careful about such statements. One should certainly not attribute to Donald Trump any philosophical theory of the world and reality. He has not read a book in his life [sic], so we can be absolutely sure that it is not the case that he has imbibed a lot of postmodernism and then gone out and questioned the reality – he is a person who says what benefits him, no matter what that is, and there is no more to it. Likewise, Kellyanne Conway was caught in a difficult situation and tried to get out of it by claiming something that is obviously false. What is going on there is not terribly complicated, it is simply about raw power.
Are there any similarities here to postmodernism? What I say in the book is that there are two possible connections – on the one hand, there are especially right-wing propaganda makers in both the United States and Russia who have used the postmodern way of talking, to confuse people. Talking about the fact that there is no truth and only interpretations, and that everything is about power, becomes part of a general strategy to undermine people’s faith in science. Postmodern ideas are part of their propaganda campaign; they know it exists. Of course, there is also a risk if it is thought that many people have encountered these ideas during their university education and are therefore vulnerable to it. But as I said – I really don’t think you should over-intellectualize Trump and his supporters. Why does Trump claim that CNN and the New York Times are ”fake media” and the people’s enemy? Because they are examining him. Then it is extremely important to him that people do not believe in what CNN says. It’s not that complicated.
ÅG: What do you think of the slightly more intellectual alt-right – for example someone like Alexander Dugin? Do you think he is influenced by postmodernism and that it is possible to get a link there with the more left-wing critics of hegemonic structures of knowledge?
ÅW: As I said, I think they have simply exploited this way of talking because they know that they can influence people in that way. In the book I quote Mike Cernovich, one of the right-wing extremists who uses postmodern theory consciously. It can probably pop up here and there among the right-wing agitators. But I don’t think for a moment that they believe it themselves – it’s something they use as weapons in their propaganda campaign.
What is truth?
ÅG: Another main character in the book is ‘truth’. In the book you mention is that a requirement for an acceptable theory of truth is that it preserves a gap between the belief that something is true and the fact that it is true. Which theory of truth do you think best describes truth and how does it relate to the theories of correspondence, coherence, and pragmatism?
ÅW: I haven’t done any research on this particular question, so I’m not entirely convinced. But I clearly accept some variant of the correspondence theory of truth. The devil is in the details, however. One needs to formulate exactly what such a correspondence theory would imply. I don’t think a coherence theory of truth can be reasonable. This is the theory that as long as all beliefs are connected and coherent, you have truth. One can imagine several different systems that are coherent but contradictory. The pragmatic theory, which says that truth is what works, and that what works is what you get at the ”end of science”, if you ever get there – is also problematic. As far as the correspondence theory is concerned – Davidson also thinks that truth is a primitive concept that any attempt to define it will be problematic, and that we should use a primitive concept of truth to explain meaning. I think he has a point there.
Can science make progress?
LL: In your book Alternative Facts (Alternativa Fakta), you often describe science as a cumulative project – different discoveries build on each other over time, making progress as they do so. So I wonder how you view something like Kuhn’s idea of ”paradigm shifts”?
ÅW: The idea of paradigm shifts is one of the most influential ideas in the philosophy of the 20th century. The idea is that in some situations changes in scientific theories become so radical that we cannot compare theories over time, and say that one is an improvement over the other. When you get a radical change in your theory, you also get a radical change in your concept, and the theories therefore become incomparable. I do not research philosophy of science, but I do not accept this view. It is clear that there are major changes over time, it is also the case that there are conceptual changes over time. But to conclude from this that they cannot be compared from a rational perspective, I think Kuhn never managed to show that.
ÅG: When Hilary Putnam received the Rolf Schock Prize in Philosophy in Sweden, just before he died, he talked about his way of overcoming the problem of radical conceptual change. Instead of thinking that science consists of theoretical definitions that change over time, we all talk about the same things all the time – natural kinds that exist in the world. Is this a move you think could help in evading Kuhn’s argument?
