Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

A pencil drawing of dark solid black fading into a blur of graphite fog.
Things have never been less clear.

What is the role of academia in a post-truth world?

Lately, I’ve felt very curmudgeonly about the future of facts. But I am by no means the only person worried about this future, nor am I an expert. Some examples of people doing great scholarship on this include my colleagues Kate Starbird, Emma Spiro, and Jevin West, the many more engaged in our recently launched Center for an Informed Public, and of course the broader community of scholars globally concerned about how the public engages with evidence. My contributions to this discourse come less from a research perspective, and more from my lifelong scholarly experiences as a teacher and as a researcher deeply engaged in peer review and public engagement. Apologies for my dystopic, cynical, hyperbolic mood!

I have a complicated relationship with truth. As a skeptic from a young age, I’ve rarely found comfort with truth from sources of authority, like teachers or religion. But while I found a home for that skepticism in science and academia, being in an institution that is fundamentally skeptical means that I rarely find science a final authority on any subject either. Even my notions of truth have evolved, from my early (positivist) beliefs in an objective reality that we can measure, to later (post-positivist) beliefs in an objective reality that we can only measure through inescapably subjective means, to my latest (interpretivist) views that the only meaningful reality, at least in human experience, is the one we socially construct.

Unfortunately, this epistemological nuance isn’t one bit helpful when I’m talking to students, the press, or pretty much anyone outside of academia. The public wonders: What’s the right answer? How do things work? What have we discovered? Answering these questions with “There isn’t one,” “I’m not sure,” and “Not much” is not only unhelpful, but it’s destabilizing to the entire institution that supports my research and teaching. If we can only barely know things, and those things are often tentative, messy, and endlessly revised, why go to college? Why do science journalism? Why fund research with public money? While these questions might seem overly fatalistic, they are questions that people outside academia (and some people in) constantly ask me.

It’s partly because academics like me are becoming less and less certain about what we know, that the public is too. Disinformation abounds. Social media amplifies sensation instead of fact. Junk science is proliferating. Global politics feels more like a place of pure rhetoric, tribalism, and emotion than of evidence. Experts are seen as biased elites. Amateurs are celebrated for their authenticity and plain truths. Meanwhile, the young adults in my college classes, even those in my Intellectual Foundations of Information class who are curious about disinformation, don’t read the news. And those that do get most of it from Instagram accounts that they blindly trust.

Of course, academia and the other institutions that formerly claimed authority on truth are still around. They’re just weaker. People look less frequently to academia for guidance about truth; instead, they look to academia for job-ready skills that will salve their economic anxiety. People read journalism, but only if costs nothing, and only if it’s more interesting than what’s on Netflix. There’s just too much too read, too much to watch, and most of it is far more appealing than anything an academic or journalist can seem to write. The rapidly declining resources in academia and journalism, due largely to the rapidly declining investment in public universities, only makes this harder.

I make no claim to understand how we got here. But as someone who was born into an era of peak influence of academia, and now is living thorough what some view as its decline, I suspect it has fundamentally to do with a decentralization of authority on truth. Academia is no longer broadly viewed as an authority on truth. Related institutions like journalism are no longer seen as a central authority for what’s happening in the world. Even our most visceral ways of knowing, such as photograph and video, can be deep-faked, sowing a deep and justified skepticism to every word and image we encounter. And in some ways, perhaps this was a good thing; academia and journalism shouldn’t have the sole claim to truth, especially given how horrendously these institutions have historically represented the public demographically, politically, and culturally.

However, I worry that academia, by slowly abandoning its claim to truth (institutionally and methodologically), might have been the catalyst for a much greater erosion commitments to facts. After all, if the people we educate are the future leaders of the world, and what we’ve been teaching them is to be skeptical, why should they trust us over anyone else? We’ve taught students how we make discoveries. We’ve taught them the myriad ways that our methods can be wrong. We teach students to focus more on questions than answers. Even commendable efforts by my colleagues to educate future students on how to detect bad information risk priming students toward disbelief in discovery. We’re educating a world of people who, like academics, are skeptical about truth, skeptical about its pursuit, and skeptical about the people who pursue it, but in no way committed to the pursuit of it. It’s not surprising then that the public’s faith in our own authority on truth has eroded.

