Hopelessly polarized though our era in global politics seems, we may be grateful that it pales in comparison with the first half of the twentieth century. What had begun as a rhetorical battle between competing political ideals ended with total war. The tendency for grand political narratives to fanaticize and foster totalitarianism inspired The Open Society and Its Enemies, a famous 1945 book by the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper. The book’s message for us today is that the threat to democratic, “open” societies is not misinformation or ignorance but rather fanatical certainty.
Popper’s political ideas were informed by his philosophy of science. He emphasized the tentativeness of scientific knowledge, contending that we never know whether theories are true in an ultimate sense, but only whether they have survived previous attempts to disprove them. Scientific “objectivity” emerges not from the unique cognitive qualities or neutrality of researchers but from their critical engagement with each other’s work. Progress in knowledge relies on an environment that fosters lively criticism, a system that encourages productive dissent. The enemies of this system are those who insist on perfect certainty.
Though the political harms of misplaced certainty are now much discussed, we only hear about one side of the equation. The trouble always seems to be with “conspiracy theorists” who fail to face up to reality, to scientific fact. But the relationship of “debunkers” to certainty is not all that different. Who hasn’t given in to the urge to reflexively drop a Snopes link, or to reference a scientific article whose abstract we only skimmed, in order to avoid thinking carefully about why a great-aunt or former college acquaintance doesn’t trust Anthony Fauci?
The belief that misinformation is today’s main threat to democracy blinds us to the pernicious effects of a broader preoccupation with certitude. This obsession has been tearing at American politics throughout the Covid pandemic, and continues to imperil debates over vaccination, masking, and lockdowns. But the problem will remain with us long after the virus has been beaten.
The harms of fascist and communist ideologies, according to Karl Popper, stemmed from their historicism. Ideological zealots claimed to have scientifically deduced the course of human history and the proper ends of human society — whether it be the empowerment of the right national population or the creation of a classless society. Their prophetic view of history’s end in turn justified whatever means were necessary to make it come about.
Popper reasoned that the attractiveness of historicisms stemmed from the discomforts of living in “open societies.” Where the stability of society and its proper ends were once assured by royal lineage or divine decree, now democratic politics requires people to reckon with the profoundly unsettling demand of individual participation in government, and of change that requires a laborious process of trial-and-error learning. Progress had become the product of ongoing, piecemeal tinkering with social institutions. Democracy was itself akin to a scientific organization, intent on subjecting policies to real-life testing rather than deducing them from ideal, utopian visions.
This epistemological defense of democracy — the idea that democracy comprises a set of strategies to help societies cope with uncertainty — is too often forgotten. But it has an established history in political thought: Charles Lindblom’s Intelligence of Democracy (1965) and Hélène Landemore’s Democratic Reason (2012) describe democracy as a form of distributed thinking. Like Popper’s philosophy of science, this vision of democracy emphasizes the tentativeness of political truths and the inherent cognitive limitations of any given citizen, even an expert. If political outcomes ever approximate what seems “objectively” most desirable, it is through a healthy process of negotiation in which “subjective” individuals challenge each other, rather than through assent to the superior understanding of an expert class.
But The Open Society was a product of its time. Because Popper did not anticipate threats to open societies outside of grand historical narratives, he did not imagine that the source of fanatical certitude would one day be individuals, who would fashion it out of a veritable flood of discordant facts and suspicions. Americans have increasingly come to see themselves as capable of sifting through all the available evidence to discover unerring truths that their political opponents are too biased, ignorant, or corrupt to see. Although some citizens still coalesce around shared visions of the ultimate makeup of society (such as that of white nationalists), the more significant drivers of polarized, intransigent politics are the twin afflictions of scientism and conspiracism.
In The Democratic Surround (2013), Stanford communication professor Fred Turner details how during World War II a new form of propaganda was pioneered in the United States, one meant to stem the rising tide of fascism. Members of President Roosevelt’s Committee for National Morale worried that traditional mass-media-based propaganda risked cultivating an authoritarian personality wholly unsuitable to the American way of life. Their influence led to the creation of a style of government communication believed to be more compatible with a democratic personality.
For example, in 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, working with the Navy and federal New Deal agencies, offered the exhibition “Road to Victory,” allowing visitors to circulate among an immersive array of patriotic photographs, texts, and murals. The installation was intended, in the words of the organizers, to “enable every American to see himself as a vital and indispensable element of victory” — and to provide a counterweight to the “unreasoning fealty” that might come from listening to a demagogue on the radio, Turner explains. Even though the overall message was carefully curated, the feeling that one chose one’s own path through the exhibit aimed to reinforce an experience of individualism.
