The Current Climate
At the time of writing (May, 2019) there is a distrust of experts and expertise within some areas of political decision making. Science has always sought to have influence on society so that important decisions are taken based upon the best available evidence in the best interests of society. This is no simple task because ‘best available evidence’ and ‘best interests of society’ are open to interpretation. The former may contested as part of scientific debate whilst the latter is dependant upon political values and emotions.
Democracy and Good Governance
De Toqueville[i] has been quoted in many presidential inaugural addresses and his evaluation of government in the United States entitled ‘Democracy in America’ viewed democracy as being dependant upon the interplay of checks and balances between sources of political power so that there was no ‘tyranny of the majority’ or of a singular tyrant from a President assuming the powers of royalty. He emphasised the role of an independent judiciary, legislature, executive as well as a free press within a civic society that had influence. The Greek originators of democratic government, including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, would also emphasise the importance of knowledge and wisdom in aiding good governance and sought to ensure that only appropriately qualified people
were considered for election or selection by lottery. They also assessed post holders assets at the end of their term of office to ensure that they had not enriched themselves during that time. (Lane, 2014)[ii]
The Philosopher King
As the first attempt to establish democracy Greece waned, the age of The Philosopher King came into being but with limited success so that eventually there was a return to a form of democracy. The philosopher king was intended to harness his wisdom to rule in the best interest of the people who accepted the rule on the basis that the King delivered wealth and well-being.
Today, we can see some similarities to classic times but there are some differences. Few would describe President Trump to be a philosopher king no matter how much he sees himself as one. Science sees its role in the social and political sphere as providing the best sources of evidence that can be utilised by politicians because the politicians cannot know everything, although, some may attempt to appear to.
The Role of Science in Civic Society
This service role of science as part of civic society has been brought into question recently by right wing politicians and we might want to consider why that is the case. The British Conservative Politician Michael Gove, after earlier calling academic critics of his education policies “The Blob”[iii], stated ,during the UK Brexit referendum, that the British public was ‘rather tired of experts’[iv] . At that time, the Remain campaign kept insistently bringing out negative findings on the potential impact of Brexit. This wave of bad news was then dismissed as ‘project fear’ by the Leave campaign and that fed on the mistrust of voters who perhaps suspected that they were being played. This approach to the management of disagreeable evidence by dismissal rather than refutation is manifest in the Donald Trump harnessing of the term ‘Fake News’. This really was a case of using your enemies’ weapons against them as the term had initially been used to identify social media propaganda targetting for the right wing that was undertaken by Cambridge Analytica[v].
Science and Sound Political Governance
We have to ask why there is a growing disconnect between science and sound political governance?
Putin has maintained his political power base at least through his manipulation of knowledge. He has been known to fund both sides of a political argument in order to sow confusion. If there is confusion then who do you trust? Who is your solid point of view that you can rely on? In a world that is chaotic and frightening, conspiracy theories and simple stories can be reassuring to some as they impose order on the chaos of reality.
More widely, we have seen ‘populist groups seeking to seize the narrative and hook into the very being of the lives we live. We look for explanations for the sorry state we are in and populism provides us with simple answers and someone or something to blame. It can absolve the real culprits that might be harder to pin down because they are more abstract and the world is complex.
Yet again the Greeks were familiar with this problem, Plutarch[vi] saw demagogues flattering and pandering the people while statesmen told people what they needed to hear even if they did not want to hear it.
The recently formed climate movement Extinction Rebellion recognises how the media coverage can be distorted by interest groups like the Koch Brothers who run large petrol chemical companies and seek to deregulate the state apparatus of countries to enable the continuation of fossil fuel industries. One of the key aims of Extinction Rebellion is that the government and media tell the truth about the climate crisis as evidenced by the Royal Society (2019[vii]) for example.
Scepticism and Science
Scepticism in science is central to its aims and scientist must always challenge themselves to locate the best sources of evidence to improve their understanding but the process of climate denial criticises any evidence supporting human-caused global warming and yet embraces any source whatever that will refute global warming even if it is just a blog or misinformed video.
With such powerful and emotional stories, science fades into the background and plays less of a role in civic society that is also being undermined to enable the ‘Philosopher King’ to rule by his own philosophy without a credible challenge. ‘There is no alternative[viii]’, as the former Prime Minister Thatcher stated when asked about her hard-line monetarist policies that set the agenda for neo-liberalism.
The Weakening of the News Media
The distrust of science can be seen in the way that evidence is undermined at times in the media. Some news outlets work on an idea of balance which gives rise to a ‘False Equivalence’ where an expert is put up against a liar or someone who is strident but wrongly informed. Each may get equal time in an interview and the ill informed view will sometimes be unchallenged or it will be treated as having equal weight to an evidence informed view.
This approach has been defended by the fact that the news organisation in question (e.g. BBC) gets complaints from both sides of the argument. It is complacent because the relative legitimacy of the complaints is not regarded an issue to be investigated.
Nick Lower (Observer, May 26th 2019) of ‘Hope Not Hate’ suggests that some journalists do not do adequate research on extremist figures they are giving a profile to. These extremists will often deny facts and deliberately make things up and the rolling news journalist may not be prepared enough to make a challenge and say that what is being spouted is nonsense. This is then erroneously justified in terms of balance and also because the news provider may be accused of being partial to the left if they made such a challenge.
Craig Oliver(Observer, May 26th 2019) former editor of BBC News calls for journalists to be equipped with the intellectual agility and self confidence to be able to referee the national debate, not splitting the difference between truth and distortion but taking time to make it clear when something is wrong.
This comes back to De Toqueville’s requirement for democracy to work. A strong civil society which includes an independent media. The BBC operation is dictated by the funding from the licence fee which is, in turn, decided by the current government. In the UK, there needs to be a renewed emphasis on feedback panels for journalist coverage as well as independent governance perhaps via a citizens’ assembly[ix] which is representative of the population and informed by expert evidence.