Of course, none of this means we should lie to the public about the challenges of knowing things. Knowing things is hard. We should be skeptical about the answers we discover. But that doesn’t mean we know nothing, and it doesn’t mean there are no experts who can help us sort it out. Maybe it was a great idea for academia to teach the world about the complexities of discovery; maybe we just haven’t taught the world enough about how we can know things. In propagating our core values of skepticism, we’ve forgotten to teach that academia is also a fundamentally optimistic, progressive institution.

On my most cynical days, I worry that my academic peers believe that despite this erosion of trust, academia is permanent and necessary. But I believe this decline is a bellwether of deeper erosion. Even today, academia is very much being disrupted on a daily basis. People don’t take classes in philosophy or or read gender studies books to gain enlightenment; they watch ContraPoints, an ex-academic who found academia stifling, ignorant, and irrelevant, and left it for YouTube, where she found an audience of millions for her ideas. People don’t enroll in economics classes to understand money; they listen to Freakonomics and Radiolab, platforms for storytelling about science. The world has rapidly and recently moved on from inaccessible, costly, and (to be blunt) boring education, to accessible, free, entertaining storytelling. That doesn’t mean that these new forms of learning are better, but they certainly are better at getting the public’s attention.

Of course, the hidden reality that the public often fails to see is that all of this new media is still hugely dependent on academia. Freakonomics would have little to report without the social scientists it interviews, and the social science that’s conducted. Wildly entertaining YouTube essayists, while they bring an immense accessibility to ideas, generally acquire their skills of argumentation in higher education. What remains of the ethical press still depends heavily on experts to ground its reporting in the best knowledge we have. And democratic governments, to the extent that they are still functioning, still staff thousands of experts that rely heavily on the scholarship of academia. While trust in academia may be eroding in public discourse, it is no less relevant. In fact, I wonder if it’s its insights and efforts have ever been more visible in the media, even though the provenance of those insights has never been more invisible.

I’m not so cynical to believe that the collapse of academia is tomorrow. But I do believe it is currently suffering a slow death of perceived irrelevance. Those of us in academia need to recognize that the industrialized way our institutions works now—admissions, classes, grants, publications—will not necessarily work forever. I think this is a case of perception determining reality: the world is moving on without us because it believes it has no relevance. We have to convince them otherwise.

This might require some radical reinvention of the academia we know today. Here is a list of ideas that most academics would find absurd (including me on a normal day), but most of the public would find entirely reasonable:

  • Maybe we should reconsider the traditional degree. Instead, we could create a paywalled video streaming platform in which we micro-credential every idea and skill we can manage, charging for the non-scalable resource of feedback, guidance, and credentialing. Let’s create a world in which we try to serve entire the world in the best and most engaging way we can. We’ll use our classrooms as production space, and instead of administrative staff for managing student enrollment, we’ll have staff who support our video, podcast, and assessments. Far from recreating the failed vision of MOOCs, we would focus on new media and equitable access, but in bite sized chunks that reach the entire world.
  • Maybe we should stop publishing in paywalled journals and conferences, instead making our scholarship free, transparently reviewed, and available to all. We might even engage the public in peer review, helping them to become more expert in judging when we can and can’t know something. Perhaps the best path to rebuilding trust is to show the public how the sausage is made, rather than keeping our methods and evaluations private.
  • Perhaps we should stop letting professors like myself view public engagement as optional and start making it a required part of being an academic. We all have something we can bring, whether its writing blogs, sharing rebuttals on YouTube, working more closely with the press and podcasters, writing editorials in newspapers, taking brief stints in public and private institutions to volunteer our expertise. Academia must be seen as visible and relevant.
  • Let’s open office hours to everyone in the world. Anyone that wants 10 minutes with a professor can book it. Maybe we’ll even charge some people for the time as another way to monetize our expertise. After all, many of us do this already when consulting with private enterprise. Why not open that up to everyone?

These are not the best ideas. I’m not even sure they’re good ideas. But I am convinced that academia needs new ideas to stay relevant, and I’m convinced there are millions of ideas we haven’t considered. While the skeptic in me wonders, “how many public institutions on the decline that have ever reinvented themselves in such a radical way?”, I’m increasingly convinced we have no other choice, unless we are ready to reluctantly accept the ugly, slow death of truth and its advocates. I’m certainly not.

I promise the usual optimistic Amy will be back soon :)

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

6.6K Followers

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.