I am frightened by the crowd, for we are getting much too loud… Research and public opinion

A friend of mine was targeted for criticism about a piece of research.  A libertarian think tank had decided that academia was a waste of money, that academics should pay their own way, that academics should only study things which were useful.  The think tank took a few sentences from a description of their project and pilloried them in the press.

This week, the same thing happened to somebody I don’t know.  Based on a fragment of a flier looking for participants in a study, a popular Twitter account let rip about a study that didn’t match their ideological expectations.  A few progressive media outlets broadcast the signal, and my heart went out to the researcher who, in this case, is only a student.

The outrage about the research is, quite frankly, ridiculous.  It is ignorant and wrongheaded.  The basis of the complaint is that certain diseases should only be studied from particular perspectives according to some intuition about social justice, and was supported by a vague (and, it seems, inaccurate) complaint about the state of funding for the issue.

I really hope that the student is getting a lot of support from the university.  I can’t imagine how terrible this experience must be for her.

Without litigating the actual case, there’s a more important dimension that is lost in the crossfire: to what extent is public support needed for research?

One of my regular complaints is the lack of experts in the media.  Public intellectuals are a rare breed these days, and third rate ‘think’ tanks are filling the void.  Part of the reason for this, I argue, is that there are no incentives for academics to enter into public debates.  If you want to stick your head up over the parapet, expect a bunch of ignorant outrage-merchants to take sport in shooting you down.

I think that the point of legal theory is to facilitate the public’s ability to engage in meaningful and constructive debate about the legal system.  During recent public discussions about legal issues, legal theorists were basically invisible.  We are in the middle of a massive debate about Indigenous Australia and the law and yet, again, legal theorists are missing in action.

This is detrimental to our democracy.  We need people who look beyond the obvious and the easy to guide public discussion into difficult and complex areas.

But to push a public discussion into a difficult and complex area means making yourself vulnerable to a hostile public.  For female scholars, that’s a major issue.  Female researchers who study controversial topics are subject to some incredibly (and I mean incredible — it absolutely defied my comprehension when somebody showed me the stuff they get) foul behaviour.  It is far easier to keep your head down and to publish in obscure journals.  You get more work done and you have a much nicer life.

This approach also means that researchers often do not have access to a sympathetic public when research funding gets slashed.  University leadership in particular gets singled out for bizarre criticism by the public — accusations that they’re paid too much when they’re running multi-billion dollar organisations full of unmanageable staff is perhaps among the weirdest.  I don’t know how much a person would need to pay me to sacrifice my dream career in research to take up a position where I had to manage academics, balance budgets, and ensure compliance with the ten thousand unending regulations imposed by government overseers.

Ignorant criticism of research doesn’t just hurt the individual academic, it hurts public trust in our research institutions.  That absolutely no money had been allocated to the study that was drawing criticism seemed to escape the media’s attention.  That it was a student that people were ripping into with the social power of the media also seemed to be overlooked (despite being mentioned).

Academics are not entitled to public support, but the criticism in both this most recent episode and the earlier episodes shows that there is an underlying public hostility towards universities.  In both episodes, the hostility was: ‘Why aren’t universities studying the sorts of things that I personally find valuable instead of this topic that I do not find valuable?’  Universities should take opportunities like this to reflect on what is driving that hostility so that they can better support and engage the wider public so the public can better support and engage them.

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