The other day a good friend of mine, a grade school teacher, said something that left me confused: “Don’t believe everything what those college professors tell you. They stay up there in their ivory towers and have no knowledge of the real world. They have a liberal bias and they could be wrong you know.” He continued, “You need to be critical of what they say.”
It floored me because at first I did not know how to respond. The easy part was disarming the epithet that liberal professors are corrupting their students. While there is a liberal bias in universities, I don’t buy the argument. In both of my master’s courses, we learned about several positions, or “isms” as my colleague Tom Opdyke puts it. I can honestly say that ideology did not underwrite the lesson plan.
Yes, in my international relations course I learned a bit about Marxism. But I also learned a lot about all sorts of other ways to view the world (enter the ____ism of your choice). I learned about the critiques and debates that exist within the academic literature. The same has been true from my schooling as a criminologist. Here ideology has even less purchase.
My training was not about content, per se, but about process. What I learned was how to evaluate claims and determine the extent to which they were plausible. There is no point in memorizing facts without understanding first how they were derived. Unfortunately, much of the public digests swathes of information in this manner – never questioning their trusted news source and rarely engaging in the underlying empirical evidence which can support or refute many claims made in the news media.
Admittedly it can be very hard to determine the factual veracity of claims in real time; one does not have studies in front of them. Sometimes people lack the training necessary to understand the component parts of the methodologies and challenge their weaknesses. Other times, data gets presented as fact when it is really a misquoted or skewed figure. It is very hard to debate talking heads, like we see on the commentary “news” channels like Fox News and MSNBC who have producers screaming facts into their ears and rarely engage in informed debate. They are part of a system that seeks not to inform its audience but to reaffirm the ideas they already believe to be true. Who contests ideas when they are presented in such away that align with your world view? Probably few – that is too vexing.
Crime is a classic example of how this dynamic works. Take for instance the crime rate. Many folks believe that the level of crime is at an all time high. However, within the discipline of criminology, it is generally accepted that the crime rate has been decreasing across in the United States for about twenty to thirty years. Over the past thirty years, the US has seen a 500% increase in incarceration.
Sometimes presenting this idea folks brand me a liberal who doesn't understand the conservative position. I disagree; the data is not driven by ideology. Moreover, the analysis or policy prescriptions that I, or another criminologist, might suggest should not be driven by ideology when done correctly. It should be driven by our professional, informed opinion, and it, more times than not, is. While it is true that there is still bias in any academic assessment, we must understand that it is not the purely ideological bias that is often implied to exist when the liberal leanings of college professors are advanced as a criticism for academic results. Rather it is a bias on the paradigms, methodology, and normative philosophy – all elements which are hotly debated even amongst people who may be identified as being ideologically similar.
Returning to the crime rate/ arrest dynamic, a reasonable conclusion would be that police are catching a larger proportion of offenders over time. However, the prevailing rhetoric would lead you to believe that the opposite is true. The numbers tell a story but for whatever reason criminologists are routinely told by politicians that their account is false. Instead politicians latch onto and repeat reports of short term spikes in crime and the engage in the sensationalizing of horrendous criminal acts, thus embedding the idea into the public consciousness that crime continues to be an increasing problem.
How many people in the general public, if asked about the crime rates would respond correctly about its trend. Probably few — most are misinformed. Yet there is little political interest to change this trend. Why? Because threats sell and when something sells well, there is little push to withdraw the product. In fact, to challenge that idea, one would have to spend lots of money re-educating the public. When it is possible to win based on flawed knowledge, why waste your money? It would be an inefficient usage of it. While such a tactic may disregard a politician’s moral responsibility, I think it is safe to say politicians are not people to fret much over that.
Maybe academics come under attack because they attempt to explain what is going on with observed evidence which may well contest some of the clichéd claims that are used in politics. In a competitive world, one must overcome the competitor. Perhaps those who attack academic thought believe that it is too close to challenging the status quo formulations of ideas they trade on. Perhaps politicians feel a need to cast a certain level of doubt to protect against potentially devastating evidence.
What sort of power do academics actually have? It’s kind of a foolish question to ask, because academics are notoriously crappy at producing materials which effectively engage a large public audience. So while they may train those who go to universities, they seem to have little impact in directly setting the public agenda and effectively informing the debate that surrounds it.
Academics have become whipping boys, cast as glorified teachers, the people who we entrust to educate our kids, but we know are essentially incompetent. Why is it so hard to accept that just like doctors, lawyers, firefighters, accountants, carpenters, mechanics and countless other skilled workers, researchers might know what they are talking about a good part of the time by virtue of their training?
Clearly, it is more important than ever that we understand what the purpose of universities are not only to make it clear to the pubic of their value but also to those in academia of the need to engage with public in a means which more easily understood.
Let’s start with what they are not. Universities are not churches; they are not meant to proselytize. They are not dictatorships; they are not meant to indoctrinate. They are not political movements; they are not meant to campaign (politically).
Instead, let us clearly state what they are. Universities are institutions that critically disseminate knowledge, where people are meant to ask questions, gather data, hone theories, develop hypotheses, test them, present the results, and examine those results.
While this isn’t news to those of us who have to go through extensive methods training en route to our qualifications, it seems to be news to many folks out there who have little idea of the harsh and bitter world that academic debate exists in. Good academics should tell you that they are not always right. Just like politicians, they may even tell you that many of their colleagues (who may well share their ideological leanings) are also wrong, or not all together right, or plain stupid. It is true that many theorize and hypothesize in the so-called ivory tower, but that is only half of the job. The other half is to go out and test those theories and hypotheses in a way that attempts to break them. Once you have broken the theory, then you rewrite it and test it again. This happens. And, as it does, on and on the cycle goes.
Of course, this method is not without its limitations. There aren’t infinite dollars being floated around to test and model and remodel. Some of the questions we ask have little or no immediately apparent commercial value, so the market isn’t lining up to fund them. So we must make do with what we have and always be critical results in the light of limitations. That, in fact, is our job.