The estimated reading time for this post is 12 minutes.
With the boisterous rise of populism in politics and public debate, politicians and the media seem to deal with the truth in an increasingly dubious manner. We have entered—it is said—the era of ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and ‘fact-free’ politics. In this essay, I argue that history of science can help putting these developments in a new perspective. 
Truth claims, it seems, are nowadays more and more often postulated without evidence or factual support; in other instances, unsuitable ‘real’ facts are simply ignored or distorted. Populist politicians and media, in particular, appear to defy established rules of ethical behavior in the public arena of democratic societies. To provide just one example: Fact checkers of Politifact qualified barely 30% of Trump’s statements during the campaign for the presidential elections as ‘half-true’ at most, the remaining 70% as ‘mostly false’ or worse. Still, Trump won the elections. The intriguing question, then, is how leaders who deal with issues of principal importance without factual underpinning or logical coherence manage to retain credibility among followers.
What is going on? In this blogpost, I argue that historians of science should have a say on this. As specialists in matters of truth-finding (or: epistemology), we are able to fruitfully contribute to the discussion of public speech in times of post-truth. In the following, I focus on the history of the fact. As terms like ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fact-free politics’ indicate, the position of the fact in public debate is under pressure.
This blogpost is an outline, an exploration rather than a solid piece of scholarship. My aim is to demonstrate that historians of science can provide fresh perspectives on the rise of populism and the current state of public speech. To generate a deeper understanding of the value of the historiography of the fact for the current state of public discourse, however, we need to broaden our scope. We should address not only the sciences, but also other social domains involved in establishing truth in society, such as journalism, politics, medicine, jurisdiction, bureaucracy, perhaps even arts. We should particularly examine the exchange and coalescence of epistemological techniques and discursive styles among these domains. How, and why, have we come to trust facts in establishing truth? And what has been their role in the history of truth? Returning to the opening remarks of this blogpost, how does Trump, with his disdain for factual truth, manage to retain credibility among his followers?
Facts in history
Their expertise will prompt historians of science to make relevant comments on current discussions about political culture and discourse. Take, for example, the ontology of the fact, a topic closely scrutinized by historians and philosophers of science alike. How fundamental is the ontological distinction between ‘alternative’ and ‘real’ facts? Are there such things as ‘real’ facts?
However, rather than focusing on its ontological status, I will consider the use of the fact in practice. How have scholars and scientists utilized facts in their work? In some of the classical texts in history of science this topic takes center stage. Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985), for instance, details the rise of the experimental ‘fact’ during the second half of the seventeenth century. In London, some gentlemen founded a learned society for this purpose: the Royal Society. The experimental fact had to replace dogmatic arguments, grounded in metaphysical and religious convictions. Another seminal book, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (2007), likewise discusses the contingent role of the fact in the scientific practice. These authors don’t address the significance of the fact as such, but its altering epistemological position. They describe, more particularly, fundamental changes in the way scientists from about 1800 onward used experimentally observed ‘facts’ to underpin scientific insights. In the decades around 1800 ‘sage’ scholars used their intellectual skills to interpret observed facts. Later that century, the ideal of ‘objectivity’ emerged. Facts were supposed to speak for themselves, without the intervening interpretation of the scientist. Both studies examine the fact as an epistemological tool amidst others, such as reliance on authoritative persons, dogmatic truths, and moral and intuitive arguments. The position of the fact appears to be not something given. And it has not always been attributed the same significance as form of evidence as scientists nowadays do.
If the role of the fact is contingent in scientific and scholarly practices, it is not surprising that this should also be the case in the political practice. Indeed, the (changing) roles ascribed to the fact in science and politics sometimes even appear to coalesce.
