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A Postmodern Postmortem - The Expert Is Dead

01/08/2016 11:38 | Updated 01 August 2016

In the wake of the recent resurgence by a certain Mr Andrew Wakefield and, what can only be described as his dangerously tenuous (read; non-existent) link between autism and the MMR vaccine, it's hard to not question (with some trepidation) "why now?"

Why is it that 12 years after Wakefield's paper was retracted, and its lead author banished from the medical community altogether, that this conspiracy rears its factually malnourished head once again?

Now, this slightly aggressive opening is perhaps how I would address this issue if I were still an active member of scientific research community. Having left that potential life trajectory behind me some years ago, I can now appreciate a more rounded take on the epistemological tensions at play here. That's not to say that the link Wakefield is proposing is in any way factually accurate, but I think this acts as a perfect encapsulation to a much bigger issue - the issue of 'Truth' in the postmodern age.

Since first reading about 'postmoderinism', I have realised that we are living in an age of 'post-pretty-much-everything'. An age defined, like all others, by the ages that existed before. The difference being, we have the power to now retrospectively apply a vocabulary to categorise the eras of premodernity, modernity, and finally; postmodernity. And like so many phenomena within these, the evolution of Truth (and the sources that kept it) has followed a somewhat predictable positivist evolution - from religious to metaphysical to scientific knowledge.

The premoderns were governed by dogmatic religion, with the truest of Truths being found only in the eyes of God. And thus, the sources of all Truth were those individuals who had an intimate relationship with him. And so, for centuries the Church was the dogmatic dictator of Truth - reserving all rights to knowledge in a world with a limited access to information.

This all changed with the advent of the printing press - a prominent moment in the birth of a movement that would seek to democratise all knowledge. And with it, came the 'Age of Enlightenment' - an age where science and 'Reason' came to prominence. Importantly, offering a challenge to the dogma of religious Truth with - and this is even more important - dogmatic Reason.

We had gone from one source of absolute truth to another - from the truth of God to the truth of Science. The latter of which, however, had a crucial advantage over its battling predecessor; empirical evidence. The greatest warrior in the army of reason; evidence-based results, meant that Science and Reason flourished. But, like the heel of Achilles, this powerful warrior came with a fatal weakness - relativism.

As science evolved - and with it the maturation of the modern age - the cracks began to show. And these cracks stemmed from its very root - the method on which all science is based; the hypothetico-deductive method. A method driven by hypothesis and a method based on a system that can never produce a statement that is, and always will be, 100% certain (aka. deductive reason - the sun will rose today and is likely to rise tomorrow but may not etc.)

And whilst this is the only way science should be conducted, the cracks began to appear when 'the people' realised that the system on which this dogmatic, absolute truth-finding machine was run, succumbed to similar issues of relativistic interpretation. Whether it's the psychological biases that can alter our interpretation of a result, or the highly contentious statistical processes used to groom them - the list of subjectively flawed elements to this scientific method is, like all facets of humanity, seemingly endless.

That said, it was not the length of the list itself but the very presence of a list that caused alarm when placed back-to-back with the bullet-proof objectivity of the image of science, largely projected from within. Now, tie this is with the democratisation of knowledge - which by the turn of the 20th century (and the eventual advent of the Internet) had hit new heights - and one can begin to appreciate the rapid process whereby Truth became 'postmodern.'

Defined by a violent kick-back from the absolutist dogmas of the premodern and modern ages, Truth in postmodernity is as relativistic as they come. One man's conspiracy-driven cult leader is another man's savior. The landscape of Truth has never contained by so many peaks, paradoxically flattening the playing field between 'expert' and 'layperson.' A PhD means nothing and neither does 40 years in the field, people are now free to choose which 'expert' tickles their fancy and the anti-intellectualist consequences are all to plain to see.

Andrew Wakefield being a prime example of the fact that we are currently experiencing an age where the very nature of Truth is under fire.

But how can we 'solve' it?

One could argue that the right thing to do is devolve to the dogmatic and absolutist dictatorship of knowledge and Truth but - I'm not so sure. In this world full of relative morality - the 'right' thing to do, like Truth, has never been more subjective.

What's needed instead to reverse this worrying trend and indeed, to preserve the very phenomena of Truth itself, I would argue, is a re-drawing of the definition of Truth. Like the fall of absolutism (which can only be seen as a good and necessary thing), what needs to fall here is the idea that Truth is concrete structure and an end to the goal. And instead, Truth needs to include the processes that seek to uncover it and in doing so, re-framed, to include not just the 'end of the road' but the very road that take us to it as well.

'Truth' becomes the 'quest for Truth' - a relative, subjective endeavor. Regardless of the evidence in its favour.

I'm not saying that empirical evidence is meaningless. It's not. But it's also not singular. It's very much an interpretative and subjective phenomena, as is science. And the longer we try to pretend this isn't the case, the longer the false illusion of 'purely objective science' will drive people away.

Sometimes in life, you've got to openly accept your flaws before others can do the same.

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