Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society

Post-Truth, COVID Conspiracies, Science/Anti-Science, and Colonial Imaginaries

This summer, CBSS were pleased to host a visit from Amit Prasad, Associate Professor in the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Tech (USA). Amit spoke about his important new book - Science Studies Meets Colonialism (Polity) – and his compelling research on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Post-Truth, COVID Conspiracies, Science/Anti-Science, and Colonial Imaginaries


The term post-truth has become ubiquitous ever since the Oxford Dictionary christened it the word of the year in 2016. An article in the Nature even provides “a guide for the perplexed,” arguing that the term post-truth “must sound alien to scientists,” because “Science’s quest for knowledge about reality presupposes the importance of truth.” Not surprisingly, when COVID-19 initiated a pandemic of misinformation and conspiracies that critically impacted vaccination, masking, and other aspects of healthcare, there were calls to fight anti-science attitudes. There is indeed a need to effectively combat misinformation and conspiracies, not just in relation to science, but in other domains as well. However, we also need to much more carefully and critically investigate what we mean by the terms post-truth and anti-science/science. The definitions of post-truth are undergirded by an opposition between objective facts and subjective values, which, understandably, results in the classification of, for example, COVID misinformation as anti-science. The concern with post-truth and its reliance on an idealized understanding of science has also resulted in another round of attacks on the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). For example, the New York Times Magazine carried an article that is titled “Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher...” But what if the idealized understanding of science - as a universal and objective knowledge and method – itself becomes a tool to spread misinformation and conspiracies?

Amit Blog 2 Getty Images

The idealized definition of science (and objectivity) is seemingly self-evident and commonly accepted across the globe. And yet a careful look would show that this definition relies on positing science/scientific against various “others” – magic, religion, obscurantist values, non-Western cultures, etc. The idealized definition of science is so capacious that it can be, and has been, utilized to promote disparate knowledges and practices as science/scientific. This idealized understanding of science has also been intimately tied to explanations of Western superiority over the rest and its history cannot be extricated from European colonialism. In fact, as I have shown in my recent book, Science Studies Meets Colonialism, it undergirds a Eurocentric historicism without history that, on the one hand, continually inscribes the superiority of the West (for having given birth to “modern science” and modern scientific attitude and values) and, on the other, results in a proliferation of claims, within the West as well as the non-West, that certain knowledges and practices are “scientific,” which, in turn, results in calls to combat the “growing anti-science movement.”


However, are we missing something when we uncritically classify the responses against vaccines and other healthcare measures such as the mask mandate as anti-science – something that can allow us to better understand misinformation and conspiracies and their spread? My study of COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracies in the United States, shows that contrary to popular belief, misinformation and conspiracies continually utilized the credibility of science, scientists, and scientific journals for their spread. In fact, as I have found in my study, none of the COVID misinformation and conspiracy spreaders called themselves anti-science and in the spread of misinformation many scientists were involved as well. Interestingly, I also found that the interpretation of misinformation and conspiracies, even though they are false, commonly deployed genealogies of colonial experiences and drew upon colonial tropes. That is to say, we need to focus our gaze on not only what the representations (in this case misinformation) are, but also what representations do. The idealized understanding of science, which entraps us within the dualist discourse of science versus anti-science, thus needs to be decolonized.

Getty Images

My investigation of genealogies of colonialism in the articulation of COVID misinformation and conspiracies builds on a longstanding engagement with the history of the present in relation science, technology, and medicine. Specifically, I have been interested in the complex and ambivalent role of European colonialism in animating the present. As the world-renowned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it: “the past does not merely tell us what happened yesterday, it also illuminates what happens today.” The colonial past, however, not only illuminates the present, it continues to animate and impact the present. If we are willing to look closely, genealogies of colonialism are evident in a wide number of contexts and practices across the globe, including the fields of history of science and Science and Technology Studies (STS). For example, as I show in Science Studies Meets Colonialism, the buying of the East India Company by an Indian businessman, which was hailed as an anti-colonial act, albeit a transgression of the colonial racial divide, keeps the colonial framework intact. Similarly, even postcolonial science studies continue to replicate the old colonial practice of treating the non-Western societies as ontologically given, thereby historically and culturally freezing the non-West as the “other” of the West. As “the colonial paradigm continues to dismantle, we will have to remain alert to not only the ‘release [of] strange demons from the deep,’ about which Stuart Hall warned us, but also the sediments of the familiar…through which our own genealogy has been constituted” (Science Studies Meets Colonialism).


Amit Prasad


August 2023


Getty Images