On The Limits of Knowing: Ignorance, Promises and Political Economy of Knowledge

Dates: August 29 & 30, 2017  | A 4S Pre-Conference
Location: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Organizer: Mark Robinson, Creighton University School of Medicine
Website: http://tinyurl.com/jbf8afp

How do we make sense of the increasing role of ignorance or problematic facts in knowledge regimes? The social mechanics of truth and knowledge have been a central concern within Science, Technology and Society (STS). Yet, the engineering of ignorance and the sense of an increasing imperviousness to facts/knowledge show brightly the limits of analytical approaches to science, technology, and innovation that ignore the role of political economy in contemporary knowledge practices. Important questions about the shaky status of facts — and the vicissitudes of knowers — emerge in a panoply of contexts: in the spread and purchase of myths through digital platforms; in the growing acknowledgement of large-scale scientific irreproducibility / unreliability; in the increasingly commercial imperatives placed upon academic knowledge production; and as highlighted in recent anxieties about strategic public ignorance and global democratic politics. In each context, one sees the fragility of approaches that assume that we are all rational actors working with — or even beholden to — uncompromised facts.
Considerations of agnotology–the area concerned with the emergence, use, and instrumentalization of ignorance—has become rather urgent in light of recent sociopolitical events marked by the sense of an increasing imperviousness to formal modes of knowledge and knowing, reflecting what some have termed, a post-truth, post-factual society. Breathless critics point to seismic U.S. and global political shifts such as Brexit, the recent U.S. elections, and the rise of the far right in Europe as evidence of a mounting epistemic crisis — an unceremonious dethroning of truth, facts, and rationality.
Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, these epistemic crises also show the power and purchase of alternative universes of knowing  — alternative worlds replete with their own logics, beliefs, and systems of veridiction and value. It also brings into view the way that unstable, complex or problematic knowledge works in tandem with or as a key component within larger social and economic paradigms. Agnotology (Proctor and Schiebinger 2008) references the “cultural inducement” of ignorance and false knowledge. However, what the agnotological impulse also reveals, especially in its more postmodern sense (Mirowski 2013), is the glaring limits of knowledge models that willfully ignore the technologies and techniques that enable and engineer ignorance and the subsequent instrumentalizing or capitalization of problematic, unverified, contested or merely promised knowledge. In this world, gilded visions of social, political and technological futures obscure long, flagrant histories of failed promises; empirically impossible promises are conferred the status of actualizable futures. Ways of mapping or understanding technoscience and innovation that rely on decontextualized epistemic assumptions reproduce a long debunked strain of determinism whereby facts and knowledge are understood to be the primary animating force that powers decisions, behaviors, institutions, emergence and belief. Perhaps, even the notion of agnotology itself performs such a determinism by treating ignorance as marginal – as rare, rather than prolific or perhaps, inherent to knowledge practices. At the same time, the recent focus on issues of value and valuation returns our attention to the ways that knowledge practices operate as sites for the engineering and enactment of particular values (Dussage, et al 2015) in a variety of domains from global health (Adams, et al 2016) to the global bioeconomy (Birch 2016). In each case, value(s) warrant intervening and transforming knowledge systems and infrastructures.
For political economic analyses of knowledge change, knowledge has always been inextricable from the economic and political. Larger considerations of culture, sociopolitical systems and economic formations (Lave, et al 2010) were inextricable from theorizations of technoscience, knowledge programs and political ideologies. Much like the agnotological lens, political economy necessarily redirects our analyses towards institutions, economic imperatives, charismatic actors, culture and myth, promissory economies, the cultivation of susceptible subjects, the strategic use of complexity, and the workings of political systems as key components in the analysis of knowledge modes, especially as they animate technoscience and innovation. Yet, perhaps our attention ought to consider the challenge of changing knowers. More than ever, recent events have brought into relief the role of knowers’ orientations (Beckert 2016; Harding 1993; Robinson, forthcoming) in analyses of knowledge transformation.
We invite papers that explore a wide range of approaches to these themes, including the following:
  • The Precarity of the Expert / The Fact
  • Freedom from Expertise / The Politics of Expertise
  • Values and Valuation in Science, Technology and Medicine
  • The Risks of Knowing & Knowledge
  • The Economics of the Unknown / Known
  • Evaluating Unstable or Unproven Knowledge
  • The Geography of Alternative Knowledge
  • Diverse Knowers and Knowing / Feminist Knowledge
  • New Approaches in Social Epistemology
  • Fruitful Falsehoods / Meaningless Facts / The Politics of Deniability
  • Commercial Imperatives in Research and Innovation
  • Scientific Ambiguity and Environmental Science
  • Pharmaceutical Markets / Clinical Ambiguity
  • Social Media & The Geography of Rumours
  • Complexity and Scientific Decision-making
Exploring case studies from science, technology, medicine as well as economics and innovation, this workshop aims to bring together a broad range of scholarship across a variety of fields and approaches.
Please send proposals and questions to both MarkRobinson (@) creighton.edu and EmmaWojnicki [at]creighton.edu. Send abstracts by March 18, 2017.
Advisory Panel: