Towards new policy expertise: From “speak truth to power” to “deliberate truth to public”
In the era of post-truth politics, multiple facts emerge, and the key challenge for public policy centers around which facts are to be ignored and which are to be included in the policy process. This has lasting effects, because the way that policy makers perceive truth and facts can have a significant effect on people’s everyday lives. As Stone (2002: 305-319) suggests, selecting facts when making a policy is a policy paradox, as there are many facts which can be drawn upon which may be seen either as rational ideals or forms of indoctrination. On the one hand, rational ideals promote neutral facts that derive from unbiased techniques and disinterested conclusions. In this view, individuals are brought into harmony by the power of logic and evidence. On the other hand, indoctrination is the way in which a fact is intentionally manipulated such that the interests of the indoctrinator remain secure. In the same way that facts in the policy process are always subject to dispute, they usually become a weapon of government, who are keen to choose and shape facts so that they can pursue their strategic agenda.
Stone (2002: 320-323) notices that facts in the real world derive from social knowledge rather than direct observation. Also, we are influenced as much by the person’s race, looks, social manners, reputation, and credentials as we are by the information they bring. In this vein, Fuller (2018) mentions that, in the era of post-truth, the selection of facts by policy makers is not always based on trustworthy sources, but, rather, is based on whether such facts are reflective of public opinion and emotion. Fact selection is therefore a social and political process, not a rational one. To some extent, Fischer, Torgerson, Durnova and Orsini (2015) point out that it is down to critical policy studies to challenge value-free ontology in a policy world that is always subjective. This point of view thus confirms that accepting the co-existence of multiple facts is not really a problem, but rather a more comprehensive way to understand real phenomena. Whether we refer to “fact”, “reality”, “truth”, “value”, or “norm”, critical policy scholars perceive them as a social construction of reality, an artifact, a meaning, a (grand) narrative, or a discourse (Fischer, 1998; Miller, 2002; Morcol, 2002; Wagenaar, 2011; Yanow, 2000). So, multiple facts, in this sense, are different artifacts, meanings, narratives, or discourses; the notion of post-truth is somehow legitimized by this thought, as pointed out by Fischer (2019) and critiqued by Scruton (2007).
Understanding multiple facts as different discourses, however, can pave the way for critique. First, traditional and neo-positivist scholars (e.g. Dunn, 2018; John, 2012; Gupta, 2010; Kraft and Furlong, 2017; Peters, 2015) argue that, without objective ontology, we cannot set any standards and points of reference about what we understand by right or wrong, success or failure, and even good or bad. To ignore an objective fact also challenges the classic role of policy analysis, that is “speaking truth to power” (Wildavsky, 1979), which assumes that a good policy should be the result of cognition, not a consequence of emotions.
Furthermore, amongst those calling for evidence-based policy, the question for critical policy studies is how a good policy can be guaranteed without the support of empirical evidence, which is a right fact (Newman, 2016). In this view, it is essential to distinguish between truth and lies, and accurate and inaccurate information. Also, public policy can mislead when empirical evidence and expert opinion become a surrogate for value-based judgments motivated by bias (Harsin, 2015).
Lastly, critique is levelled against the role of scientific knowledge in policy-making, framed by the science-policy interface approach (e.g. Freeman and Sturdy, 2015; Jones, Datta, and Jones, 2009). If critical policy research understands different facts as parallel discourses then the expert knowledge that determines facts is seen to be just as valuable as any opinion. Thus, the validity of knowledge does not matter, and policy can be guided by forces that seem to be dangerous.
This article aims to take these critiques more seriously by examining situations in which there are multiple facts, and how the selection of facts influences public policy. The objective is not to ‘confirm’ the validity of traditional neo-positivists, the evidence-based policy approach, or science-policy interface assumptions. It is, rather, to cause us to think about the challenge for conducting critical policy research. With this in mind, underlying this research is an assumption that a return is taking place to a naïve, fact-value dichotomy, and that ontological debates are no longer productive, meaning we still need to deal with the complexity and messiness of the subjective and contextually sensitive real-world.
As argued by Miller (2002: 71-82), facts are, in fact, not things-in-themselves, but things we perceive and express. Also, facts are shaped by words, which do not become facts until they are socially understood to be as such. In the same vein, the processes of perception and selection of facts are mostly related to different value frames, as they determine the selective presentation, organization, interpretation, and sense-making of realities. As pointed out by Rein and Schön (1993, 1996), with any particular frame, facts are picked up to guide the way in which we know, analyze, persuade, and act. Therefore, this article argues that, in the face of post-truth politics, it looks more real to count not only the objective facts in claiming the truth, but to reflect on what exactly the policy process is really driven by. Although this argument is critiqued widely, it is based on the assumption that real truth does not exist, or if it does, it does not matter (Scruton, 2007). The key point is that truth is perceived in a different way from positivists, who cope with post-truth politics by blaming subjective facts. As Miller (2002: 83) argues, there are truths, but they are revisable truths arising from communities of knowledge. This focus, thus, can help us to frame and better understand existing knowledge politics or language games on the basis of the social creation of knowledge and facts chosen within the policy process (Fischer, 2019; Miller, 2002: 74-81).
It seems clear from the review of Harsin (2018) that the main recommended interventions to address post-truth politics give priority to the enhancement of scientific integrity and the control of social media and the Internet. These are a means of scientific promotion and the control of laypeople that can lead to knowledge inequality and state-mandated censorship. Alternatively, this article pays particular attention to fact checking. However, rather than suggesting improvements to the technological tools used for fact checking, the lessons provided here inform the practice of deliberative process as a means of joint-fact checking. Drawing influence from interpretive and deliberative policy inquiries (e.g. Fischer and Boossabong, 2018; Hajer and Wagenaar, 2003; Wagenaar, 2011), this article illustrates the important role that deliberative forums play in facilitating the emergence of different facts, whether based on empirical or normative assumptions, and the role that they play in articulating different interpretations.
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Boossabong, P. & Chamchong, P. 2020. “Public policy in the face of post-truth politics and the role of deliberation”. Journal of Critical Policy Studies. DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2020. 1724168