Postfactual politics

The way liberal democracies treat factual knowledge as opposed to emotions and the way we usually talk about emotions in science and politics impacts the current discussion around the so called post-factual times. In my Negotiating Truth project (FWF – T592, 2012- 2018), I proposed to analyze emotions in these discourses.

Emotions’ role in truth production was neglected by the political analyses so far, which had the effect that political scientists were surprised by the phenomenon of „post-truth“. Post-truth – the recently coined term to describe distrust of expertise and undermining of facts – calls for the need to better understand how truth gets legitimized in politics. The trend of post-truth has united scientists and civil society in a public defence of truth: scientific journals praised the rationality of science, scientists held protests to defend truth and fact-checker sites spread across the western media world rapidly.
However, that battle on truth may already have been lost to what the project has identified as a ‘binary of facts and emotions’. This binary is a discursive register that treats emotions as ultimately opposed to facts. The binary becomes a powerful tool to privilege some types of knowledge and some types of arguments. Specific way of referring to emotions in public debates is a substantive part of it.

Attacks on science and the binary of facts and emotions

The analysis done in the project – and published 2019 with Edward Elgar as a monograph – discusses the role of this binary in modern democracies. While emotions operate inside scientific knowledge, they get covered through the alleged neutrality of science in order to get legitimized in modern politics.

The project compared the findings of the analysis of the controversy around Ignaz Semmelweis against the analysis of scientists’ protests against the Trump presidency during 2017. The major theme of these protests was the alleged attack on truth and on the neutrality of science. The analysis uncovered that while ‘truth’ gets legitimized through the emphasis on the neutrality of science, this neutrality produces a binary of factual knowledge and emotions, and increases the societal polarization by opposing a ‚fact-oriented elite‘ to ‚emotional publics‘.

These findings raise at the same time the necessity to discuss how scientists help to create and to redefine through their dsicoveries values and beliefs of civil society and how the public discourses on science should reflect that.