The “Political Economy of Knowledge and Ignorance” funded by the John Templeton Foundation (Grant No. 61823)

The “Political Economy of Knowledge and Ignorance” (Templeton Grant No. 61823) explores the institutional mechanisms through which knowledge is produced and questions of truth and falsehood are determined. The grant seeks to promote greater interdisciplinary analysis of ‘knowledge problems’ in economics and political science, and the understanding of these issues in disciplines such as cultural studies, history, media and communications as well.

Our core questions include: What factors promote or retard the production and dissemination of knowledge regarding socio-economic problems? Is knowledge produced and disseminated in ways that empower a wide range of actors or does the production of knowledge entrench patterns of privilege and social control? How much knowledge, and what type of knowledge do consumers and citizens need to take decisions which enable them to fulfil their ends? How are questions of ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’ evaluated in the social sciences and in the humanities and how do these evaluations affect the power relations within contemporary societies. We believe investigating these questions is of fundamental significance in a context where widespread public ignorance is often cited as a rationale for limiting civil and economic freedoms in favour of various forms of ‘expertise’.

Within this context, the grant will address the following three themes:

Our first research theme examines the cultural production and dissemination of ideas, and the factors that facilitate or hinder experimentation and innovation in the realm of culture and society, broadly construed. We are particularly interested in the relationship between power and knowledge and the importance of the ‘power-knowledge’ complexes analysed by, among others, Michel Foucault and Thomas Kuhn. Of central concern are considerations about which configurations of markets, democracy, public regulation, and their interaction with the social sciences and humanities, facilitate or hinder challenges to power-knowledge complexes and enable subjugated or marginalised forms of knowledge to surface. One example of relevance here is the role of social media. The growth of digital technologies and social media platforms has transformed the way knowledge is produced and consumed and altered participation in commercial and public affairs across the globe. Social media represents a major challenge to long established media networks that have witnessed an erosion of their market power. By lowering the costs of acquiring news and accessing information, social media networks may disperse power and facilitate a plurality of information sources and perspectives. On the other hand, the network effects these platforms harness may also allow social media companies and their clients in the private sector and in government to ‘police the truth’, and to exercise a new form of power-knowledge on an unprecedented scale.

Our second research theme examines the significance of ‘factual knowledge problems’ in the evaluation of alternative political economic regimes. Specifically, we will explore whether institutions’ effectiveness depends upon the existence of well-informed participants. For example, does it matters if consumers are ignorant about many dimensions of the products that they purchase and consume, and does it matter if voters are ignorant about many dimensions of the policies that they vote for? While it may seem obvious that ‘more facts’ will help make better decisions, in a context of deep social complexity that exhibits the potential for informational overload, the reliability of techniques for reducing decision-makers’ need to rely on factual knowledge also needs to be considered. We are particularly interested in examining questions regarding the reliability of branding devices and various decision heuristics across markets, democracies, and hybrid institutional settings, as well as the criteria social scientists use to determine when agents are judged to be sufficiently well-informed, and how these evaluations may affect power-relations between different actors.

Our third research theme explores the political economy of knowledge in contexts where the lack of counterfactuals may make it difficult for anyone, whether citizens, the media, academics, or policy experts, to judge if outcomes could be improved under different institutions, policies, or elected representatives. Given the sheer scale and complexity of some socio-economic problems, there may be epistemic limits to our capacity to assess outcomes produced by any political-economic regime. Consider the challenges facing decision-makers across the world in formulating and evaluating responses to the current COVID-19 pandemic. While we may observe a given level of infection in a particular county such as the United States or United Kingdom, it is difficult to know if these rates would have been higher, had different policies been implemented, or whether the policies that are being proposed as improvements would have unintended effects that are worse than the current policies. While rival countries’ experience with the coronavirus can be compared, countries may be different in ways that make it difficult to isolate whether variations in infection rates are due to a specific policy, or whether there is some underlying difference in the societies that is responsible for the observed variation. These problems may be further magnified once considerations of the short term and long-term economic consequences of responses to the pandemic are considered. Examples such as this raise the possibility that there may be some ‘knowledge problems’ that may not have an identifiable institutional solution.