ÅW: No. I have also written a lot of articles about natural kinds. Among other things, about Putnam’s and Kripke’s views in this question. No – I do not think there are certain natural kinds, that is to say, categorizations that are embedded in the world by their very nature, independently of our categorizations. Putnam thought that when you use a term to name such a natural kind, it is enough to point to an instance of that kind, and then the underlying nature of the natural kind takes over and decides the meaning of the term. I have criticized that in several articles, and I do not believe that.
Nor do I believe that there is a sharp boundary between ”natural” kinds and other kinds. You may have, at one extreme, chemical elements – those that simply form the essentials of kinds. But it after that it is a spectrum. You look at, for example, water, which is an example that Putnam and Kripke talk a lot about – that water is essentially H2O – if it is H2O, and we may know that it has that composition – then H2O is identical to water in all possible worlds. But it immediately becomes problematic when you start to think about it. It would also follow that H2O could be water without any of the superficial properties that water has – for example, if it were pink and sticky. I do not believe in the essentialism underlying that way of looking at it.
If we move on, we find our ”artefact kinds” – sofas and chairs, and so on. It is very doubtful that these kinds have essences. Then there are also very specific kinds, such as ‘things I buy on Tuesdays’. In our articles on the relevance of natural kinds, my colleague Sören Häggqvist and I argue that [natural kinds] have an important role to play in science because they allow a certain type of generalizability. You can say, for example, that ”all dogs eat meat”. If you have seen a dog, you also know that all other dogs eat meat. You can then make generalizations with natural kinds. We think there is something there, but we must discuss exactly how this should be formulated. It certainly does not lead to this idea that there is a very sharp boundary between the natural kinds and the non-natural kinds.
What is a ”fact”?
LL: I wonder if you could say a few words about the concept of fact and its history.
ÅW: I don’t know much about the history of the concept. I imagine it has been used in slightly different ways – and of course there is a contemporary discussion on how to understand the facts. What does it mean that it is a fact that the apple is red?
The only thing that is relevant in the book is the distinction between facts, on the one hand, and our beliefs, on the other. The belief that something is the case does not mean that it actually is the case. This talk about ‘alternative facts’ is very strange because facts are about how the world actually is. There are no alternative facts, even though there are alternative descriptions of the world, of course, and it is these alternative descriptions are the ones we argue about.
ÅG: We have been thinking about the metaphysical basis for this fact – this is, after all, the metaphysical laboratory. One person who tried to put forward such a foundation was Wittgenstein, in his earlier career. He claimed that language reflects the world as it is through facts. But there are those who claim that Wittgenstein went in a very relativistic direction. Is it possible to formulate a theory of facts that does not land in relativism?
ÅW: Is it possible to formulate a view that makes you land in relativism? I do not see Wittgenstein as a relativist, either in his early or later phase. The early Wittgenstein, after all, had a strongly realist view of the world: the simple things that are composed in factual relations, our language then refers to these via simple names, which are put together in a sentence, and thus reflect reality. Surely there are those who claims that it leads to relativism, I don’t really know why it would.
The later Wittgenstein does not really talk about these issues in this way – where the focus is on the language game, and as I see it, it is another way of approaching the meta-semantic question of what our language is connected to the world. In the [early work] Tractatus [logico-philosophicus] it was this idea that the names had a direct contact with the simple objects, whereas in Philosophical Investigations the ability of language to describe the world is to be found in its use. There is a big difference. I know some read the latter Wittgenstein relativistically, but I don’t really know why you would.
ÅG: You mentioned Kripke and his book Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. In an interview he recently participated in, he was quite positive about such an interpretation of Wittgenstein (and he is also positive to it in the book). Kripke quotes a passage from On Certainty where Wittgenstein says we cannot, from our language game, claim that a society where you consult oracles instead of scientists about factual issues, is factually wrong. They simply have other institutions for discriminating what to be considered to be facts. Isn’t this view pretty much in favour of ‘alternative fact’? And Wittgenstein is, after all, a main figure in analytical philosophy…
ÅW: On Certainty is basically a bunch of loose notes he kept tucked under his bed. There are as many writings where Wittgenstein says contradictory things. I would not want to commit to any claim about what kind of views Wittgenstein held about facts, and whether that would imply relativism. But I do not know – there is much contradiction in Wittgenstein’s later writing, especially after Philosophical Investigations. His very last text is On Certainty, and there are many other manuscripts from his final days that all point in slightly different directions.
