http://chronicle.com/img/photos/biz/icons/worldwise-nameplate.gifBy Nigel Thrift. The nature of expertise is a variable thing. It is fascinating how and why people come to be seen as legitimate commentators on issues, sometimes when they can be demonstrated to have little deep understanding of those same issues.
Of course, the tendency is always there in media democracies where having an opinion is often confused with being informed. But the tendency has certainly been fueled of late. Newspapers that attempted to check all their facts New York Times style are flickering out of existence as the Internet achieves a new media hegemony. Those newspapers that are left increasingly seem to be repositories of comments as much as news. Internet search patterns tend to be quite narrow and to confirm rather than challenge opinions. All kinds of celebrity seem to have been given carte blanche to pronounce on whatever they like, often in real time through the use of Twitter (in the U.K., stand-up comedians–a modern plague if ever there was one–seem to be cornering the market). And so on.
Universities are hardly immune to this tendency. Those academics who achieve a measure of fame are often tempted to move outside their area of expertise: how often do we hear Nobel Prize winners suddenly taking on the mantle of knowledge of many other things than the area for which they won the prize, sometimes with rather embarrassing results? Then, some academics have become involved with the press in ways which mean that their opinions tend to be sought out on a wide range of issues, some of which are tangential to their concerns, to put it kindly. Finally, many academics, in their search for media impact, seem to be actively seeking out quirky fact, as can be found in some parts of psychology and economics.
Part of the reason for this state of affairs is clearly competition. It is not only that universities have been challenged as sources of knowledge by some of the tendencies I have already outlined but also that other sources of knowledge have grown up: so-called Type 2 organizations like consultancies and nongovernmental organizations that dispense knowledge in different ways to universities but still make similar truth claims.
If the public is not to fragment into multiple publics all of whom are allowed to believe exactly what they want and are able to find multiple ways of confirming it as the case, then some kind of push back needs to occur. And it is heartening to see the signs of that beginning to happen. Not only are there now all kinds of fact-check Web sites, designed to give as accurate information as possible in the face of the more lurid claims made by politicians and the like but universities are also becoming involved. For example, the Australian university project, The Conversation, is intended to provide trusted and reliable information based on academic research but edited by professional journalists. Individual universities are also becoming active (see, for example, Warwick’s The Knowledge Centre).
In other words, a fight-back has begun and not before time. We can but hope that this counter-attack will not only give universities more confidence in their own worth at a time when they are often under pressure but also feed new practices of informed democracy.