STS, Post-truth, and the Rediscovery of Bullshit

Bennett Holman


Post-truth politics has led to a number of prominent reflections on the extent to which the basic tenets of STS (social construction, the symmetry thesis, etc.) must be amended (Briggle 2016; Latour 2004; Sismondo 2017a).  Alternatively, others have argued that the basic principles of STS should be maintained and the similarities of STS with post-truth should be embraced (Fuller 2016b; Woolgar 2017).  After first critiquing other scholars read on post-truth politics, I argue that one of the central drawbacks of STS is the absence of epistemic grounds to identify people who are plainly bullshitters (Frankfurt 1986).  I contend that the lesson that post-truth politics has to offer STS is that a minimal standard of an epistemological system is that it must have the intellectual resources to endorse the claim “Trump is full of shit.”  Yet it is not clear how one could go about reconciling central STS tenets with the clear and present need to oppose dangerous trends in contemporary politics. Despite arguing that STS should change, I contend that it should not do so at the expense of what is distinctive and valuable about STS.  After considering Steve Woolgar’s (2017) list of the strengths of STS scholarship I propose that with slight modification they can be preserved. As an example of an epistemology which does so, I introduce Helen Longino's critical contextual empiricism and then use it to analyze a case study of the recent FDA approval of flibanserin for hypoactive sexual desire disorder. I conclude by arguing that social epistemology, as developed in philosophy of science, is reconcilable with opposing post-truth politics and retains many of the primary virtues of STS.



post-truth; social epistemology; symmetry thesis

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