ÅG: You mentioned Hilary Putnam as one of your influences. He argued for a philosophy of science called internal realism. Internal realism is roughly based on the fact that there are too many ways of describing the world, to say that there is a description that is perfectly correct and definitive – a ”God’s-eye view”. Instead, it is we, the people, who create the world through our conceptual systems. But if the world is in some sense created by our models, and we make the observation that some models postulate certain entities that others deny (for example, strings, quarks, atoms), then we must conclude that reality actually differs between people and over time. In that case, do we not have to conclude that there are alternative facts?
ÅW: Yes, if that actually is the case. I don’t buy Putnam’s internal realism.
ÅG: Can you ask why you do not buy it?
ÅW: Putnam himself rejected it later. Certainly, there are many different ways of describing and categorizing the world, and that was what we were talking about when we talked about categorization. Of these, some are more or less useful: the previous ”what I bought on Tuesdays” is not a very good categorization, since there is not really anything to project based on it if I am not very regular with my Tuesday purchases. There are many different ways of describing the world, and in science, our ways of describing the world become more and more sophisticated over time and it makes a difference to what we explore.
But the world is still there, as it is. If we decide to categorize animals in a different way, it does not change what animals are. In biology, this is discussed a lot – there are many different ways of classifying species for example, and biologists argue a little about which way is the most reasonable way. It creates slightly little different theories. But as I said: that there are different descriptions of the world does not mean that the world itself is in many different ways.
ÅG: A term that you talk about a lot in Alternative Facts is ‘truth-maker’. It is by virtue of these that certain statements are true, such as ”the table is green”: it is so that the table is green in reality and it is by virtue of this the statement is true. Is there any truth-maker to the fact that one model of reality is better than another, so that one gets around this that several people may have radically different worldviews to the extent that one can talk about relative facts?
ÅW: I think I mention truth makers once in the book [sic]. It has become a bit of a technical term that is quite debated. But it is clear that there are many different ways to model or describe the world, and how successful they are depends on what the world is like. If you are going to relativize facts then you have to take a few steps, and maybe say that ‘what facts there are is determined by what concepts we have’. But that’s not what I mean by facts.
LL: A rather important feature of postmodernism is the distrust of metanarratives. You argue strongly against other features of postmodernism, but do not mention this one in your book. Would you challenge postmodernism on this point as well? Do you think there is a need for a metanarratives?
ÅW: What do you mean by metanarratives?
LL: Lyotard, for example, talks about modernity being characterized by ‘Grand Narratives’ – Marxism, Religion. What characterizes postmodernity [according to Lyotard] is that these stories crumble apart. We don’t have this big, unifying story any longer.
ÅW: I think one can mean many different things with that. I am also sceptical about various attempts to give any kind of overall story about the development of the world. They are always simplifications, and can sometimes be dangerous. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
There are two stories that are very dangerous now, in terms of the threats to democracy. A particular story we often heard in the 90s, when everything seemed so bright, was the story of ”the end of history”. It was thought that liberal democracy had prevailed, and now all countries would follow in its wake. We had finally reached the goal, and could sit back and be happy. It is a very dangerous story, because democracy is constantly under threat by its enemies. We, as citizens, must stay vigilant, and be careful not believe that it will simply take care of itself. That too is a type of [liberal] story. There are also other stories that various fascist movements use. There was a ”golden past” or a ”golden age” that we have ”lost,” and because the corrupt and intellectual elite have forced upon us their Marxist and feminist theories and now we must ”restore” this golden age.
