August 2012 Archways

Should We Be Concerned About Truth in Politics?

Political scientist Jeremy Elkins discusses the interplay between truth and democracy.

Interviewed by Priya Ratneshwar

Associate Professor of Political Science Jeremy Elkins. Photo by Paola Nogueras '84.

During the George W. Bush administration, Bryn Mawr Associate Professor of Political Science Jeremy Elkins and his colleague Andrew Norris (of UC Santa Barbara) organized a panel of papers to explore the question of truth in political life. Their immediate impetus for the panel was their concern that institutional processes that ought to be relied on for promoting more truthful policy deliberation were being undermined by that administration—from circumventing the procedures of the U.S. intelligence community with regard to alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to stacking scientific advisory panels with industry representatives. But the larger question that the papers sought to address was about the role of truth in politics.

“The question of truth is not as simple as just getting the facts,” Elkins says. “Reasonable people may disagree about facts just as they may disagree about what to do with the facts. And for most political questions, our knowledge of facts is limited. The question, then, is about how to act in the face of both disagreement and uncertainty.”

That panel grew into Elkins’ and Norris’ recently published edited volume, Truth and Democracy. Through essays from multiple perspectives, the book explores whether questions of truth matter to democratic politics and if so how.

In the introduction to Truth and Democracy, you say that the academy in general has avoided or ignored the topic of truth as it relates to politics. Why do you think this has been the case?

Jeremy Elkins: There’s been a real skepticism of late in the academy about anything that has to do with truth. In part, that is, I think, an understandable reaction to some of the tyrannical claims that have sometimes been made on behalf of truth—such as that all right-thinking people should arrive at the same basic conclusions about the world. So one response, particularly in parts of the humanities and political theory, has been to say if we care about respecting differences, let’s stop talking about truth.

Truth and Democracy is trying to explore what it would mean to talk about a notion of truth that did not deny a plurality of perspectives and to apply it within the context of political institutions. It is very difficult for citizens to decipher the claims that are thrown at us, so how do we think about public policies when there is uncertainty? To take what is by now a familiar example, we hear from some quarters that there is a “debate” among scientists concerning global warming and the human contribution to it. But if 97 percent of climatologists believe that the danger is very real and serious, although they may differ in their precise estimates of how much and when, is treating this as a “debate about the existence global warming” a way of respecting truth or denying it?  And how do we decide whether or not we should act and how?

You can see that questions about truth will need to come into play here—even though it’s not about knowing with absolute certainty. There are lots of academic disciplines that deal in one way or another with the problem of acting under conditions of uncertainty, and that is one reason why the academy could contribute to a public discussion of these questions.

What is the role of the press in all of this?

Elkins: The press has a central role to play. Because it is a medium between officials and the public, it is the most important nonofficial political institution. But the press has not done a great job of late. The reasons for this are many, including patterns of ownership, the decision of some press outlets to pursue an explicitly partisan agenda, and others.

But even among the more respectable and independent press, there seems to be a common idea that what it means to be unbiased is to not say anything that will have the effect of supporting the views of one political party over another. But that in fact is the opposite of being unbiased because you’re so attentive to partisanship that you can’t actually engage in a serious inquiry.

So is the point to have a “marketplace of ideas”? Is that what leads to more truth?

Elkins: The “marketplace of ideas” is an interesting metaphor, with lots of problems. To see the problem it is perhaps enough to remember that in the regular marketplace, people lie about their product. They used to lie much more, and people were getting sick and dying from products labeled safe, so now we have truth-in-labeling laws. In light of that: is an unregulated market really the right metaphor for thinking about how truth emerges?

In fact all markets are regulated, and various idea “markets” are regulated as well, in part by government, and to a great extent, as in the case of most of the press, by private parties. The question, then, is not whether, but how it should be regulated. For example, who gets to be heard? And on what terms and in what form? There is no single answer; what we might think about that question depends on the particular kind of truthful inquiry that is at issue. A courtroom, for example, is a highly regulated institution that is designed to promote a certain kind of truthful inquiry—though it doesn’t always succeed. But that’s very different from the way a classroom setting is regulated by a professor, and that’s different from the system of peer review in which academic speech is regulated. So the question is how various institutions concerned with political debate should be structured and regulated. Putting up a split screen on CNN and giving two partisans a chance to give their spin is one answer. It just happens, I think, to be a really bad answer.

What is a better answer?

Elkins: Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. The challenge is to protect and nurture institutions that can interrogate ideas, not with the aim of promoting unanimity—that’s a fantasy—but of promoting a more critical engagement. And that’s a perennial challenge for democracies.

There are many places to start. I’ve spoken about the press already. One also hears increasingly from public officials how degraded the legislative process has become at the national level, and at the state level it is often worse. The Supreme Court is one step away from going beyond even its Citizens United decision and barring government from playing any role in trying to improve the process of electoral debate. So if there is to be improvement, it will have to be at many levels.

Watch a video interview with Elkins.

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