Agnotology, Science and Public Engagement

One of the clear themes which emerged for me when reading Merchants of Doubt, a detailed exploration of corporate propaganda by historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, concerns the politics of public engagement. What might in other circumstances seem like anodyne issues confined to the university, who talks about science in public and the status attached to this activity, become urgent questions of societal importance when seen in terms of the history of doubt merchandising. As they write on pg 263:

The scientific societies have tried to address this by developing formal statements on climate change that reflect the collective wisdom of their members, but these statements tend to be dry at best, and often nearly impossible for a normal person to decipher. Who among us has read the IPCC Summary for Policymakers, much less the thousands of pages of actual reports? Indeed, who on the planet has read all this stuff? What average citizen knows that the American Meteorological Society even exists, much less knows to visit its home page to look for its climate-change statement? 92 Clearly, it’s ridiculous to imagine that anyone would, so someone has to summarize and communicate it. Then another difficulty arises. Scientists are finely honed specialists trained to create new knowledge, but they have little training in how to communicate to broad audiences, even less in how to defend scientific work against determined and well-financed contrarians. They often have little talent or taste for it, either. Until recently, most scientists have not been particularly anxious to take the time to communicate broadly. They consider their “real” work to be the production of knowledge, not its dissemination, and they often view these two activities as mutually exclusive. Some even sneer at colleagues who communicate to broader audiences, dismissing them as “popularizers.”

If we talk of ’embedding a culture of public engagement’, it can easily feel like a trojan horse for the reconfiguration of academic labour: the centrality of scholarship giving way to viral self-marketing, as universities move ever further away from their traditional mission. I have a lot of time for this critique but I think it misses something important, mistaking contingent features of ‘public engagement’ as it has emerged within a particular context for intrinsic features of any call for more activity like this.

For many years, I’ve been driven by a sense of an explicitly political public engagement, though it’s hard to articulate this amidst the conceptual detritus of the impact agenda and the sterile conceptual frameworks of so much of the orthodox literature on public engagement. There is a transformation in academic labour underway which we need to resist but this shouldn’t preclude a turning outwards because the capacity of the natural and social sciences to influence post-democratic social life is declining by the day. To the extent we can recognise their current organisation as hindering our attempts to reverse this trend, we confront an exciting challenge to articulate a vision of a ‘culture of engagement’ which is driven by ‘bottom-up’ social concern rather than ‘top-down’ imperatives of university management.

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