Shapin and Schaffer argue that the rise of the fact in experimental natural philosophy was informed by societal and political needs. When the Royal Society was founded in 1660, England was hopelessly tangled up in sectarian violence and disputes, and neither its successive leaders, nor any of the religious and political factions were able to establish moral authority. Every debate inevitably aggravated the raging civil strife. It was in this constellation that the members of the Royal Society started to organize meetings in which experiments took center stage. These experiments produced ‘facts’. The gentlemen agreed that these should be accepted as the highest possible approximation of the truth.
Apart from being a milestone in the history of the experimental sciences, the foundation of the Royal Society exemplified a practice in building a society on the basis of consensus, that is, an attempt to find common ground by channeling dissent in a peaceful and reasonable manner. Grounded in facts, philosophical disputes focused on things instead of persons. The experimental philosopher ‘love[s] to speak of persons with civility, though of things with freedom’. Facts detached the search for truth from higher and absolute metaphysical and religious convictions and were considered as means to generate peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic socio-political reality. At the same time, they introduced a new way of founding scientific truth.
In the tradition of the Royal Society, facts were established by witnessing. The attendants had to decide collectively if a veritable fact was produced with—say—the air-pump. Truth was established by observation, not by trust in the authority of previous ‘great’ thinkers. Not just anyone could be a witness. Only people with the right upbringing and education—indeed, gentlemen—were considered capable of making correct judgements and validate experimental outcomes. Gentlemanly virtues, like modesty, disinterestedness, continuous self-interrogation, and above all self-control, were considered to be essential. Facts could only play their role as epistemic building blocks if people involved in the process of finding truth had been conditioned to comply with certain codes of behavior.
‘Objectivity’, emerging two centuries later, urged the use of automatic registration, figures, graphs, and statistics. Such impersonal carriers of information served to detach facts from the scientist producing them. Objectivity was not restricted to the sciences, but also appeared in other academic disciplines, such as medicine and even the humanities.
Some ‘objective’ scientists operated at the crossroads of the scientific domain and governance. The so-called hygienists, for instance, produced statistics, graphs, and maps to investigate the relation between the outbreak of epidemic diseases and, among other things, environmental conditions. On the basis of these results, they managed to prompt governments to realize the improvement of living conditions in the cities to halt diseases. Their success shows that in the same period when scientific objectivity emerged, its values, methods and depersonalized way of dealing with facts became increasingly persuasive in matters of governance and public discourse. This period for instance saw the emergence of statistical surveys as a valid administrative tool (despite the resistance of conservatives who rather relied on the wisdom of authoritative persons).
At least in the Netherlands, letting the facts speak for themselves, characteristic for objectivity, had an ideological dimension. In Dutch politics, it was pursued by liberals. Led by Johan Rudolph Thorbecke, Dutch liberals drafted the Constitution of 1848, which contained the autocratic and paternalistic rule of king Willem I and his successor Willem II and thus formed the foundations for the modern Dutch polity.
Liberals maintained that ‘reasonable’ and ‘rational’ citizens would arrive at higher truths and the best policy by free exchange of (conflicting) ideas. Progress would thus be realized. The transparent exchange of information and opinion, irrespective of the person who produced it, informed an evidence-based dialectical discourse. Evidence-based meant deploying logical arguments supported with facts, which were both the building blocks and lubricant of debates between political opponents and within the burgeoning political parties. Facts, in short, liberated society from the arbitrariness of powerful figures.
Although in practice the rationalistic ideal soon proved to be too lofty, its basic premises took root. Objectivity was there to stay, also because, as Theodore Porter argued in Trust in Numbers, its epistemology of depersonalized knowledge suits situations in which relations of trust and personal acquaintance were severed by distance and unfamiliarity. This was, for instance, the case when the process of national integration in the nineteenth century (at the expense of local and regional rule) increased the distance between rulers and ruled. In fact, apart from science and politics, objectivity-related principles became principal ideals for journalism, jurisdiction, bureaucracy and medicine. And so it does to the present day.