Ash Sakar (Observer, May 26th 2019) of NovaMedia suggests that short combative interviews play into the hands of the popularist right as they can claim a lack of a fair hearing when the questioning gets difficult and escape thorough interrogation. She suggests that long form programmes can work best in this respect.
Experts and Expertise
Education has moved away from a reliance on the expert or hero Innovator (Smith, 2015[x]) as a key resource for improving teaching and learning. Reviews of effective professional development (e.g. Villegas-Reimer[xi],2003) argue for a move away from singular inputs from experts towards approaches that focus on teamwork, where a school locates issues in its practice and is aided in its interpretation of the available evidence and guidance in implementing, monitoring and evaluating change. Education too can be influenced by its own version of populism and conspiracy theory. Classroom myths are well documented eg (Dabell, 2017[xii]) and they need challenging today as much as when Postman and Weingartner[xiii] coined the populist term ‘crap detecting’ in 1967 for one of the important roles of a teacher.
Complete knowledge may not be invested in one person any more but wisdom in how to access and make use of new knowledge in the context of old knowledge maybe something that an individual has which can make them an expert. Many professional institutions such as universities, hospitals, engineers and schools know how precarious it is to have one source of all wisdom, and so, endeavour to make all staff share in its creation. Wisdom being seen as the application of knowledge to different contexts. Shortly, I will describe a new case study approach that aims to facilitate this process.
The press can often be seen to be dependant on expert sources to provide a brief informed commentary upon a news item. These pieces can sometimes cause fury or amusement among those with a greater claim to knowledge because of the shortness of the clip and how the statement is contextualised within a news story. Universities credentialise knowledge and expertise through their award of degrees, giving permission for graduates to operate at certain academic levels. At the same time, professional bodies govern licences to practice for graduates with additional professional training. The curriculum of universities and training bodies must place a renewed emphasis on, as McIntyre (2019)[xiv] straplines his book, ‘Defending Science from Denial, Fraud and Pseudoscience’. McIntyre calls for a recognition of science as the ability to change views in the light of new credible evidence which distinguishes it from pseudoscience. But is this enough?
Defending Civic Society
The credentials of our profession need to be brought into play within our communities so that the evidence and expertise that teachers and researchers have is understood and respected by members of those communities. We can model critique and the harnessing of evidence and play our part in combatting ignorance, as teachers have traditionally tried to do. Our job might be to demonstrate as Andreas Schleicher (2015[xv]) OECD PISA has stated “that without data you are just another person with an opinion”
MESH[xvi]operates as a resource to narrow the distance between educators, policy makers and the research they need. It aims to make explicit the knowledge base that teacher use everyday to make complex decisions. It consists of a growing number of research summaries laid out in readily accessible matrices. This approach views teachers as professionals making judgements informed by the best available evidence. To model this process, MESH has developed snapshots which can be considered as case studies where evidence is interpreted for its application to different issues by a gathering of educators, policy makers and researchers. Through this process, new MESH guides are likely to emerge that are closely linked to both the concerns of classroom and community. The first example of such a snapshot is Stephen Hall’s (2019)[xvii] commentary on a MESH guide (2018)[xviii] dealing with the early education of Rohingya refugees undertaken in conjunction with the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas). Hall recognises that an intervention informed by reviews of evidence was able to be put together and implemented within a matter of weeks.
We now have the tools to address distortion and untruth. It is imperative that we all make good use of them.
Mike Blamires: Trustee of MESH and director of RIPPLE ( Research initiatives for Participation and progress in Learning Environments)
contact : MichaelBlamires@gmail.com
[ii] Lane, M. (2014) Greek and Roman Political Ideas London Pelican Books
[iii] Newlands, P. (2013) “Gove sees Marxists behind opposition to his education policies” The Times 24 Mar 2013
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/gove-sees-marxists-behind-opposition-to-his-education-policies-pkk0rrpfc2t (accessed 03/06/2019)
- [iv] Gove, M, (2016) Interview with Faisal Islam on Sky News (3 June 2016)
[v] Cadwalladr, C.; Townsend, M. ( 2018).“Revealed: the ties that bind Vote Leave’s data firm to controversial Cambridge Analytica”. the Guardian.
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/24/aggregateiq-data-firm-link-raises-leave-group-questions (accessed 03/06/2019)
[vi] Lane, M. (2014) Greek and Roman Political Ideas London Pelican Books
[vii] The Royal Society (2019) Climate Change London The Royal Society https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/climate-change-evidence-causes/basics-of-climate-change/ (accessed 28th May 2019)
[viii] Thatcher, M.H (1980) Press Conference for American correspondents in London (25 June 1980)
[ix] Her Majesty’s Government Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government (2018) What is a citizens’ assembly?
[x] Smil, V. (2015) The Hero Innovator Myth New York Atlantic Magazine http://vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/smil-article-myth-of-the-innovator-hero.pdf accessed 27/052019
[xi] Villegas-Reimers,E. (2003), Teacher Professional Development: An International Review of the Literature. Paris: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.
[xiii] Postman, N Weingartner, C. (1971) Teaching As a Subversive Activity Bantam Doubleday Dell
[xiv] McIntyre, L (2019) The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience MIT Press
[xv] Schleicher, A (2015) Excellence and Equity in Education: PISA 2015 Results (Volume I) Paris OECD PISA http://www.oecd.org/education/pisa-2015-results-volume-i-9789264266490-en.htm (accessed 28/05/2019)
[xviii] Laxton, D. & Leask, M (2018) Early Childhood Education in Emergencies
http://www.meshguides.org/guides/node/1343 (accessed 03/06/2019)