On unintended consequences—how people push for something, e.g., to discredit structures of authority, but that comes back to bite them

An unscripted 14-minute audio thought piece on how we make sense of the social relations being exposed in these times. A particular theme that I’m chewing on is unintended consequences—how people push for something, for example, to discredit structures of authority, but that comes back to bite them (us). Comments welcome.


An unscripted 14-minute audio thought piece on how we make sense of the social relations being exposed in these times. A particular theme that I’m chewing on is unintended consequences—how we push for something, for example, to discredit structures of authority, but that comes back to bite us. I’ll get back to that, but will start by discussing the work of Raymond Williams—a social theorist, activist, literary analyst, and also a novelist.

In his 1985 Loyalties Williams has two central characters Gwyn, who is Welsh and his English birthfather, Norman. “Loyalties explores the tension between solidarity forged through working and living in particular places, what Williams calls militant particularism, and translocal perspectives or abstractions. Moreover, it adds a temporal, transgenerational dimension… When the middle-aged Gwyn and elderly Norman finally meet, Norman pushes Gwyn to acknowledge that [Gwyn’s] scientific career has taken him away from his birthplace and enabled him to see more about the ways the world is changing than people who remained in the Welsh towns [that Gwyn is loyal to]. Political involvement, Norman argues, cannot be simple mattter of Gwyn staying loyal to his roots. Given that ‘powerful forces’ that shape social… change we can ‘in intelligence’ grapple with them ‘by such means as we can find’ and take a deliberate path of action, but ‘none of us, at any time, can know enough, can understand enough, to avoid getting much of it wrong.’” That’s the unintended consequences. “[I]n the words of Norman’s close intellectual and political colleague, Monkey Pitter, if we ‘go on saying the things we learned to say, it would just be strange talk in a strange land.’” (Taylor 2005)

Williams values loyalty, values militant particularism, values commitment to the place and to the community. But he is also hinting that we need flexibility—taking stock and adjusting. Well, that’s easier said than done and I don’t think I find in Williams a particular path to doing it or a theory about doing it.

This weekend I began to pursue two inquiries. One was thinking about the talk given by the geographer Michael Watts for his retirement in 2016. I was wondering who fuels the discrediting of authority? In his talk, as I heard it, he took as a starting point that the German defeat in World War I and the conditions of the Weimar Republic meant authority was widely discredited; similarly, later, following German complicity with Nazism in the 30s and World War II. I suspected, however, that some groups of fractions or currents of the political economy at that time fueled that discrediting, whether or not they had, or could have had, a coherent vision for how that would play out.

I asked Michael for any thoughts, theories, or readings for how to think about such discrediting currents. His response was to point out all the different currents of the change that was happening without positing that some group was trying to fuel it. There was a reaction to the liberalism or decadence of the Weimar republic; the immigrant question, which was the influx of the so-called Eastern Jews; the changing class composition of the country; the demise of the peasants, artisans, some provincial family firms; and so on. Many of these strands were key in voting for the Nazi party. And there was also a youth question—young people where hailed and manipulated by the various right-wing factions. (In Michael’s talk, he draws parallels to the rise of “Trumpism.” Remember those were then days before the election and subsequent manifestations of trumpism.) Michael hadn’t identified that there were some forces fueling or discrediting authorities. There were so many things going on in that post-World War I period that one didn’t need to posit such a group. So why was I interested in the discrediting of authority in some deliberate way?

That brings me to the second line of inquiry, which is the question about the status of science in these times. It seems to me that science has become political in the sense that results are just “fake” and can be dismissed if they don’t match your politics. So I yearn for a time when scientific results could be more solid, harder to dismiss. But I also have to recognize that 30 and 40 years ago, when science and technology seemed very much complicit in the Vietnam war effort, in environmental degradation, in economic development plans such as large dams and other industrial developments that marginalized and displaced people, young people, including myself, wanted to question the authority of science. I’ll say a little bit more later about the particular way we did it, but you can see the theme of something coming back to bite us: The possibility of discrediting the authority of science is something that has been very mobilized by groups that are pushing for social changes that are quite opposed to what I would want.

I looked for work that I knew of—historical work—that paid attention to the authority of science. The first book was Robert Proctor’s Value Free Science? He identifies periods of time that fit four sectors of a quadrant. In one sector you have “science is good because it is free of values.” In another sector you have “science is bad because it is free of values.” In another, you have “science is good because it is tied up with social values and agendas” and in another section you have “science is bad because it is tied up with social agendas.” He concludes—this is now thirty years ago—that we have to recognize that science is embedded in society. That is a descriptive expression of what I and others—probably Robert himself—promoted in an activist way: we had to expose the way that science was very much tied up in social relations.

But then fast forward to Orestes and Conway’s Merchant of Doubt. Here you see that in the cases of the health effects of tobacco, the ozone hole, and greenhouse gases affecting climate change, there have been people who have taken it upon themselves to cast doubt, to use the language of science—there are hypotheses and conjectures, that nothing is ever certain in science—in making sure that what is widely known and established in science is not influencing politics. So it’s a politics of discrediting the authority of science. At the end of Merchants of Doubt the authors push for recognizing the authority of science. Given that 95% of climate scientists are quite sure that average global warming is related to the increases of carbon dioxide that human have brought about—so-called anthropogenic climate change, the author’s response is to say, in effect, “Science should have this authority again.”

I think their work is important, but I don’t think they are grappling with what it means that there are commitments now to science being political in the sense of you can just shrug off results that do not match your political agenda. But here we come back to discrediting structures of authority comes back to bite us. I wouldn’t say that the efforts we made as activists and then as interpreters of science really have been strong forces contributing to the current reactionary social relations. I’d like to say we did some good work, but we aren’t on the scale of, say, mega-billionaires funding election campaigns.

Looking at agendas of fueling the discrediting the authority made me wonder whether there were equivalent groups back in the 20s in Germany. I also wonder whether the current groups are aware of ways that this discrediting of authority can have consequences that they don’t want. And, if they are aware, whether they think they can take stock and adjust, or whether they think they can ride out the chaos and confusion. Perhaps it’s in fact beneficial to them just to have such a chaotic system that no systematic response to their very self-interested agenda can emerge. For example, the Koch brothers: if environmental regulations were fully imposed or if the cost of cleaning up environmental destruction were imposed on them, they would owe a lot of money to the populace, to the rest of us. They want to get away with not paying the bill for what they’ve done.

Can we think about how to, in the challenge I draw from Williams, take stock and adjust—have the flexibility to revisit our loyalties. I welcome comments from anyone else on the issue of unintended consequences—whether they are fully unintended—whether the people who intend to create forces that might come back and push against what they originally hoped for have thought through what they’re doing. Also contributions on how that complexity jives or doesn’t jive with more deterministic social theory of the Marxist sort, or with the more voluntaristic social theory, again of the Marxist thought—you have to organize the classes—, or with the newer complexity theories that have a certain definiteness about what will emerge, for example, in the so-called butterfly effect, but not much handle on what anyone would do within that complexity. Thank you.

Oreskes, N. and E. M. Conway (2010) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York, Bloomsbury Press.
Proctor, R. (1991) Value-free science? Purity and Power in Modern Knowledge Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Williams, R. (1985). Loyalties. London, Chatto & Windus.


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