It has occurred to me that I often begin these pages with a conversation I’ve had in recent past which in turn excited my sensibilities, and I proceed to wax eloquent on whatever the topic of that conversation happened to be. The conversations I choose to elaborate on are of course cherry picked from many others, and unfortunately I never seem to have the cajones to delve into those which truly rile me. The reasons are usually sensible: lack of knowledge on my part or lack of a concrete argument. Often, though, the reason is the banality of bringing up a topic which for most is either common sense or just complete rubbish. In some cases, it is one or the other depending on who you talk to, and those are usually the ones that rile me the most.
This dichotomy of opinion is, in my experience, a common feature of society. There are certain things which academics takes for granted, and the rest of the populous for whatever reason embrace an opposing, often fractious, view. A recent and high-profle example of this is the source of 9/11 attacks. Academically there is a general consensus that al Qaeda was behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Outside of marginalised few, academics in the field would consider it a waste of their time to question that which would appear to be a proven fact. Despite this (or perhaps because of it?) the public is far from sharing a similar consensus. 7% of US citizens think Israel was responsible, while a whooping 23% of Germans blame the US government.
This is perhaps a bad example, such traumatic and world-changing event prone to attract conspiracy theorists of every ilk. US in particular is rather prone to this sort of fantastical speculation. (36% of US population remains convinced that UFOs are real!) Yet the numbers above demonstrate that even the stereotypically level-minded Germans are just as prone to level conspiratorial accusations at the world’s super power. Yet the degree of responsibility for world’s ailments ascribed to the US by many of those I spoke to in the last few months simply boggles the mind! The accusations range from global (world hunger, poverty, sexual inequality) to national (Israel bombing Gaza, Africa’s ebola outbreak, Mexico’s economic stuttering) to absurdly specific (assassinations, disappearances, even poor cellphone reception!).
Now, I would like to make it very clear that the above were not the ramblings of some loveable hobo, nor the droll of a world-loving hippy. All of the above have been imparted onto me, often in conspirational tones, by seasoned professionals and political office holders! In one case, a lawyer of considerable experience spent an afternoon explaining to me how dinosaurs, created by God and possessing the necessary intelligence to comprehend their inferior roles to human kind, were living secretly in underwater caves in southern Indonesia. (I highly recommend a google search on this topic!) At another time, an evening was spent by me listening to an engineer with international working experience describing to me how President Obama has minute control over every dollar of the modern economy.
It goes without saying that such conversations are not uncommon and often dismissed as humorous quirks of individual perception. Yet I would argue that it is a more pronounced problem than that, a manifestation of the modern affluenza trend which has led to a continuous decline in public’s respect for and deference to academic findings (see Gino Dal Pont, Ch. 1). Furthermore, I would argue that this is a problem which cannot be ignored, especially when it comes to politics and international relations. For the most colourful and recent example, consider a poll done in March this year where a national sample of Americans was asked whether US should use military force in Ukraine. They were also asked to identify Ukraine on the map. Horrifyingly, the further away they were geographically (with a worrying number identifying Ukraine in Greenland, Canada and even Ohio) the more willing they were to commit US troops and military hardware to the conflict! Clearly ignorance of facts does not equate to disinterest or apathy to global issues.
I would like to conclude by qualifying that I am not speaking here of the human need to ascribe causality to the unknown. It is understandable that the world is a complex and overwhelming network of overlapping economies, political influence, and social tides. It would be arrogance of the highest degree for anyone to claim a holistic understanding of these systems. What I speak of here is the aggressive opposition to academic consensus by media and the general public which has created a chasm between public opinion and university research, one that is only getting wider. The Ivory Tower has one purpose: to serve the public good. If it is viewed as a collection of deranged lunatics out of touch with the world as the public sees it, that is a purpose it can not hope to serve.