Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Noelle Molé Liston's "The Truth Society"

Noelle Molé Liston is a Senior Lecturer at New York University. She is the author of Labor Disorders in Neoliberal Italy.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Truth Society: Science, Disinformation and Politics in Berlusconi’s Italy, and reported the following:
Page 99 brings us right into an Italian legal trial in “The Trial against Disinformation.” Seven scientists were sued for manslaughter for the deaths of 31 individuals who had listened to their safety reassurances and stayed home when the devastating April 6th, 2009 earthquake struck. Global news media erroneously framed the case as suing because the scientists failed to predict the earthquake:
The most dominant narrative of ‘failed prediction’ relied on several cultural assumptions with deep histories within Italy: century-long ideas that position Italians as naïve and backwards, as overly Catholic, irrational and pagan. These essentialized versions of Italian culture made it plausible that Italians expected scientists to be prophets who could perfectly predict earthquakes, which grossly distorted the court case and the legacy of the trial (Ciccozzi 2016). To assume the trial was based on irrationality obscures that what was truly audacious and entirely rational was taking seriously the enchantments of the scientific, the tendency to view the ‘word of science’ as holy and sacred or as tantamount to a supernatural force. It would miss that predictions of 100 percent safety—the assurance that no earthquake would come—are indeed irrational and nonscientific claims. […]

Italy’s “trial against science” was controversial in how it criminalized scientific prediction, or, perhaps more accurately, scientists’ endangering citizens’ wellbeing and safety. What cultural beliefs about prediction, public safety, and scientific accuracy undergird this judicial process and conviction? Why did the trial emerge in Italy and not following natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or Sandy? […] In order to understand why ‘false’ information was understood as deadly, this chapter aims to analyze how the initial event—the press conference and safety claims—and subsequent trial were informed by cultural perceptions and scientific understandings of disinformation, as well as earthquake prediction and risk assessment.”
The Page 99 test transports us to the stunning epicenter of the book’s core: how people understand and act on scientific information in culturally and historically specific ways, how political and legal infrastructure of country matters in terms of the ethics and accountability of science, and how the wider problem of disinformation undergirds citizens’ safety and wellbeing. As these paragraphs show, the chapter works against the grain of public views of the trial: 1) the trial was globally repudiated by scientists, and news media around the framed Italians as gullible believers; 2) there has been very little appreciation of the bold move of the Italian judiciary to hold scientists and public officials accountable for deadly disinformation. Consider why the United States has not held the American President accountable for his fatal lies about COVID-19.

However, the Page 99 algorithm might give readers the impression that the entire book is dedicated to this fascinating and complex trial, but this is not the case. Like fault lines that span thousands of miles beneath earthquakes, so, too The Truth Society moves across deep historical and cultural trajectories of what lies beneath the L’Aquila trial. Earlier chapters are dedicated to the masterminding of televised politics by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, an ethnographic analysis of Italy’s pro-science activists and their annual “Day Against Superstition” in 2011, and the rise of digital populism with Italy’s populist Five Star Movement. L’Aquila and the trial cannot make sense without first unearthing the rise of Italy’s mediatized political system and the stakes of disinformation. Even the pro-science demonstration, where activists invited local Italians to rethink their common superstitions about practices like breaking mirrors, is relevant. The very fact that Italians were seeking to persuade fellow Italians about the merits of scientific thought was what actually led me into the whole project: Why, I wondered, did science need safeguarding? The book refuses to position science as if it were a neutral body of knowledge. Rather, it aims to show that scientific knowledge is always shot through with culturally particular assumptions and beliefs.
Learn more about The Truth Society at the Cornell University Press website. Follow Noelle Molé Liston on Intagram.

--Marshal Zeringue