The large-scale societal decisions of 2016 show that academic thinking is going out of fashion. The results of the British referendum on EU membership revealed that despite a leave verdict dominated by the proletariat; a tide of support for remaining in Europe came from amongst the intellectual community. Meanwhile the US presidential elections also saw an electorate divided by their education. Those with a high school diploma or less voted for Donald Trump, whereas graduates voted for the losing Hillary Clinton. Without declaring a direct allegiance to any of the political philosophies involved in the above statistics, it can be observed that in both cases, the winning camp was not backed by academia.
At first glance, this appears to be a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as the 2015 general election in the UK, those members of the electorate with a GCSE or lower agreed with the degree-educated. The Pew Research Centre stated at the end of Janurary 2015 that in America “Citizens are still broadly positive about the place of U.S. scientific achievements and its impact on society, but slightly more are negative than five years ago.” So what is causing this new shift away from expertise; and the rise of populist, evidence-decrying figures such as Deepak Chopra, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage?
Access to the academic world has dwindled over the past few years. The number of students in UK universities has dropped steadily since 2011, owing to the large increase in tuition fees implemented in 2012, and they are set to rise again in 2018. Despite government safeguards such as student loans and grants, this financial barrier was enough to turn many minds away from the gateway to intellectualism. Whether intended or not, this air of exclusivity only served to damage the standing of the arts and sciences among a public pushed to unskilled vocations by austerity and a fragile economy. Fiscal anxiety can certainly be linked to the meteoric rise of populist public figures such as UKIP’s Nigel Farage. Several of his key policies involved scapegoating and promises of financial security; such as transferring British EU contributions to a cash-strapped NHS despite no evidence that this would even be possible. This brand of flagrant manipulation provides an example of how the general public were not concerned with rational debate or evidence, but were scared into accepting Faustian economics by sheer financial insecurity. With direct access to science financially walled off, the public were left with what popular media they could access.
The representation of scientists and experts in popular media might also play a small part in the ebb and flow of societal opinion. The common trope of the scientist portrayed as a stuffy out of touch old man who is useless in the real world is well documented. However, before the 2015 general election, a cavalcade of highly-grossing films such as Interstellar, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything saw scientists depicted as figures not only to be trusted, but as the best society offers. Each of the films took great care to depict the work of each scientific figure as intensely beneficial to not only academia, but to society as a whole. The protagonist of Interstellar begins the picture applying his talents as an engineer to farming, and the title of the Stephen Hawking biopic ‘The Theory of Everything’ speaks for itself. Conversely, the first half of 2016 saw relatively few popular films depicting any sort of science, let alone in a positive narrative light. Whilst this correlation between the image of science in popular narratives does not imply a direct causation of election results, these depictions (or lack thereof) of the scientific world could have wormed their way into the cultural zeitgeist, influencing relationships with the scientific community.
One key global phenomenon linking popular media to recent elections and even policy decisions is the rise of social media platforms. Facebook and Twitter have experienced unprecedented success in recent years but are still struggling to elucidate their intellectual responsibility. Having the ability to share any information whatsoever, no matter the validity, can be a powerful force, for good or for ill. Suddenly in the space of a few years, everyone has a voice, no matter their qualifications. Whilst this empowerment of the masses has contributed to such blossoms as the Arab Spring, this newfound freedom has its costs. The arena of social media is one dominated by the vociferous and the scathing. Critical vitriol, from the political left or right, tends to drown out more moderate views; to the point where many stories are simply faked to generate interest. A feature of most social media platforms that has come under scrutiny is the use of algorithms to tailor the news and opinions that a user views. These so called ‘filter bubbles’ use the information that a user has expressed interest in to provide more of the same content, the rationale being that this will keep the user engaged. However, when applied to the quagmire of political opinions, the filter bubble system ensures that users only encounter stories and information that agree with their existing beliefs and prejudices, leading to intellectual stagnation and confirmation bias. With sixty-two percent of Americans getting their news from social media, what their platforms choose to show them could be the difference between winning or losing an election.
Many polarising figures have exploited the social media revolution. The work of scientists like Alan Sokal illustrates that pseudoscience and nonsense permeates the scientific world. Whilst homeopaths have been doing this for years, one figure in particular who exploits anti-intellectual semantics to a fault is Deepak Chopra. Flaunting such statements as; “everyday reality is dependent on state of awareness and a human construct,” and interpretations of quantum mechanics that border on the insane, it is clear that even a rudimentary study of his work would reveal it to be fraudulent. Whilst Sokal would inevitably say to him; “anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment,” as of November 2016 Chopra has three million Twitter followers. Figures such as Chopra damage the credibility of real science among a significant portion of the population when they champion a model of the universe based upon subjective reality.
The academic world is not entirely blameless in the rise of anti-intellectualism. As Sokal stated in 1996, “some fashionable sectors of the academic left have been getting intellectually lazy.” Though most academics tend to be left-leaning, poor cognitive processes infect the entire political spectrum; and the dismissal of evidence and fact in modern academic institutions is only adding fuel to the fire of socio-political hyperbole. This trend was showcased during the controversial Occidental College sexual assault case, in which a student was dismissed from the college on the basis of accusations that were not even upheld by the local police department. When the academic community does not uphold the virtues of truth and fact that it preaches, what sort of example does that set for the rest of society? Perhaps this self-righteous view, that the rest of the world needs academics to set intellectual examples from their ivory towers, is also contributing to the divide.
By way of a conclusion, all the above factors play into an emerging culture of anti-intellectualism, and not always independently of one another. Social media in particular has a role in fanning the flames of the semantic hyperbole employed by the pseudo-scientist and politician alike. Nevertheless all is not lost. British judges decreed in November 2016 that leaving the European Union without the more sober consent of Parliament would be unlawful. There are many public figures who still stand for rationalism, such as Brian Cox, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. The next step is to take their message and increase engagement with the academic world; by ensuring everyone has access, no matter their socio-political background. Removing financial barriers to education, shedding light on resources like arXiv.org (a massive repository of free scientific papers), safeguarding research funding and – most importantly – persevering with the collaborative and honest spirit that personifies most of the academic world. As Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice proclaims: “at the length the truth will out.”
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