Objective, evidence-based discourse—which I will dub ‘modernistic discourse’—did not strengthen democracy in every respect. It could result in a formalistic rigidity in governance, in which decisions were informed by reports and calculations of technocratic institutions such as ministries, planning offices, or scientists and other experts, leaving hardly any room for differing opinions and substantial debate. The production of incontestable facts was increasingly outsourced to laboratories and other closed spaces. In the nineteenth century, the aristocratic fact of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural philosophy was thus replaced by the democratic-technocratic fact.
Apart from this comment, we can safely conclude that facts (or perhaps belief in facts) have been the building blocks of scientific and technological progress during the last centuries; they have been a catalyst for peaceful settlement of dissent and a safeguard for a pluralistic society. Disregarding the fact as evidence means opposing of all this. Why would some groups of people want to put modern society’s methods of problem solving at stake?
Facts, populism, and the great divide
To understand the deviant position of the fact in populist discourse, let’s first determine what distinguishes populistic politics from ‘traditional’, democratic politics. As Princeton Professor of Politics Jan-Werner Müller has set out in his recent authoritative essay What is Populism? (2017), one of the basic traits of a populist leader is his claim that he, and he alone represents the ‘true’ people. Populists project a holistic view on society, which consists of one united people. These people include the ‘morally pure’. They ostracize, on the other hand, elites and marginal groups (immigrants) that are considered corrupt or morally inferior.
Because the leader, in justifying his decisions and intentions, simply refers to ‘the people’s will’, these become immune to factual falsification. Sound policy becomes a matter of common sense and moral arguments; careful estimation of empirical evidence is of a secondary nature, if not redundant.
According to Müller, a main or arguably even crucial characteristic of populism is anti-pluralism. Who doesn’t support the populists and endorse their case, doesn’t belong to the people. As populists grasp power—be it Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Victor Orbán in Hungary—they dismiss the validity of any form of opposition. In general, the organization of populist parties does not stimulate internal debate. Their relations to critical journalism, science, and independent jurisdiction are, at best, awkward. To them, institutions like these, adhering to the modernistic discourse, are part of the loathed ‘elites’. Populists don’t feel the need for an open exchange of ideas. Therefore, facts become less relevant in their discourse.
This anti-pluralism places the populists outside of the democratic order, which by its very nature acknowledges pluralism and the need to find fair conditions to coexist as free, equal, and diverse citizens. Every democratic politician realizes that political representation is fundamentally partial, temporal and fallible. As the word ‘party’ itself indicates, a single party can impossibly represent the whole of society, which is exactly what populists claim to do. Populist politicians tend to prefer a discourse of personal authority grounded in the ‘higher’ metaphysics of the people’s will to the evidence-based dialectic method of the technocratic-democratic order.
Populism is of course not an isolated phenomenon, but is encouraged by broader developments, like those in public discourse and political debate. In his book Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics (2016), New York Times executive and former director-general of the BBC Mark Thompson details the drastic changes in public and political speech over the last decades. In this period politicians had to deal with a rapidly changing media-landscape, from the emergence of CNN to the rise of social media. Such developments fostered journalistic formats that can be digested in a wink: headlines, brief summaries lists; and that predominantly focus on clearcut opinions.
New media realities coalesced with intrinsic changes in political culture, such as the intrusion of marketing practices. For current politicians it has become increasingly difficult to be nuanced and to adjust one’s position (in public) by listening to others and considering factual evidences. Today’s public discourse, therefore, lends itself to the expression of uncompromising and extreme positions, grounded in opinion and common belief rather than elaborate argumentation. Moreover, actual arguments tend to matter less than what these supposedly say about the person expressing them. Focus has shifted from the argument to person. Or perhaps we should say: focus has returned to the person.
