For decades, it was fashionable to call the concept of truth – even scientific truth – into question. For those who considered modernity to be completely surpassed, reality was a simulacrum, everything was relative, there was no such thing as objective references but “texts”, and “truth” was nothing but masked oppression.
This intellectual trend, despite facing some resistance and ultimately being ridiculed by the Sokal Affair, is alarming. It coincides with the rise of the term “post-truth”, which was proclaimed “Word of the Year” by Oxford Dictionaries in 2016.
In a world living in peace with relativism, or at most with “liquid” and “weak” truths, the preoccupation with truth is back. What was long considered a topic for philosophers or theologians is now reaching newspapers’ op-eds and the political and legislative agenda. Everyone in a position of power and influence seems concerned by the dissemination of so-called “fake news” and illiberal extremism.
But this strong revival of populism and irrationality is provoking a reaction. There is much talk nowadays about fact-checking, Big Data, or mechanisms of scientific advice for big political institutions – like the European Commission. Simultaneously, there is an increasing awareness about problems within modern science (such as the reproducibility crisis, lack of ideological diversity, and resistance to demands for open science…) and about the natural limits of human rationality.
We can all agree on the need for scientific evidence to legislate better. But do we really have sound evidence and trustworthy scientific sources, particularly in politically very sensitive areas like gender? I’m afraid this is not always the case.
A Swedish study found, for instance, that “gender studies” are the best financed, but also most biased and least objective of all disciplines within the humanities and social sciences!
This is relevant because the science about sex and gender differences – explained by Susan Pinker in Brussels within the EUROMIND debate series, which I have the honor of coordinating –is not just an intellectual curiosity, but something that has a deep influence in legislation affecting the lives of millions of people.
A case in point is the report recently discussed and voted for in the EU Parliament about the “Istanbul Convention” on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. This is an important and pioneering initiative within international law: a document that reflects a very significant change in social attitudes towards violence against women – something that we do not want to tolerate anymore.
However, I am worried that these legislative initiatives exhibit an empathy deficit towards men and boys, who are also victims of violence, and that they largely ignore the available scientific evidence, even from studies financed by the Union, like the doVE Project (see Costa et al. 2015)[i], which show similar sex rates of perpetration/victimization in domestic abuse within Europe. This evidence has been extensively reviewed by independent researchers such as Nicola Graham-Kevan, but apparently has not been sufficiently taken into account by the responsible political committees. In fact, I cannot find a single reference in the above-mentioned report to male victims.
I am persuaded that the Rights Revolution of the past few decades, including the fight for cultural delegitimization and legal prosecution of violence against women, carried out by the feminist movement, represents a clear example of moral progress. At the same time, I think a new “twist of the screw” is needed to include all the real victims – women, men, and children of both sexes – as Steven Pinker suggests in a chapter of his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. I agree with Rebecca Steinfeld and Brian D. Earp that we need a new moral and legal paradigm to put into question arbitrary distinctions based on sex or gender, particularly when it comes to sexual violence.
For this vision to materialise, our circle of empathy will have to be expanded – think for a moment about the problem of male suicide – but we will also have to rely more on evidence and expert scientific advice, in the context of a more independent, ideologically diverse science.
We still don’t have a way to liberate political decision-making from ideologies, interests and emotions. I have been a member of the EU Parliament since November 2015, when I joined a liberal political group with a particular ideological orientation – ALDE – but for now there is no such thing as an autonomous intelligent robot doing the hard job for us. We have a bounded rationality and a political nature. This implies that political reasoning obviously does not operate from a “blank slate”, but in the context of the existing social institutions, constrained by a set of evolved adaptations, biases and inherited orientations that vary individually.
I believe we should understand these political orientations as resources to navigate in a world full of uncertainties, not as dogmas pretending to ignore reality and impervious to scientific truth. A better understanding of the issues we face, and an awareness of our own biases and human weaknesses, is our first great battle to be won.
Teresa Giménez Barbat MEP is a Spanish writer, anthropologist and Member of the European Parliament, where she advocates for secular humanism, rationalist universalism and scepticism. She is the convenor of the EUROMIND debate series on humanism and science in the European Parliament.
[i] From the conclusions: “Similar prevalence estimates between men and women within the same city and the bidirectional or reciprocal pattern (being both a victim and perpetrator) observed in the experiences of psychological aggression, physical assault and injury must be considering the design and the evaluation of preventive interventions.”