The Role of STS in a Post-Truth Era

The 2016 election has precipitated introspection among some science and technology studies (STS) scholars. Has the field’s focus on the social construction of knowledge helped to legitimate fake news and usher in a post-truth era? What are the responsibilities of STS scholars, and should the field change its preoccupations in light of this crisis of facts and expertise?

I suggest that these concerns are misplaced. Rather, I argue that STS has unique insights that can help us navigate the knowledge politics of the 21st century, and we need to double-down on the field’s founding principles and perspectives.

In particular, we must remember that our understandings of policy-relevant knowledge and expertise are historically, socially, and politically constructed. STS scholars have demonstrated, for example, how the United States has a long history of emphasizing quantitative knowledge and procedural objectivity in bureaucratic decisionmaking (Ezrahi 1990; Jasanoff 1990; Porter 1996). This dramatically limits the kinds of knowledge and expertise considered by policymakers at all levels. In recent decades, civil society activists have challenged this narrow approach in a variety of domains—from environmental justice to the patent system—exposing how our approaches to relevant knowledge and expertise invariably privilege a handful of elite perspectives (Parthasarathy 2010; 2017).

When placed in the context of this history, current discussions about “truth decay”—as a recent RAND report playfully put it—should appear suspect. What assumptions about truth and objectivity, relevant knowledge and expertise, and values are embedded in the current truth panic? Which interests are at risk, and which may have a newfound voice? Why hasn’t the historical exclusion of lay knowledge, especially from marginalized communities, provoked such a truth panic previously?

STS scholars are particularly well-positioned to answer these questions, by bringing our theoretical frameworks together with careful empirical research on the current politics of science and technology policymaking. By incorporating this kind of knowledge into the public discussion, perhaps we can engender a more nuanced understanding of the relationships between facts, values, and politics for a post-post truth era.