How universities can earn trust and share power in the bitter post-truth era



James Baldwin, the author, playwright and social critic, whose life is depicted in the remarkable 2016 film I Am Not Your Negro, once said: “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Alongside Baldwin’s commentary, the work of Hannah Arendt teaches us about the “banality of evil”: that everyday, ordinary people are capable of acts of barbarity, cruelty and injustice if the leaders and circumstances around them normalise those behaviours. She famously said:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.

In these conditions, of course, we are all in grave danger. The enemy of a civilised and decent society, a society in which democracy, human flourishing and social justice have a chance, is power plus ignorance normalised. Where this occurs, we should not be surprised to witness a world where spectacle, bravado and celebrity triumph over “truth”; where “alternative facts” triumph over evidence, data, human experience and testimony.

We are already on that path. Today, we witness the devaluation of expertise and experts, knowledge and reason, critique and dissent. Michael Gove’s infamous 2016 statement, declaring that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, is just one example. He may have meant it as a throwaway remark, or something peculiarly restricted to the debate over Brexit, but it sounded much more general, and it lodged, like a thorn in the side, in the body of experts who had been so lightly dismissed.

With the election of the new US president, and political and social turbulence on a national and international scale, we are witnessing renewed attacks on the very institutions and values which support critical thinking, robust analysis, informed agency, and on the structures necessary to defend and maintain democracy and knowledge-driven societies.

Britain is often spoken of as a “knowledge economy”. This needs experts as surely as a manufacturing economy needs makers, as an agricultural economy needs farmers, and as a hunting and gathering economy needs hunter-gatherers. So, if people have had enough of experts, have they had enough of the knowledge economy, too? Who are these “people” anyway? How should universities, as institutions of expertise and knowledge, respond?

The burning issue of trust

In November 2016, the British Science Association pulled together a group of senior representatives from academia and industry (some might even call them experts) to debate the burning issue of trust in the 21st century. How much did Gove’s quip capture the public mood? Was public trust in experts being eroded? Were experts and expertise itself under threat? Could we ever hope to win that trust back?

Dame Onora O’Neill, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, questioned whether Gove had really captured anything other than his own confusion. She pointed to recent public attitude surveys which showed that scientists and doctors were still much-trusted members of society – leagues ahead of journalists, estate agents and politicians.

But she also questioned the blind placing of trust in something as abstract as “science” and a “scientist”. Trust was meted out, case by case. All that we can hope for is that an astute person would bestow trust on someone, perhaps an expert, who is demonstrably trustworthy. Blind, unconditional trust in anything or anybody doesn’t help society at all. And if scientists, and academics more generally, don’t engage with the public in meaningful ways, they are very unlikely to be trusted.

Michael Gove may have had enough of experts … but what about everyone else? Shuttersto

Michael Gove may have had enough of experts … but what about everyone else? Shuttersto

Whether or not we believe there has been an erosion of trust in experts, it has always been incumbent on such experts to engage with the public – to share knowledge and to ensure that the way in which knowledge is being driven forward benefits as many people as possible. But are our knowledge engines – principally universities – really working for the good of the many in society? Or have they become hopelessly elitist, self-serving machines to generate knowledge – and power – for a slim sector of society to the detriment of the rest?

Despite the growth in science, knowledge and global higher education, the world is profoundly unequal, with social, geographical, ethnic, gender and other divisions, including income and wealth.

Even within Britain, the fourth largest economy in the world, the gap between rich and poor is larger than it was in the 1970s. Last year, Oxfam published a report showing that the world’s richest 62 people owned as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population – 3.6 billion people. Billions of people globally are being left behind. What, if anything, has higher education achieved for them?

Driving social change

The potential for universities to be instigators of social change, to level the field a little when it comes to knowledge capital, can extend beyond the bounds of the campus. There’s a strong civic and philanthropic drive behind the desire to increase the social and economic impact of our research and teaching.

But it’s not just about discoveries that might have a positive economic benefit, or a positive impact on health and well-being of people more generally. The way we carry out research and scholarship, and generate and share knowledge, could – with effective engagement – be something much more beneficial and relevant to society as a whole.

There’s a growing recognition that universities can only achieve this by working purposefully and effectively with external partners, civic society organisations, business, and wider publics. Engagement is increasingly seen as something that is not only essential to excellent research, and to teaching – but as part of universities’ social and civic responsibilities. Universities are knowledge institutions and brokers. Part of their democratic and enlightening function is to make knowledge relevant, accessible and useable to people everywhere. But the benefits of research have not been distributed evenly through society. Researchers may be convinced they are acting for the public good, but they need to test that assumption.

So there’s a note of caution to be sounded here. We might think we know how to engage with the public, but do we really know what people would like from us and how they would like us to engage? And how they would like to influence the direction of research and education?

There won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution for effective engagement across and within institutions. And we boldly suggest that the solutions will be discovered through a bottom-up rewiring of the system – and a re-energising of social responsibility in research – supported from above, and from outside. If we can achieve that, then through that exchange of ideas, knowledge and trust, power really could be shared more widely, for a change.

Author Bios: Alice Roberts is Professor of Public Engagement in Science and Saul Becker is Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Birmingham