The Internet facilitates an experience with a similar propagandistic effect — conveying the experience of selecting your own path of discovery rather than passively receiving information. Even though messages and searches might be curated by Silicon Valley algorithms or packaged in ways meant to inflame or deceive, the experience nevertheless feels unencumbered. A person does his or her “own research” on contentious topics, choosing where to look and whom to listen to. Social media further seduces with its promise of intellectual freedom, encouraging the idea that, as rational individuals searching for truth, we can go out on our own and grasp with certainty the reality that eludes our fellow citizens.
The reigning paradigm of chasing certitude is scientism, which embraces what policy scholars Edward Woodhouse and Dean Nieusma call the “simple theory of expertise.” This theory imagines a neat division of labor between scientists, government officials, businesspeople, and average citizens. Because both the public and government officials are largely ignorant about technical matters, they must delegate responsibility to scientific experts. Expert advice is treated as value-free even when it is clearly not, such as when many health experts excused lax social distancing for Black Lives Matter protests but then chided Americans for visiting relatives over Thanksgiving.
Scientism goes a step further than this simple theory by denying non-experts any role at all in answering tenacious policy questions. Experts no longer merely advise the policy process but are now in the driver’s seat. This in turn lets government officials abdicate responsibility for their decisions. The past year is ripe with examples. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said last April that her state’s pandemic plans would be a “data-driven approach based on facts, based on science, based on recommendations from experts and epidemiologists and economists.” The governors of California, Oregon, and Washington claimed that their reopening decisions would be guided by “heath outcomes and science — not politics.” Journalists and social media influencers echoed this scientism with pleas for citizens to just “listen to the science,” as if the tradeoffs in deciding which businesses and institutions to close or keep open and what practices should be acceptable weren’t spectacularly thorny. Scientism lets us convince ourselves that “the facts” do not compose an imperfect map of an incredibly complex reality but instead constitute the territory itself.
Yet in mainstream media, worries about conspiracism loom far larger. Ever since “post-truth” entered our vocabulary, we have been gripped by panic about misinformation and disinformation. But conspiracism is more than just conspiracy theorizing — which gets a bad rap, as if it is never justifiable to suspect subterfuge. Regardless of the provenance of the UFOs in the Navy’s recently released footage, for example, the claims that the military has been secretly researching these phenomena ended up being true. And of course conspiracies do happen. People who suspect that drug manufacturers, distributers, and doctors may be in cahoots have seen their suspicion confirmed by stunning revelations about Purdue Pharma and others during the opioid crisis.
Conspiracism goes further than conspiracy theorizing. It reduces all political issues to the machinations of powerful elites, adopting what Woodhouse and Nieusma called the “cynical theory of expertise” in which “expertise serves only the affluent and the powerful.” The Plandemic documentary, for instance, claimed that Covid-19 was manufactured in a laboratory and that the pandemic is a plot devised by the media and high-level officials such as Anthony Fauci to prop up the vaccine industry. The documentary is conspiracism rather than just a conspiracy theory because it has a totalizing view of the health care establishment as rotten to its core, portraying only outsider experts such as Judy Mikovits as willing to tell the truth.
Conspiracism and scientism are jointly preoccupied with certainty. They enjoy a fantasy in which experts are uniquely able to escape the messiness of politics, discern the facts plain and simple, and from their godlike viewpoint turn back to politics and dispense with it. Both seduce members of open, uncertain societies with the promise of a more simply ordered world.
We must resist the urge to blame scientism and conspiracism on people’s personalities, their mental states, or even on social media. For both gain their seductive power from our culture’s preoccupation with facts. As Jacques Ellul put it in the 1960s, “modern man worships ‘facts’ — that is, he accepts ‘facts’ as the ultimate reality.” Whether these facts come from scientific experts or anti-establishment outsiders, they are seen as unequivocally settling political disputes. Consider, on the one hand, Paul Krugman’s haughty use of the line — which he repeated yet again for Covid-19 — that the “facts have a well-known liberal bias.” Or consider, on the other hand, a viral tweet last April reasoning that Democrats’ previous “coup attempts” all but assured that they would inflate Covid mortality rates to “steal the election.”
Let’s call this fact-ist politics. Under its influence, citizens no longer debate or deliberate but dedicate themselves to aligning the evidence to shore up cherished beliefs and interests. And they end up even more intransigent as a result, because they can tell themselves that their own ideas are unassailably rational and objective.
This politics is pathologically pathologizing — that is, it aims to disqualify opponents by diagnosing them. Last January and February, early articles about Covid-19 chided people — mainly conservatives at that point — for their alarmism, dismissing their pandemic worries as the result of various cognitive biases. As case numbers climbed and more liberals began to take the threat of a pandemic seriously, the direction of cognitive biases apparently flipped — now they were invoked to explain why the public wasn’t worried enough. And some psychologists have been hard at work correlating personality deficiencies, like authoritarian tendencies, with resistance to mask-wearing. But this is just par for the course when bestselling books purport that “Republican brains” lead conservatives to “reject reality” or that liberalism is a “mental disorder.”