There are, after all, a lot of dangerous narratives – especially when it comes to politics – that you have to be very sceptical of, and realize that how the world and society develops is not due to any overall structure of a story that necessarily moves forward. It is rather due to what we do. If we neglect our democracy, everything can roll down-hill again. It’s as simple as that.
So yes, it is possible that I share this scepticism for grand narratives that provide a framework within which you interpret and understand everything in dramaturgy, and forget that you yourself are an actor, and that we ourselves are actors in this. If that’s what you’re talking about, I’m also sceptical.
LL: When we did some background preparation and listened to some of your interviews, you very rarely speak about religion. Is it not a relevant issue for you?
ÅW: I don’t know – I’ve been in a lot of panel discussions about faith and knoweldge. It’s pretty usual for me. My line on this question consists of a couple of things. People get to believe what they want. For that very reason, it is also important to have a secular society. I am very critical towards governmental orders about what religion one should have or not have, and to structuring society according to religious norms.
One reason for this comes from epistemology. Believers refer to religious experiences as the basis of their faith. They are certainly allowed to have these – for sure – but the problem is that the religious experience they have had, but others have not had, or even have access to. It differentiates religious experience from an ordinary perception experience where you do experiments and you can observe and draw conclusions from the lacrosse test blue. It is the shared experience that forms the basis of scientific knowledge: the common logical arguments and the common evidence. Therefore, it is okay to allow science to play a role in democracy. But not religion, because it is not accessible to everyone.
Then, as I said, some people say it makes no sense to believe in religious beliefs. But then there are philosophers who claim that is precisely the value of such beliefs. A philosopher that I like and that I read a lot is Sören Kierkegaard – he argues that the important thing about religious beliefs is this ”leap of faith”. Having rational reasons is far too easy… So I have talked a lot about such things – you just might not have seen it!
LL: Sure, perhaps I have just missed it. But you say people are allowed to believe what they want in religious matters, but when it comes to injecting hand-sanitizer into the lungs, as Trump says [sic], you can’t believe what you want. Is there some kind of asymmetry there, and why is it justified?
ÅW: Of course you can believe what you want! It’s just that sometimes it’s rational and sometimes it’s irrational. When it is not rationally founded, one should not force it on other people. You are always allowed to believe what you want – it’s constitutionally protected. So that’s a misinterpretation of what I’m saying. But I don’t think you can believe what you want in terms of factual beliefs. It is very much about bad luck – if you think wrong then that is what can happen. In Trump’s case, it’s not just bad luck, but that he systematically avoids all sources that could give him knowledge.
ÅG: You have done quite a bit of research on normativity and epistemology. There is a bit of a difference when you talk about what you can and cannot do in these questions. In one sense, I must believe that Socrates is mortal, if I think all humans are mortal and Socrates is a human. But it is clear that I am allowed deny that Socrates is mortal as a political right.
ÅW: Well, you are allowed to, of course! But then you commit a logical error.
ÅG: Is there any such thing as epistemic normativity, in the sense that I have to believe a conclusion if it follows from the premises?
ÅW: No. I have argued against normativity in general and also epistemic normativity. You may believe what you want, but if you do not believe in what follows from the premise, you have made a logical fallacy may therefore accept a falsehood. There is a rather large debate in contemporary theory of knowledge about the existence of epistemic norms. Many people believe that one should believe in what is based on the best evidence… But I see many problems with that. One problem is that we cannot choose what we believe. In order to ought something you have to be able to do it. That’s a problem. But then there is also another problem: if you postulate a norm that ”you should believe in what has the most evidence”, then the interesting work has already been done by the concept of evidence – if you use a concept of ”evidence” where p is evidence of q, then everything we really need to know has been said. If you believe in p and do not believe in q, then you are not rational (everything else equal). But have you done something you shouldn’t do? Not as I can see it.
Then there are normative levels of a completely different kind – those that have to do with our actions. We should read reliable sources; we should listen to experts, because it affects actions that in turn lead to knowledge. But it is a must that comes in on a different level than the question of how beliefs are formed.
