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title.  Anti-Intellectualism and the March for Science

date. 05.25.2017

author. Robert Matheny (rmatheny@wayne.edu)

On April 22nd protesters in more than 600 cities around the world gathered for the March for Science (MFS).  The initial catalyst for this event was the threat of deep funding cuts to several federal scientific agencies in the budget proposal put forth by the White House. The core principles on the MFS website call for evidence-based policy and regulation, unrestricted exchange of scientific information that serves the common good, and the affirmation of science as a democratic value.  At least for the moment, scientists can celebrate some moderate success.  Congress reached an agreement in early May on the spending bills that maintained or increased current funding levels for most federal agencies.  However, this only includes funding for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year which ends on September 30th and appropriations for the 2018 fiscal year remain uncertain.  As such, MFS organizers hope to parlay the April 22nd event into an ongoing advocacy movement.  No doubt, high profile civil demonstrations can go a long way to energize and galvanize a base of supporters for a cause; but the fact is, researchers and their respective institutions must reorient themselves to effectively meet the tests ahead.

 

The challenges facing research funding is exacerbated by the anti-intellectual sentiment common in the realm of politics and public discourse.  The origins of anti-intellectualism in the United States can be traced to the antimodernist movement amongst American Protestants of the 18th century and the genesis of our educational institutions.  Many of our nation’s historic universities started as seminaries for the training of ministers and were primarily located in the populous communities of the Northeast.  The rural villages that sprang up as the result of westward expansion often lacked the attraction to recruit ministers trained at these “Ivy League” institutions or the resources to send their own people there to be trained.  In response, a rural class of lay clergy developed to shepherd their communities.  Without the training for such things as linguistics, or systematic theology, these rural clergy focused instead on a visceral experiential form of religious practice.  They offered simplistic interpretations and a literalistic approach to Scripture that became an orthodoxy unto itself in rustic American religious life. The modern intellectual approaches to theology adopted from European higher criticism were considered the impractical fodder of the “elite.” The result was a class struggle and general mistrust between these rural communities and the scholastic “privileged” few too far away to understand real life.  As the academy gradually evolved from mere seminaries to expansive educational institutions, suspicion of the intellectual among lay populations evolved as well and embedded itself in the public and political discourse. 

This divide, which still runs deep, can still be seen in contemporary political struggle regarding research and education.  In her 2008 article to the International Journal of Communication, Sandra Braman described policy-making in the United States as an “evidence-averse” environment.  “Research results do not, in themselves, determine policy choices…”  This is due in part, to the esoteric nature in which academic research is presented without concern for practical implications.  Research is often presented for academic consumption only and is simply inaccessible to the average reader.  Rarely do policy makers hold the skillsets necessary to analyze and interpret research findings. 

If the March for Science movement is to find ongoing success, both researchers and institutions must undergo a pragmatic reorientation to the public conversation.  In 2009, Lawrence R. Frey reported in the Journal of Applied Communication Research that most research is not actually read.  In fact, “of the most 15,000 [academic] journals that exist even social scientists read only an average of 191 articles per year.” Effectively disseminating research beyond the walls of the academy requires results to be translated into narratives, press-kits, and briefing documents that the lay public can understand. This involves a significant investment of time, labor, and money to do well.  Unfortunately, in the “publish or perish” world of the academy, such activity is often categorized as service rather than academic contribution and, consequently, is only minimally rewarded in tenure and promotion processes.  Braman also points out that the squabbling between basic or applied research, quantitative or qualitative methods, and epistemological orientations distracts from current political concerns and confuses public and policy-making audiences.  Moving forward, an integrated approach to scientific advocacy that both maintains methodological rigor and encourages public accessibility is vital for the ongoing influence of the scientific community in shaping public policy.