Maintaining facts in an open ‘post-truth’ world
Did it all start with Michael Gove (currently Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and would-be PM)?
Almost certainly not , but for the purpose of this piece, he will certainly serve as a convenient scapegoat. In his now infamous interview for Sky News in 2016 (during the Brexit referendum campaigning whilst serving as Secretary of State for Justice), Michael Gove commented that:
“people in this country have had enough of experts”
(coincidentally, given the context of this piece, in my exploration of news coverage of his interview I hit a few paywalls).
His suggestion being that the general population had had enough of being told what to do and how to think and act by ‘the establishment’, which is somewhat ironic given that his views and political stance are far removed from the agenda of the anti-establishment publications and groups established in the last century (anyway, I digress…)
It is difficult to consider Gove’s comments and the subsequent discussions without drawing parallels with Trump’s world of post-truth: defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
“circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”
(although you will need to subscribe if you wish to check out OED online yourself). In this world, ‘facts’ and truth have little value, it is perhaps perverse to quote Prof Grayling in a post discussing open learning (it is argued by some that he has done most to move education in the other direction), but he has eloquently highlighted that facts and are now worth nothing and are subjected to a populist vote:
“Everyone can publish their opinion — and if you disagree with me, it’s an attack on me and not my ideas” going further to say “the fact that you can muscle your way on to the front row and be noticed becomes a kind of celebrity”.
Confusion abounds — for example Chris Herd makes an interesting point that “we have slowly begun to realise that the majority of things portrayed as facts are nothing more than expensive opinions”. Yet in the same piece he also highlights the problems with falsified beliefs. For those (like me) who like to digress further, Ian Katz has an interesting piece put together shortly after Gove’s comments and he highlights a very pertinent point that although challenging of ‘expert opinion’ is a good thing, where does it stop?
So how do my ramblings on post-modern politics relate to open knowledge, or more specifically open educational resource? For context, I am a clinical academic, and having spent the last 20 years providing undergraduate and postgraduate education (in University settings as well as private CPD) I have seen the changing landscape of information sharing (dare I call it education??) within dentistry.
Rejection of the ‘establishment’ in my field is a long standing theme, at times with good justification of our ivory tower world in which we practice, however with the rise in social media and its increasing impact over the last decade and the inevitable link with open resource, combined with the context outlined above, the last few years have seen significant change, with many groups now established such as Facebook groups for dentists (nominally private but open to almost all dentists). Such OER groups and the advice and wealth of opinion within them certainly bypass many of the obstacles perceived with ‘traditional’ educational resources; however, populism is driving much of the ‘open’ learning within healthcare and particularly dentistry. I struggle with dichotomous views on such — on one hand I am keen engage and to share knowledge (and have done) but on the other hand I have grave concerns that much of what is posted and suggested is ill-informed yet accepted with nebulous influences of the populist vote, with many postings driven not by an altruistic desire to share knowledge and to educate, but for self-promotion and PR under the pretence of aiding the learning of others. In a previous OKHE post, a colleague makes a similar observation although is perhaps a little more reserved!
For me, it is often the link with social media that puts me into a state of cognitive dissonance – I am keen to share and participate in OER, but remain unengaged with a small digital footprint: this is more elegantly explained in a previous OKHE post by Sue Wildgust:
“the capacity to share has created an extremely complex world which is both personal and professional, and we need to decide what we are prepared to share online, if anything at all”
it is the blurring of personal and professional with which I often struggle, both in terms of content and also the need to have time to ‘switch off’. Maybe I am a luddite but I am not alone in this, and Sue Wildgust’s experiences with colleagues, recounted in the same post, concur. Taking inspiration from her description of Prometheus is tempting, but that just brings me back full-circle to the issues of post-truth populism that is abundant in my profession and my role in an HE sector that is increasingly becoming marketized.
Notwithstanding the above issues, being open relies on a community, and for there to be trust in that community for it to flourish — in the examples I highlight this is largely achieved, although with the ever present risk of immediate (?unconsidered) reactions and potential trolling not everyone wants to put their head above the parapet: I have witnessed first-hand both this behaviour yet also conversely the exclusion of those who dared question perceived popular ‘wisdom’.
Claudia Rubin (Director at Decideum) recently wrote in an open letter to Matt Hancock (Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) that:
“the repercussions of the ‘abuse’ of science and scientists in recent years will be felt across healthcare”
So, does this mean that only ‘experts’ can provide information? Certainly not, and all are entitled to an opinion, yet when those opinions can impact on health (positively or negatively) and the application of acquired knowledge can have a significant impact on another individual, when such opinions are often judged by those with no or little understanding themselves, where is the QA? Tracey Brown addressed these very issues in an editorial for the British Medical Journal, and highlighted that “Evidence, expertise, truthfulness, facts, knowledge… these are public goods”, what she does not address, however, is how do we get ‘experts’ to contribute to OER and how these ‘goods’ are best delivered…
We need to find another way of engaging, working through the tangled minefield of OER and populism in this social-media driven post-truth world. My unanswered question is how? And in any event, does anyone now know what the truth is anymore?