ÅG: Let’s say that some proponents of alternative facts, especially in these uncertain times, claim that the best thing you can do to prevent corona is to ingest hand-sanitizer in your body. Then you would not say that they have no right to believe this, epistemically, but that they should not do it for political or moral reasons, because it gives rise to, perhaps, bad consequences?
ÅW: Yes, exactly! First of all, such a person believes in something that is unfounded. After all, there is no reason to believe that one will recover from it, and it is therefore an unfounded and irrational belief that is in all likelihood false. The level at which normativity comes in is that you ought not, as President, say this to the entire population, as there are plenty of people who now think they should do this now. But this is another type of ought [than an epistemic ought]: a moral ought. It’s not just a false statement, but a statement that can be very dangerous if you act on it. So there is another should coming in.
LL: Related to that, there has been quite a bit of talk in epistemology about epistemic virtues, and sometimes epistemic injustice, where one really makes the link between normativity and epistemology. What do you think of such approaches?
ÅW: Whether epistemic virtues work depends a little on how you understand them. If you want to use these virtues to somehow explain rationality, then it becomes problematic. But you could say there are certain virtues. Being narrow-minded is not one; to be open it is. You can call them virtues if you by that mean that they lead to a greater chance of getting knowledge. But again, I do not believe in the normative and value-laden overtones implicit in virtue talk.
LL: Moving on to particular epistemic virtues – do you think some are more relevant in the pandemic? Listening to experts, for example?
ÅW: My colleague [at Stockholm university] Erik Angner just wrote a piece on the virtue of epistemic humility. One should be open to the complexity of our current situation and how little we know. We should not be too strongly convinced in any question. After all, knowledge is difficult because truth is difficult. We are rarely sure of anything, which is why you have to be open and not at all dogmatic.
ÅG: Now I’m going to ask a question that I’m a little uncertain about – it’s what we youths call a ”spicy” question. You write quite a bit about the New York Times and contrast it with Breitbart News, for example. But the way that the New York Times works is very value-laden, and permeated by liberalism, while Breitbart is permeated with some kind of neo-conservatism. But given that these are just values, can you say that someone is more right than another? Or are they based on alternative facts?
ÅW: My God, what do you mean neo-conservatism – they are right-wing extremists! But it is clear that all institutions are based on values. At the beginning of their development, the modern magazines were a little bit dubious as regard to their values, they printed what they wanted and used fake news to drive political agendas. But over the years, the institutions evolved, and the goals they set for themselves were to provide objective descriptions. The New York Times‘ slogan is ”all the news fit to print”.
So there was this drive to highlight and describe events that had a news value, while institutionalizing certain methods so that things didn’t go wrong. These institutions included editors and fact-checkers, which survive today. If you make a mistake, they make corrections later. All the norms that emerge with the modern newspaper, which are part of a serious journalistic process, can certainly be called norms. Are they liberal-democratic values? Yes, of course they are, because liberal democracy grew during that time, and its essence is that people should critically examine power and spread information to voters.
Breitbart News, as I see it, is a propaganda channel. It’s not that you want to find out in the first place how it actually lies and disseminate knowledge and examine the power that serious journalists do. But then it is clear that even serious journalism gets wrong sometimes, you make careless mistakes. Especially recently, the evening press has started competing with social media and it is becoming sensational and click-bait-ish. But there is a fundamental difference in a journalistic institution that has basic professional standards and a propaganda agency like Breitbart News. Then you might say that it is perhaps worth spreading the propaganda in order to change society, and that is another matter.
LL: I have another question about Lyotard. It’s a bit strange, I guess – I don’t love Lyotard, but whatever. That’s just how things turned out. Anyway, Lyotard coined the concept of the ”knowledge economy”. He suggests that knowledge has become a market commodity, and it is this aspect that leads to phenomena as alternative facts; a free-market logic arises, where you buy different facts you like, and piece together your own worldview. You can even hear the epistemological overtones in phrases like ”the customer is always right”! Is there a connection to be made there there?
