Friday, September 16, 2011

Consensus and knowledge according to Colbert

I wonder what folks would think of teaching this Stephen Colbert clip (September 14, 2011) alongside Leviathan and the Air-Pump or Laboratory Life.

This clip brings the issues at stake in the notion of scientific consensus into rather stark relief, reflecting as it does on current public health policy. It also puts a brake on any too-quick readings of science studies that might construe the political nature of expertise as a debunking of expertise.

In the clip, Colbert mocks Rep. Michele Bachmann for presenting as truth an unnamed stranger's claim that the HPV vaccine (Gardasil) caused cognitive dysfunction in her daughter. The segment is funny, but it's also uncomfortable when we see how very flatly Colbert pits "the entire medical establishment" against "some lady." It's not a joke about method; it's a joke about authority, and who doesn't have it. Bachmann doesn't have very many people on her "team."

The clip forces us to confront the substantiveness of expertise as well as its political nature—its reliance on modest witnesses, on trustworthiness. Bachmann's statement genuinely doesn't hold up; it's about as epistemologically unsound a way to establish fact as we can imagine—it's no more than hearsay. But the reason it's hearsay to begin with is that we know so little about this woman or her daughter, about her methods, about her discernment. We don't have enough of those markers of trustworthiness.

Colbert is interesting when it comes to issues of consensus and knowledge. I've taught Colbert's segment on "Wikiality" before in the context of a media studies unit on wikis and citation. In it, Colbert pushes an extreme relativism that the bit is supposed to mock; the idea (contrary to the suggestion in the more recent clip about Michele Bachmann) is that reality is not determined by consensus, and a wiki encyclopedia is therefore an epistemologically untenable free-for-all.

That Colbert fans rather persistently vandalized the "elephant" entry on Wikipedia just to prove his point shows both Wikipedia's limitations and its relative strength: most of the time such things don't happen on Wikipedia. Colbert's overstatement of the consensus narrative led most of my students to come to see consensus as a potentially epistemologically strong method, under some circumstances, i.e. more than a mere convention. More practically, it led many of them to understand Wikipedia as a tenable project—without, however, losing sight of its limitations. It made for a very productive discussion, and I suspect the more recent clip would too.

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