This diagnostic political style is both unfair and condescending. It eventually renders all disagreement into a cognitive disease — one to which the diagnostician just so happens to be immune. The diagnostic style reinforces the idea that the only legitimate grounds for participating in politics is having “evidence-based” opinions. Evidence matters greatly, but it isn’t the whole game. When we believe that it is, we shove aside our underlying value disagreements, thereby undermining our capacity to deliberate as our disagreements become ever more devoid of moral and practical complexity.
Consider the case of a New York State legislator who in December proposed a bill to make Covid vaccination mandatory if herd immunity isn’t reached. She dismissed concerns about state overreach, arguing that “this is a matter that will be decided based on science and best practices and not on people’s blowback.” No wonder many citizens have started seeing mask mandates as a gateway to full-blown tyranny.
Once we see policy as defined solely by “the facts,” politics no longer happens, at least not in the traditional sense. Democracy traditionally works through the constant fracturing and reforming of coalitions, alliances composed of disparate groups each seeking to get their own aspirations turned into law. It depends upon previous enemies sitting down and negotiating to make deals happen, to achieve common goals. Once all political opposition is cast as the product of misinformation or science illiteracy, compromise becomes irrational, the sacrifice of truth to appease the ignorant.
We have been profoundly mistaken in the belief that the “post-truth era” can be battled by doubling down on science. Instead, scientism makes competing factions — each of which lays claim to having the most sober, uncorrupted view of the evidence — harder to reconcile, more distrustful of one another. As the editor of this journal argued in a June New Republic article, the hope that expertise can adjudicate our deepest disagreements “has left us unable to hear in others’ invocations of science anything other than smug attempts to gain power over us, or brutish refusal to accept the obvious truth.”
Under fact-ist politics, a scientistic leadership style on the pandemic has actually fueled the conspiratorial fires. By ducking at every turn behind “follow the science,” our leaders have reduced people to vectors for disease spread, data points to be controlled, while displaying an indifferent attitude toward their lived realities. That this style of leadership makes many people suspect is no surprise. Consider a 2016 study of how managers’ differing leadership styles affect employees’ conspiratorial beliefs. The researchers found that under “despotic” leadership styles — “where employees feel dominated, controlled, and marginalized” — employees are more likely to believe that their managers meet in secret to do malevolent scheming, and are more likely to believe that their jobs are insecure.
Scientism further fuels conspiracism by downplaying the fallibility of expert advice and the tentative nature of scientific knowledge. When mistakes or changes in expert advice are not openly discussed, a natural conclusion is that leaders aim to deceive. To put this more starkly, when Hanlon’s Razor — “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” — is no longer available, malicious intent becomes the only explanation.
Left out of fact-ist politics is the stuff of politics: differing moral visions, the explicit weighing and negotiating of trade-offs. We have seen this time and again during the pandemic. One side dismisses concerns about the awful toll of social restrictions, and seems weirdly self-satisfied when publicly displaying knowledge of “R naught” or following the latest pandemic protocols to the letter. The other side dismisses concerns about the awful toll of the virus, smirking at people for overreacting to what is really “just the flu,” decrying the sheeple who are being exploited through fear.
Seeking expert advice and questioning the motivations of experts are both valuable instincts. But a fact-ist political culture transforms those instincts into intransigent political worldviews. Scientism and conspiracism promise a world where politics is steered by only those with the right minds or those with a pure relationship with power. They seek a society closed to political disagreement. These yearnings forget that if democracy achieves something like truth, it does so only by making politics work for the broadest possible membership of society.
If the underlying problem with scientism and conspiracism is the way each promises certainty, thereby fostering division, then we ought to look toward a politics that is preoccupied less with knowing and more with fostering connection.
Democratic theorists have long recognized the dangers of rationalistic politics. As historian Sofia Rosenfeld writes, describing the thought of Hannah Arendt: “What individuals require is the return to a kind of public life that forces them to constantly weigh and consider things from the perspective of other people.” Political theorist Benjamin Barber has defined “strong democratic talk” as incorporating “listening as well as speaking, feeling as well as thinking, and acting as well as reflecting.” And theorists such as Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom — associated with a political theory called “pluralism” — have emphasized the need for democracies to foster mutual learning and accept the inescapability of disagreement.
The first step is to move from a preoccupation with certitude to embracing politics as a learning process. This will mean being more honest about the uncertainties of expert advice. Health experts should not have so stridently discouraged mask-wearing in the early part of the pandemic, especially not by claiming with such misplaced confidence that there was no evidence masks worked. Instead, they should have been upfront with their concerns about mask shortages and their uncertainty about exactly how helpful masks are outside of a hospital.