ÅW: There has clearly arisen a market around information. Alternative media is available to everyone – whatever you think, there is someone who confirms one. This is why you see that conspiracy theories have grown tremendously in recent times: there are very many active platforms where you spread conspiracy theory and form groups. But what one finds are not alternative facts, but alternative descriptions of the world that are not always true.
There is certainly a connection to the market. The spread of fake news is that there is an opportunity to make money from them. It was not only Russian troll-industries or propaganda makers who design fake news, but also young people in Macedonia who realized that they could make advertising money on it. It is a problem with the big social media giants that there is so much money on their platforms. It is not at all that the truth is spread most, but loads of other things also spread. This might not have anything to do with Lyotard. I’m not an expert on him.
ÅG: We will draw to a close soon, but we will try to ask some final questions that are also a bit ”spicy”. Are science and facts oppressive?
ÅG: Yes, if we think of Foucault, for example, who thought that science reflects the values of society through our way of conceptualizing the world. In this way, science also reflects the power dynamics of society. So would you say that when you appeal to the facts, you exercise power?
ÅW: The facts are facts whether we like it or not. After all, Hanna Arendt said that despots and totalitarian leaders hate the truth, because it is the only thing they do not have power over. It is very insightful precisely because an authoritarian leader does not oppose the truth – because they cannot affect it in any way – but the ability of people to accept the truth. Power enters when it comes to moulding people’s worldview. Different agents do this for different reasons all the time. But I find it difficult to see how a correct scientific theory – in itself – could exert any power whatsoever.
ÅG: I am thinking here of a category that used to be in currency before: ”race”. It is a scientific division that later proved to be incorrect.
ÅW: Sure. How one applies theories can be a problem. There have lots of problems with researchers historically, who have been driven by different kinds of agendas. The concept of race is a very good example of something that has proved to be deeply problematic.
But this does not affect the scientific theory as such, it is only a question of scientists misusing their role to drive a political agenda. This can definitely happen, and it is therefore extremely important to have research institutions that are well functioning and do not allow that kind of behaviour to occur. Internal review mechanisms are precisely for researchers to pursue their agenda that has nothing to do with evidence.
ÅG: Do you think that you would have defended experts talking about ”race” and ”racial divisions” if you had written [your book] Alternative Facts in the 1930s, and that they should take precedence over people who deny this classification? Is it not a moral danger to appeal so much to experts and scientific consensus?
ÅW: Very possibly. You should not have blind faith in anything, ever. When trusting an expert, one should always assess the institutions in which the experts work. You can be blinded. I have no idea if I myself could ever have been able to see that these scientists were so driven by Nazi ideology.
But this is something you have to be vigilant about, and it is extremely important that we make sure that the scientific institutions are honest and that these mechanisms do not become corrupt, because sometimes they do. One should not be naive there and believe in someone just because they have a title.
LL: A very, very last question [sic]. Is there a question that we did not ask that you would have liked to have been asked?
ÅW: Why is knowledge important? Why is it important for us to be rational? There is a philosophical discussion around whether knowledge could have an intrinsic value. I don’t really know if it has. But knowledge is terribly important to us to achieve our goals, and in this crisis, knowledge has enormous instrumental value. It really shows how much we need the knowledge to know how to stop the spread and cure diseases once they have hit, and in the long run, get rid of the virus altogether. That’s what you need knowledge for. You can talk about problems about different types of institutions that do not work well, and you should be critical of it and have a public debate about it, but you should not lose sight of why knowledge is important to us. It is something very central.
LL: Are the goals themselves possible objects of knowledge, or does knowledge only have an instrumental value for achieving goals?
ÅW: Knowledge has an instrumental value. When it comes to the goals for society, it is something we should give all citizens influence in. We choose politicians who say they strive for the goals we citizens believe in. But if the politicians are to deliver on that, they must be able to act on the basis of expert knowledge, otherwise the chances are quite small that they will be able to reduce crime, unemployment, or climate issues. I vote for politicians because I want them to pursue these goals, but to do this they must base it on knowledge. So it also shows how desperately important knowledge is to democracy.