There have been persistent calls for academics and scientists to venture forth from academia’s ivory towers to engage with a wider audience on the critical issues facing society. It’s a reasonable argument. Academics stepping out of their traditional roles to disseminate scientific knowledge can offer great value to public policy debates.
By occupying public forums and social media platforms as public intellectuals and thought leaders, academics can contribute significantly to making the world a better place.
But not all academics want to be public intellectuals and those who do, don’t always have the necessary skills. That can be dealt with through training, encouragement or incentives. But the real challenge for academics in the public sphere is that we’re living in a post-truth world. This describes a world where objective facts – scientific evidence – doesn’t influence public opinion. Instead, appeals to emotion and personal beliefs set the agenda.
Populist movements are on the rise. Their supporters distrust the establishment, elites, authority and official sources – including highly qualified academics. The post-truth world is a post-expert world.
If, as research suggests, people trust their Twitter and Facebook friends more than institutions such as the mainstream media, then experts may have no option but to immerse themselves in popular culture. They will have to engage on social media platforms, building new alliances and finding ways to build trust.
Post-truth politics and the mistrust of experts are not new. Some post-colonial African leaders have been described as post-truth strategists, “manipulating the truth, distorting facts and fashioning alternative realities to cover-up their failures, to enrich themselves and stay in power”.
And politicians the world over have always been adept at manipulating popular opinion and discrediting scientific evidence that contradicts their ideological agendas or thwarts their political aspirations.
During his time in office former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s administration snubbed scientific evidence about the treatment of HIV/Aids. This had devastating consequences.
The country’s current president, Jacob Zuma, has also dabbled in post-truth. Zuma has referred to urban black intellectuals as “clever blacks” on many occasions. When questioned in 2014 about corruption and the use of state expenditure for his private residence he said that only “very clever and bright people” were concerned with the issue.
He has effectively driven a schism between rural black voters, where most of his support base lies, and the so–called “clever” urban black elite, many of whom are now calling for his resignation.
So how can academics adapt to a world in which populism trumps truth, perhaps more than ever before?
Social media drives post-truth
Some have argued that experts need to be schooled in the art of persuasive rhetoric. This will allow them to counteract junk science and anti-intellectualism. But there’s really no amount of training in persuasive communication that can prepare academics and scientists for engaging with dissenters on sites like Facebook or Twitter.
And it’s very evident that the internet, especially social media, is the main driver of the post–truth era.
There’s an overwhelming amount of contradictory information on the internet. Many people find it easier to retreat into their social media echo chambers that bolster their pre-existing beliefs and value systems than to engage with new ideas.
Professor Mary Beard, the Cambridge University classicist, is a case in point. She took part in a BBC1 panel programme in 2013 and cited a report that claimed immigration had brought some benefits to the UK. Her statements, based on evidence-based research, unleashed a torrent of sexual taunts and horrific verbal abuse. This illustrates how evidence can clash with individuals’ beliefs and create a severe “backfire effect” that is further amplified in the post-truth digital space.
Dr Stella Nyanzi in Uganda illustrates the severe backlash that academics face when they take on powerful forces. Nyanzi has run afoul of Uganda’s President and First Lady with a series of radical and explicit posts on Facebook. These led to her arrest on charges of cyber harassment under Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act 2011. After four weeks in prison she was finally released on bail. Amnesty International has called for all charges against her to be dropped.
The internet is a democratic space in that it can be accessed by almost anyone. The problem is that for every qualified academic and expert you find online, sharing information based on peer-reviewed, highly scrutinised research, there’s a snake oil salesman, pseudo-scientist, hate-mongerer and conspiracist who wants to spread false, misleading, anti-science information to the masses. And, as Nyanzi’s case illustrates, powerful politicians might prefer those who don’t bring evidence to the table.
How, then, do academics and scientists fight distrust and denigration whilst bringing cutting edge, evidence based research to public policy debates?
Adapt or die?
Rapid advancements in digital technology and communications dictate that the “genie is out of the bottle”. So withdrawing when your research and evidence is attacked online may not really be an option. Just like Nyanzi, Beard chose to escalate her intellectual interaction on Twitter – as many academics are doing. She pushed back at her detractors and has been described as a “troll slayer”.
It’s evident that even academics who’ve been wary of public engagement may not have the luxury of remaining invisible any more. They will have to rethink their traditional roles, functions and develop new ways of being. This may come more naturally as younger researchers – millennials – move into the academy. This generation tends to be more at ease with the cut and thrust of social media than the current crop of “baby boomers”.
There are however, clearly complex challenges – and even dangers – for the academic as a public intellectual in the post-truth information age.