Scholars look for ways to restore respect for expertise

A gathering of United States scholars last week took up the question of how their work can remain relevant in a ‘post-truth’ era, when alternative facts can influence public policy and fake news can be leveraged to try to swing election results.

The scholars also took themselves to task, acknowledging how they may be enabling the assault on their stock-in-trade, evidence and expertise, if only by remaining silent.

"We live in a kind of anti-knowledge era, and I am surprised by how [many] of us sit by passively and watch,” Hyman Bass, a long-time University of Michigan professor, said in one open forum.

At the core of their concern is the presidency of Donald Trump, who has inspired discussion of how the academic community can best respond to what it sees as the devaluation of knowledge and the politicisation of facts, data and research.

Trump or his administration was referenced in abstracts for more than 60 sessions during the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual conference, held on 13-17 April in New York, including one that examined "the role of education researchers in an era of fake news" and another focused on "methodologies in the age of Trump".

The implications for social policy have been well documented. To give one example, scientists worldwide agree that global warming is real and having a deleterious effect on the planet. Yet the Trump administration has, among other things, removed mention of climate change from government websites and disbanded or scaled back on science-related advisory boards. Under Trump, the United States became the only nation in the world to reject the 2015 Paris agreement on global warming.

The ‘post-truth’ phenomenon, defined by Oxford Dictionaries as a circumstance in which "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs", is not new. Oxford Dictionaries in 2016 declared ‘post-truth’ its international word of the year yet notes that the term itself can be traced as far back as the 1990s in reference to the Persian Gulf War and the Iran-contra scandal.

Author Ralph Keyes popularised the concept in his 2004 book, The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. And during the George W Bush administration, popular late-night satirist Stephen Colbert introduced the word ‘truthiness’ to describe how emotions or desires hold more sway than facts. (Dictionaries, he said, are ‘elitist’.)

The internet and social media have amplified the spread and power of fake news. A study published last month in Science found that Twitter users were 70% more likely to retweet falsehoods than they were information that had been verified by six fact-checking organisations.

In a study published last autumn on how internet users evaluate information they read online, Stanford University researchers found that both historians and undergraduates "often fell victim to easily manipulated features of websites, such as official-looking logos and domain names". (A third group, fact-checkers, were most adept at sniffing out phony information.)

Perhaps most unsettling of all is the recent revelation that a company named Cambridge Analytica planted fake news on targeted Facebook accounts in a bid to help Trump win the election. That the ruse may have made a difference aligns with empirical studies showing that most people use research to confirm their prior beliefs.

Several AERA speakers raised that point.

"When people have deeply held values or convictions, no amount of facts" can persuade them otherwise, said University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Emerita Gloria Ladson-Billings, an AERA honoree this year for her contributions to education research.

Qualitative researchers face a particularly nuanced challenge given that some methodologies encourage the pursuit of multiple or alternate perspectives as a way to get at the elusive concept of truth.

That language echoes just closely enough – and uncomfortably – to a Trump spokeswoman's reference last year to "alternative facts" that University of San Diego Professor Robert Donmoyer felt compelled to organise an AERA session this year on the topic.

"Do you ever feel a little complicit in all of this? I know I do," he said in opening remarks.

Lively discussions elicited a range of responses on how researchers might, in Donmoyer's words, "salvage some semblance of the notion of truth and science in Trumpian times".

Arguing for a need to "re-emphasise standards of trustworthiness and rigour", Wayne State University Education Professor Carolyn Shields suggested that ongoing pressure to publish, fortified by a proliferation of predatory journals and publishers, augments the potential for shoddy research to be legitimised.

In a different session, newly minted faculty members noted that the pressure to publish limits the ability of researchers to engage in timely topics. “We’re hacking away on a journal article and the world is changing around us,” said Demetri Morgan of Loyola University Chicago. Morgan also wondered whether it was time to rethink the traditional five-chapter dissertation in favour of projects that will reach wider audiences and policy-makers.

Ideologically segregated networks

University of California-Berkeley Education Dean Prudence Carter similarly argued that scholars must make their work and themselves more accessible if they want to win the public trust. Academics were surprised by Trump's election in part because they failed to detect the "cauldron of disaffection" brewing in rural areas and small towns throughout the nation, she said. "We are living in an echo chamber ... Most of us have ideologically segregated networks.”

The conversations will continue. Citing an "unprecedented" moment in science, guest editors for Education Policy Analysis Archives are preparing a special issue that aims to explore the "new political and research dilemmas" faced by education researchers and how they might position themselves "and their scholarship for an uncertain political future".

In the just-published Taking It to the Streets, edited by University of Pennsylvania Professor Laura Perna, education researchers debate the merits of focusing dispassionately on research findings versus using research to advocate for social change.

William Tierney, a University of Southern California professor, argues for the latter, calling on universities and professional associations like AERA to take a more visible stand on hot-button topics.

"I am troubled ... by the reticence of our universities to resist more forcefully the fake news that has been disseminated," he said. "We seem more befuddled than proactive."