At the same time, not everybody seems to be equally susceptible. Trust in our democracy and technocratic institutions (the EU!) is still high among bureaucrats, accountants, engineers, doctors, traditional media, scientists and teachers, that is, those who have been steeped—at higher education institutions, workplaces, and often during their upbringing—in the kind of formalistic reasoning based on ‘objective’ facts. These individuals mostly live in urbanized and globalized communities, where trust in political and technocratic institutions is relatively high anyway. Adherents of populist parties in general belong to lower (middle) classes, especially living in the countryside. In those (less pluralistic) areas, life has been dominated longer by traditional personal forms of authority of priests and ministers, local magnates, powerful dynasties, foremen, factory-owners—authorities who are not necessarily inclined to justify arguments by providing factual evidences.
The circumstances leading to the rise of populism reveal a fundamental, epistemological divide in society. This dichotomy has always been there, but it remained concealed as long as media was dominated by traditional journalism and political parties were powerful organizations with charismatic leaders, who exercised strong personal trust to their electorate and played the technocratic game in the practice of governance. People on both sides of this divide, although not even necessarily having different needs, and undoubtedly having the best intentions for their communities and humanity in mind, simply don’t argue along the same lines. They don’t understand each other. They don’t speak the same language.
In a way, this exposition turns the question of the rise of populism upside down. Besides looking for the circumstances that proved beneficial for populism, we should wonder about the rise and prevalence of the modernistic discourse with its specific epistemology and its reliance on fact-producing experts. This latter discourse has had a relatively short history and is inherently connected to our democratic, pluralistic society. From this point of view, it would be naive to consider populism as a hype or the temporary outburst of protest.
The modernistic discourse with its epistemic virtue of letting facts speak for themselves resulted from a long-term process in which Western society sought to counteract dogmatic thinking, sectarian violence, and authoritarian rule, with its arbitrariness and lack of transparency. With the current demise of the fact, we see elements of former modes of rule (re-)entering the political and public stages—although, to be sure, these modes had never completely disappeared.
Personally, I believe, like probably most readers of this blog, in the blessings of the modernistic discourse. It has brought prosperity, has extended our lives and—the leitmotiv of this essay—enabled a political culture that was capable of governing a pluralistic society in a peaceful manner. The main argument of this drafty exposition leads to the conclusion that, populism is the expression of a deep fundamental social division which is not likely to vanish as a whim of fashion. And although it should not be considered as merely the result of a democratic deficit, transfer of power to ‘technocratic’ institutions as the EU or the increasing resistance (in the Netherlands) among the higher educated against the referendum will not serve to bridge the gap.
Historians of science have done excellent work during the last decades to unearth the social and cultural fabric that underlies the science practice. They have jettisoned traditional positivistic views on the linear progress of science, debunked the classical narrative of the heroic efforts of geniuses, and challenged the alleged rationality of the scientific practice. The current crisis in public discourse provides the opportunity to deploy these valuable insights in a less introspective manner. Historians of science can help to reveal the ‘social fabric’ sustaining our modern democratic order. They can reveal its contingency and its vulnerability to societal changes. And there is also a positive message to take away. After all, trust in facts is a matter of culture, upbringing and education.
 I am very grateful to Sebastiaan Broere for his remarks and suggestions. I thank Jeroen Bouterse for his comments on my draft of this blogpost.
 S. Shapin and S. Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press 1985), 77.
 See, in particular, S. Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago 1994).
 Concerning objectivity in the humanities, see L. Daston, ‘Objectivity and Impartiality: Epistemic Virtues in the Humanities, in: T. Weststeijn, R. Bod and J. Maat (eds.), The Making of the Humanties, Vol. 3 (Amsterdam 2014), 27-52.
 This, and the subsequent paragraphs are largely based on: A. Maas, ‘Johan Rudolph Thorbecke’s Revenge: Objectivity and the Rise of the Dutch Nation State’, in: J. van Dongen and H. Paul (eds.), Epistemic Virtues in the Sciences and the Humanities (2017).
 H. Te Velde, ‘Onderwijzers in parlementaire politiek. Thorbecke, Guizot en het Europese doctrinaire liberalisme’, Bijdragen en mededelingen betreffende de geschiedenis der Nederlanden 113 (1998), 322-343.