The vaccine rollout will only be hampered by officials and experts denying the existence of uncertainties. The fact that a vaccine is available only a year after the emergence of Covid-19 is no doubt an amazing scientific accomplishment. But citizens are not acting unreasonably when they see the combination of relative novelty, an accelerated development process, and the massive scale of the undertaking as reasons to be hesitant. Those qualities could describe countless cases of new technologies’ unintended consequences.
Mid-twentieth-century nuclear accidents are partly attributable to atomic power plants being scaled up faster than the recognition of the danger posed by ever larger light-water reactor designs. Boeing pushed its engineers to work at twice the normal pace as they developed the more fuel-efficient design of the 737 Max — which compromised the airframe’s inherent aerodynamic stability, requiring new flight-control software to prevent the aircraft from stalling. And from the American Great Plains in the 1930s to present-day India, widespread adoption of intensive agricultural techniques has too often created dustbowl conditions, among other unanticipated environmental drawbacks. Novelty, pace, and scale combine to challenge even the best organizations’ ability to recognize and correct errors.
Mediation experts Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field warned in Dealing with an Angry Public (1996) that people’s fears are only stoked when they are minimized or downplayed. And when mistakes inevitably happen, trust is almost irrevocably lost — something the nuclear industry experienced in the late twentieth century. As long as experts and officials try to force consensus through appeals to science, citizens’ concerns will only grow.
Public concerns can be partly addressed by ceasing to fret so much about disagreement. For example, governments should admit that the Covid-19 vaccines might still end up surprising us in terms of their real-world efficacy and safety, and assure more risk-averse people that they can delay getting them until we know more from the millions of others who choose to do so. We should remember that the anti-vaccination movement in England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was defanged by allowing for conscientious abstention, as Nadja Durbach describes in Bodily Matters (2004).
We must learn how to see agreement as the end of politics more than the beginning — and, even then, as partial, tentative, and contingent. By abandoning the idea that consensus on the facts must precede politics, we can promote a style of governance that aspires to gradually earn trust by publicly testing new policies.
The second step is to highlight experience. Research on political canvassing has found that conversations on controversial topics are made more productive by talking through people’s experiences. Asking people to use their own experience to consider another person’s perspective encourages more conscientiousness than “fact-based” approaches. Politics works best when the goal is not to inform but to connect.
Seriously attending to the experiences behind vaccine hesitancy, for example, exposes a far more complex picture than the narrative of science illiteracy. Consider that African Americans are among the most skeptical of the Covid vaccines, despite being more likely to have been personally affected by the virus. This hesitancy is a product of distrust in the medical system, a result of historical racial injustices by the medical system and ongoing disparities in treatment.
Or consider the sizable portion of health care workers that are skeptical of the vaccines. Although their hesitancy is often cited as due to political reasons, many of them can point to their treatment earlier in the pandemic. Working for months with inadequate protection, many reasonably believe that the health care system doesn’t prioritize their wellbeing. Early access to the vaccine no longer looks like a gift but rather being asked to be a guinea pig. If our politics had been rooted in an appreciation of experience rather than the idolization of expertise, we would have long ago recognized that vaccine hesitancy isn’t just about ignorance. We would have noticed the deeper dysfunctions within our medical system.
The third step is to have open political conversations that include a diversity of moral considerations. Unfortunately, backroom ethical judgments have been characteristic of the pandemic. Many governors have acted as if getting through the pandemic were merely a matter of managing case numbers and ICU beds. Genuine public conversations about who should bear what risks, and who decides which activities are worth allowing, involve inviting disagreement. But these have largely not happened. Epidemiological models became the territory.
We have a long way to go to realize a politics that highlights uncertainty, experience, and moral disagreement. Our leaders have a powerful incentive to stay the course of fact-ist politics: It excuses them from having to lead. Handing challenging decisions off to experts, or blaming a corrupt scientific cabal for all our problems, allows our leaders to duck ownership over hard decisions.
It is difficult to imagine structural changes to help address all this, absent massively expanded opportunities for participation, for meaningfully connecting citizens over public issues. Hélène Landemore has proposed shifting more governance onto deliberative “mini-publics” composed of hundreds of randomly selected citizens. Perhaps randomization is a needless replacement for more traditional forms of representation. But whatever institutional form we pursue, a less pathologically pathologizing political culture will need to explicitly cultivate the openness that Karl Popper advocated.
Open politics will be discomforting. As Popper warned us, “if we wish to remain human…. we must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure.” If we are to weather the storms that come with uncertain politics, it will only be through a form of democracy that focuses less on being right and more on cultivating connection.
The Danger of Fact-ist Politics