Expertise in jeopardy
Scholars and experts face an increasingly hostile political environment. Here’s why...
In a complicated world the informed man, or woman, should be king, or at least that’s what logic dictates. But it seems expertise and knowledge are increasingly under attack these days. With the spread of fake news and junk science, the ability of citizens in democratic nations to make informed decisions has become more difficult. The noise from the ideological extremes is drowning out reason. Still, experts from around the world gather to discuss humanity’s most pressing issues and try to find solutions. More and more, they face a world that seems less interested in sober reflection than the politics of emotion. Are they fighting a losing battle?
►You’re at a conference r ght now w th pol t cal sc ent sts from around the world. Can you g ve us an dea of what these k nds of gather ngs look l ke and what the r goals are?
The conference I’m attending is the World Congress of Political Science of the International Political Science Association. IPSA is one of the many associations developed under the sponsorship initially of UNESCO after the Second World War. The idea was to develop international scientific communities that were outside the formal network of relations between states, to bring together scholars from many countries and allow them to exchange their ideas, develop common research projects and to help advance our knowledge of nature, society and politics. To give you a flavor of what IPSA looks like, for which, incidentally, I am the outgoing president: We have sixteen nationalities represented on the executive committee. These people are elected for twoyear terms. Some countries that have large academic communities, such as the United States, France, Germany, Britain and Italy usually have their candidates elected regularly. Then there are a number of countries whose representatives come and go. We have representatives from all the continents, minus Antarctica (and sometimes Oceania), for obvious reasons. We try to observe the rule that we should be a global organization and that this global nature should be reflected in the Executive Committee. In fact, even the congress venues tend to shift around the world to reflect the global nature of our organization. We’re holding this conference in Brisbane, Australia now but I was first elected to the executive committee in the World Congress in Quebec City, Canada; and for a second term, in Durban, South Africa. I then became the world congress program chair for the congress in Santiago, Chile; and elected president in Poznan, Poland. The next world congress will be in Lisbon.
►There’s a lot of debate around the world these days about the death of ndependent expert se. How free are scholars such as yourself and your colleagues to engage n open scholarly d scuss ons?
The meetings we hold tend to be scholarly but inevitably they are influenced by politics in a number of ways. First of all, in some countries the tradition of autonomous civil society organizations, even professional organizations, is not deeply engrained and those coming to these kinds of conferences may be closely connected with their governments. I remember during the days of the Soviet Bloc, the representatives from the bloc were like bureaucrats and always acted together. They often represented viewpoints that were closely connected to the ideology and the policies of their governments. For example, in Moscow in 1979, I gave a comparative paper on political participation but mainly focusing on Turkey. There was a group of Soviet scholars present in the room. One of them got up and said, “This is an interesting paper but of course we know that there cannot be true political participation except in socialist societies.” All of his colleagues were nodding their approval. Then they took the floor to repeat the same lines. To offer another example, Russia lost its seat on the Executive Committee after the invasion of Crimea and has still not gained it back. But the there is also a positive dimension to the way academia is affected by global political currents. The rise of feminism, for instance, has been an important force in making our association more gender sensitive and more diverse. We now have a gender and diversity monitoring committee that reports to the Executive Committee. In short, we’re very much affected by the broad shifts in what the international community defines as the major political and social problems.
►The changes that IPSA has gone through are all part of the progress ve d rect on our soc et es have taken. But we’re w tness ng a wave of popul sm as a k nd of response to these progress ve v ews. Do you feel that these popul st v ews are creep ng nto your academ c env ronment?
Interestingly, as academics normally do, they are studying this phenomenon. In other words, it’s not creeping in much yet as an ideology. As is known, academic communities tend to be on the more liberal side of politics, so rather than being influenced by what populism espouses, they are rather unhappy about its rise. Its growth has stimulated a great deal of study on the nature of populism and its roots. In fact, in Brisbane, I had the privilege of organizing a presidential plenary on populism. Five experts from different parts of the world spoke on the topic; it was one of the best attended panels. Everyone is interested in understanding what this phenomenon is and concerned that if this populist wave continues, it will challenge the autonomy academic communities enjoy even in reasonably democratic societies.
Populist movements are everywhere, no society seems to be free of them. These days, they are generally becoming more powerful. They tend to attribute less value to expertise and institutionalized ways of working. This, of course, is reflected in how governments approach professionals and the values they subscribe to, such as rendering independent opinions. But, in the global environment, other changes than the rise of populism have also been taking place. For example, over the years, the generosity on the part of other actors to promote associations like IPSA has declined. Now, different than earlier years, we have to rely mainly on resources that we can generate on our own to continue our activities.
►We’re at a po nt n h story where expert se s more necessary than ever before. How do we re- gn te the broader soc al acceptance of expert se and the respect t deserves n th s compl cated world?
That’s the proverbial $64,000 question. In time there may develop a growing recognition of the fact that the rising populist trend is leading to uninformed, poorly advised action whereas a little bit of reliance on expertise might have helped avoid significant problems. There is nothing like learning from experience. This is the dictum on which we must place our hopes.