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Academics must work at building public trust in their expertise

The success of One Nation in this year’s election is part of the populist push. AAP/Dan Peled

Just last week, Professor Carl-Henrik Heldin, the chair of the Nobel Foundation, delivered the opening address for the Nobel Prize award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall. In his remarks he offered the following:

Leading politicians − both in Europe and the United States − are winning votes by denying knowledge and scientific truths. Populism is widespread and is reaping major political successes. The grim truth is that we can no longer take it for granted that people believe in science, facts and knowledge.

Can this be true? Surely not! Academics, such as myself, take care with our work, ensuring that we are well-theorised and, if our research has had an empirical component, that all proper protocols have been met. Surely one should be able safely to assume that, at some stage, our findings will make their way into public policy realms, if not the hearts and minds of voters.

If this assumption were ever true, it was heavily dented this year. Last month’s US election delivered a bigoted narcissist to the position of US president-elect. The rise of One Nation in the Australian election in July and the Brexit vote in the UK in June were both surprise outcomes. Voters are displaying their contempt for contemporary politics and received wisdom. They are angry about being locked out of the opportunities that “elites” appear to have at their fingertips.

I am an academic criminologist. I am concerned that these same voters appear to be angry about lawbreakers seemingly “getting away” with crime, or getting a “soft” outcome when they face the courts.

Unfortunately, this anger is now manifested not only in voters’ resentment towards the political systems that they feel have allowed the “undeserving” to be treated with kid gloves, but also in racially motivated resentment. This is especially so when it appears that certain ethnic, religious and immigrant groups feature in the criminal statistics. We hear calls for harsher sentences, restoration of the death penalty, greater availability of firearms for citizens, youth curfews, more police and more prisons.

Criminological commentaries, based on sound empirically tested evidence, are ignored in the face of this resentment. The comments that I read in the letters to the editor in newspapers today are the same as the comments I was reading in the 1980s.

Whatever we are saying is being ignored, no matter how sensible it may be. My point is that this is an indictment not of the letter writers but of us academics.

A GetUp commentator made an important comment shortly after the Trump victory. Having noted that progressives had abjectly failed to understand the resentment of voters, let alone counter it, he continued:

And when right-wing demagogues tap this pulsing vein of resentment, it’s been mocked as an ignorant fringe or dismissed as isolated extremism.

As academics move in and out of the marketplace of ideas, we need to understand the danger of calling those who hold contrary views “ignorant”, “extremists” or (as Hillary Clinton opined) “deplorables”.

Here, too, is where criminology should come into its own, for we have the tools to examine the political context of societies that thrive and those that don’t. We have the tools that can isolate, if not address, the unacceptable yet often quite understandable behaviours of those who come to the attention of police. We have the tools to turn broken lives around.

The evidence is available and growing. We just need to communicate it effectively and persuasively.

This is not easy in the current political climate. Before the Brexit vote, Conservative MP Michael Gove, the UK justice minister at the time, said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. In the midst of a populist trend that presents anti-intellectualism as a badge of honour, we cannot be, or even look to be, smug know-it-alls. Academics have to bring people with us, especially those who are naturally wary of us.

We do ourselves a disservice talking only with like-minded colleagues in esoteric language. We do ourselves a disservice by publicly debunking differently minded theorists. The battle against the tyranny of the anecdote requires a united front, not one where findings are clouded by impenetrable dialogue, or where academies are riven with pettiness.

My plea is simply for academics to communicate their relevance clearly and in terms that are easily understood. As Einstein is reported to have said:

The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.

Late last month, the Australian immigration minister, Peter Dutton, made comments linking crime with Lebanese migration in the 1970s and Sudanese migration more recently. When attacked, his defence was:

I’m on safe ground because I’ve relied on the facts.

As any academic will know, “facts” are one thing, but their sources, counting processes and interpretations are quite another. When a senior minister can fall so easily into this trap, we know it is time for us to get back into the field quickly and assertively. There is not a moment to lose.

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