Empirical Politics, or Evaluative?
The scientific contribution to solving social problems is increasingly controversial. The coronavirus pandemic is the most recent example. Science is hailed by many for the swift development of effective vaccines against the virus, at least to a certain extent. However, the pandemic has also emphasised the inability of science to grant an integral understanding of the problem from ethical, health, social, economic and many other incommensurable aspects. Difficulties only abound when science is interrogated with ‘alternative truths’ or post-truth as an outcome of non-scientific perception of complex issues.
Science is a source of light and darkness, simultaneously providing explanation and rising controversy, for instance between public health or personal freedoms. Recent events testify how it is possible, when contradictory nature of science is overlooked, to obtain less truth from more science and more polemic than clear answers. They expose how easily expertise becomes manipulated and how vulnerable the truth is in public discourse when pursued from narrow sectoral (health), disciplinary (naturalist, social, humanist), or ideological framings (freedom vs equality; individual vs collective). It seems that the social impact of science is increasingly controversial.
***Does metamodernity then call for the scientific justification of collective choices in a strictly evaluative way?***
One could expect that the social importance of science may gradually change to become less central in future. But science will not become less relevant, only relevant in a different way. I discuss this idea further in reflection to Hanzi Freinacht, a mysterious author of a metamodern guide titled ‘Empirical Politics: Why We Need A Peer-reviewed Society’, which was published a couple of months before the coronavirus outbreak.
Freinacht is fully aware of the constraints of science in addressing complex social problems. Science-driven politics is for him a naive fantasy that eventually slides towards technocracy and non-(or above)ideological global elitism at the expense of democratic legitimacy. He nevertheless calls for more science in the new metamodern society: we need more science today so much that we need to construct Empirical Politics! We need to find ways to be better at sticking to empirically sound assessments of reality, to get the best possible empirical knowledge and to get all parts of society to commit to using that knowledge.
However, Empirical Politics is not merely about knowing things. The whole point of having a better decision-making process about public goods is to come closer to a shared truth that is eventually achieved by analysing various facts, opinions, additional tests and so forth.
***The metamodern challenge is about accepting uncertainty as an integral part of what we know for certain.***
He imagines Empirical Politics as a core feature of a peer-reviewed society in which members crosscheck the propositions of one another. The overall level of scientificness of society is measured by the density of intersubjective verification and falsification (since irrefutable claims cannot be scientific), the degree to which we — collectively as a network of people referring back and forth to one another — manage to check, double-check and if necessary, triple-check the information, suppositions, methods, claims and ideas of one another, and the quality of said checks.
Freinacht would institutionalise Empirical Policy by establishing the Ministry of Empirical Politics, something like the Central Planning Office, which is actually a very useful institution in some EU countries, only in a metamodern fashion. The Ministry would evaluate, survey, rate and publicise the degree of evidence-based practice in all areas of public sector work and civil service. Together with people at all levels of society, the ministry would be charged with making plans for how to improve what is going on. Freinacht seems to have in mind two main instruments for accomplishing the imperative: performance-based budgeting and counterfactual evaluation with experimental methods and randomised controlled trials.
***Like bats, who see through the darkness with ears, not with eyes, the evaluator does not see reality through (inflated) facts, but through a void, by identifying and correlating what was is missing, what is ignored or overlooked or accepted as something inferior and secondary.***
I read this essay as an evaluator who is certainly excited with the idea of Empirical Politics, in particularly when pursued by somebody who is not an evaluator but a thinker about the future of contemporary societies.
One question has crystallised through my reading: does Freinacht write about Empirical Politics in scientific or in evaluative terms? If the latter is the case, then Empirical Politics is in fact Evaluative Politics. Does metamodernity then call for the scientific justification of collective choices in a strictly evaluative way?
One thing is quite clear. Freinacht’s peer-reviewed society drifts too far in a quite unfortunate direction. He imagines it as an evaluation-driven neurosis with triple-checked symptoms. He sees metamodern society as moving ‘closer to otherwise unattainable truth.’ This is in fact a futile effort: something divided by infinity equals zero, which leads one nowhere.
Quantity of knowledge is not a decisive factor for coping with metamodern issues, but how to organise and evaluate all of what one already knows. Furthermore, analytical knowledge is always contextual and relative. Its meaning may considerably change when one gains a more complete picture of an inquired issue. Evidence does not become less valid due to these changes. The same evidence can be nevertheless understood differently in different conditions. Once as a cure another time maybe as a poison.
***Blindness is not her handicap but rational adaptation to radical uncertainties in factual presentations of social reality.***
I wish to point out that the metamodern challenge is about accepting uncertainty as an integral part of what we know for certain. This is only feasible when things are observed from the middle ground, such as between facts (rationally) and values (irrationally). Metamodernity in its essence means a state of being in-between ideals, mind-sets, and positions, both–neither, ordered and disordered (Vermeulen, van den Akker).
The task of evaluation is then certainly not to diminish or replace scientific insight in the metamodern framing, but to come closer to a shared truth by a more subtle reading of facts in an evaluative way that includes science. Evaluative reading is not binary (true-false) but emerges from the overlap between different justified claims.
Take for instance intersubjective falsification and verification as a driver of Empirical Politics. Falsification between true and false cannot resolve contradictions between many valid but incommensurable claims (such as about the priority of public health over individual freedom or vice versa). Evaluation does not aim to falsify scientific findings but to deconstruct (Derrida) their biased and unified (true/false) meanings. In every truth claim, such as ‘This is a pipe’, deconstruction identifies and brings forward its void (Derrida) as a small, seemingly unimportant detail, which nevertheless entirely subverts the meaning. In Magritte’s case, ‘This is not a pipe’ but a painting of a pipe.
Scientists naturally aim with all their professional honesty, skills and persistence at diminishing, overcoming, or avoiding the void. Evaluators instead accept the void as a guide to deeper understandings of metamodern ambiguities beyond facts, though never ignorant of science. Evaluation does not eliminate bias in favour of truth but confronts different biases, one against the other, in particular how they complement and contradict one another (as elaborated in “Complex Society”, Vernon Press, 2021). Recognition of bias in truth claims calls for a recognition of the inability of bare facts to explain complex issues integrally.
***It seems that the social impact of science is increasingly controversial.***
In turn, the evaluator must remain blind for biased facts. Blindness is not her handicap but rational adaptation to radical uncertainties in factual presentations of social reality. The evaluator’s blindness is a prerequisite for gaining the ability to see what is otherwise overlooked by uniform (true/false) explanations. Like bats, who see through the darkness with ears, not with eyes, the evaluator does not see reality through (inflated) facts, but through a void, by identifying and correlating what was is missing, what is ignored or overlooked or accepted as something inferior and secondary.
My point is that societies need to search for evaluative blindness, not for scientific blindness if they wish to sail safely through the middle world between the contradictions of metamodernity.
Freinacht is nevertheless a trade mark writer for the engaged reader, warmly recommended especially to evaluators, cum grano salis.
Review of “Empirical Politics: Why We Need A Peer-reviewed Society,” in Freinacht H., Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics. Metamoderna, 2019. Link