Sunday September 25, 2022

Who can we trust?

January 06, 2022

The question that defined 2021 was perhaps the one Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, famously posed to Jesus in the Gospel of John: what is truth? Indeed, all the most debated issues of this dire year from vaccines to fake news were in the end about ‘verity’. Far beyond postmodernity, we appeared to have lost the shared set of values that constituted the mainframe of our societies in the past. This is not necessarily wrong. Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger pointed out how traditional values systems are undermined by too-rigid structures for history. These structures, whether scientific or economical, are always shaped by epochs and societies that determine their outcomes. So as we enter a new year, the question about truth becomes: who can we trust in 2022?

We must put aside any pretence of immutability and search for an answer inside history. But in this effort, we cannot leave our lives in the hands of experts only, even though languages of techno-science do require in-depth knowledge of a hyper-specialised curriculum.

As citizens, we are all entitled to discuss the social effect of scientists’ findings and conclusions, even though we may not be capable of reproducing their experiments or following their mathematical explanations. This is also the case with the Covid-19 vaccines: every single honest and coherent argument on this issue should be seriously considered. Experts cannot and should not dismiss concerns, questions and arguments of citizens on issues that directly affect their lives with an attitude of ‘stand aside and let us do our work’. Just as the recommendations of economists alone were not sufficient to resolve the 2008/9 economic crisis, the findings and recommendations of scientists alone cannot end this devastating pandemic. Such economic or public health crises require responses from a variety of social agents that can together provide solutions that are each fit for purpose in specific areas. We call these agents ‘public institutions’.

Commonly, the modi operandi of democracies are more painful than those of authoritarian regimes. The model of ‘Reason of the technocracy’ is a historically western model that has had many successes but has also paved the way for countless atrocities and injustices. Despite what many scientists are often tempted to believe, science cannot substitute democracy or religion. Thus, the only viable solution is to search for the elusive truth inside the social community.

If ‘truth,’ as philosopher Richard Rorty explained, is “what your contemporaries let you get away with saying,” then verity in the human world is not eternal but rather a product of current social agreements. This is evident in the story of pioneers of the messenger RNA technology that allowed for the production of several leading Covid-19 vaccines. Biochemist Katalin Kariko and immunologist Drew Weissman struggled for years to get funding for their mRNA research, and the importance of their work was recognised by the scientific community only after mRNA powered Covid-19 vaccines changed the course of the pandemic. How can we avoid overlooking such key scientific breakthroughs, or similarly important social turning points and political opportunities in the future?

It will not be easy: the consumerisation of communication technologies, social media relationships and social atomism has left us divided and focussed on ourselves alone, making solidarity a concept of the past. Our current lack of a shared identity is so despairing – and destructive – that in his An American Utopia (2016), acclaimed cultural theorist Fredric Jameson proposed the creation of a parallel structure: An army composed of all citizens.

Excerpted: ‘Who can we trust in 2022?’