Sep 27 2018

The New Epistocracy

OK – this is my new favorite word: epistocracy. I first encountered it reading an article about attempts by the Indian government to control what passes for knowledge. It has the same root as “epistomology” – which is the philosophy of knowledge, or how to legitimately separate opinion from fact.

Epistocracy is essentially rule by the knowledegable. It is a relatively new term (the oldest reference I could find was from 2015), and replaces an older term, noocracy (dating from the 1930s). It refers to any system in which voting rights are restricted by some measure of intelligence or knowledge.  The most recent advocacy for epistocracy was by Georgetown University political philosopher Jason Brennan, in his controversial book, Against Democracy.

The idea is that we already restrict voting rights, excluding those who are too young, are convicted felons (in some states), are mentally ill or cognitively impaired, or are naturalized citizens until they pass a civics test. So why have an arbitrary age cutoff, which is presumably to limit voting by citizens who are too young to have sufficient knowledge and judgment? Why not just test civic knowledge and let that be the criterion? Why should someone ignorant of politics have the same right to vote as someone who has invested the time and effort to reasonably understand the issues of the day?

To be clear – I think epistocracy is a horrible idea. I am not the first to point out that any such system would not only be ripe for abuse, it is practically a guarantee. Those in power could set the rules to favor those in power (they already do this – why make it easier). This would establish a self-reinforcing system of rule by a class of elites, with a patina of philosophical legitimacy.

In fact this has already been happening – from the moment, for example, that African Americans were given the right to vote, their political power was limited by epistocratic laws such as requiring literacy tests to register to vote. Voting rights legislation was required to strike down such laws.

The New Epistocracy

In its original form, epistocracy is a patently terrible idea that, thankfully, does not appear to have legs. Also, thankfully, it would require a constitutional amendment in the US, which is unlikely.

But the article about the Indian government’s epistocracy is about something else – something more subtle and insidious. This is not about rule by the knowledgeable, but rule through the control of not only knowledge, but what constitutes knowledge. This kind of epistocracy does not require a constitutional amendment, just an erosion of understanding and respect for genuine knowledge and expertise. It might only need a relative prioritizing of partisanship over process and fairness (sound familiar?).

As The Wire reports:

The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) has proposed a new textbook that will discuss the ‘Indian knowledge system’ via a number of pseudoscientific claims about the supposed inventions and discoveries of ancient India, The Print reported on September 26. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) signed off on the move, and the textbook – drawn up by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan educational trust – is set to be introduced in 80% of the institutions the AICTE oversees.

Essentially the Indian government is using their political power to insert rank pseudoscience into textbooks – but pseudoscience that is meant to glorify Indian culture. This, in turn, is justified through a subtle but powerful logical twist. The idea begins with the truism that knowledge is power. It then reverses this idea, making into the claim that power is knowledge.

Historically, they argue, the West has used their power to impose their knowledge onto India. And now India has to take back their power by imposing their own knowledge – one that is gratifying to Indians, and celebrates their cultural contributions. Who cares if some of those contributions are fictitious – and what is fact anyway? There are no facts, only power.

This reasoning is circular, however. It concludes that power is knowledge by assuming that power is knowledge, in order to justify using power to control knowledge.

The most effective lies are built around a kernel of truth, and this is the case here also. Historically Western powers were colonial (and remain so, to a lesser degree). They did use their power to impose their culture on the people they conquered.

But as it turns out, part of that culture is science, and science has an independent validity outside any power structure. That is the crucial fact that the new epistocracy ignores or misunderstands.

Essentially what the Indian government is saying is this – foreign powers in the past have oppressed you, so to make up for that we are going to use our current power to oppress you further, but we will do it in the name of our own culture, so it’s alright (and it won’t be as easy to notice). So when we claim that ancient Indians made batteries and flew in airplanes, you should not think too carefully about it. Just believe it. Any contrary information is just a Western conspiracy.

But science, like democracy itself, is different. Science (in the ideal) rises above power, politics, and culture. Science is a self-corrective process built on the most objective facts we can muster. It requires transparency, honesty, self-criticism, and openness. Science builds valid knowledge through such processes.

To be clear, there are many people and institutions who do science wrong, or who try to subvert the process to an agenda other than knowledge itself. They try to falsely earn the legitimacy of science without engaging in legitimate science. The process, however, is designed to root this out, and to favor scientific knowledge that is actually legitimate. It’s a messy process, but it’s the only process that works.

What is crucial is that as many people as possible understand the process of science and support it (especially those in power and those engaged in science).

Then there are those who do not try to twist science to their ends, but who oppose the very concept of science, and the related concepts of knowledge and expertise. They try to reduce all fact to opinion, and to make a false equivalency among all ideas and claims. They try to break epistemology itself.

This is a fundamentally anti-democractic process. Democracy requires transparency, and it requires following a valid process that is designed to be as fair and representative as possible. Democracy requires shared knowledge – there has to be some common ground of agreed-upon facts. We can disagree about how to interpret those facts, and their implications, but there should be at least some shared reality.

Reality, however, is inconvenient to those in power (depending on their goals). If the goal of being in power is to stay in power, or to support ones ideology or tribe, then reality can be a real pain. But – if we can dispense with the idea of objective reality, dismiss experts as pointy-headed “elites”, deny consensus as conspiracy, attack anything we don’t like as “fake news,” and reduce all facts to opinion – then reality can get bent.

This is rule through denial of epistomology. This is the new epistocracy – power through controlling the nature of knowledge itself.


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