Civic Science - Beyond the Knowledge Wars

Authored on:

Jun 12, 2012

John Spencer, director of "Get Ready Iowa," the 2012 Obermann Summer Seminar, and Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Deomacray and Citizenship, published this article in the Huffington Post on May 31. An abbreviated version appeared in the Iowa City Press Citizen on June 12. 

 

Today, we face multiplying global crises -- from economic collapse to global warming to crises in education and healthcare. As these multiply, ideological conflict intensifies. Congress is dysfunctional. Much of the media has become a shout-fest. Stress clearly is not bringing out the best in people.

At the center of our ideological battles is a knowledge war that presents a fierce obstacle to public problem-solving. While progressives are rightly alarmed by one side of this war -- the growing tide of anti-science sentiment -- the narrow perspective of some on the "pro-science" side also hinders progress.

In recent decades, a detached and technocratic approach, what might be called the cult of the expert, has championed the authority of "objective" scientific and disciplinary knowledge. In this view, elite experts bring solutions to the masses who are viewed as ignorant, passive, and needy. If the masses fail to listen, the remedy is to turn up the volume.

Climate science often illustrates this pattern. A January 2012 editorial in Nature, one of the top scientific outlets, called for scientists to get into the fray. "Where political leadership on climate change is lacking, scientists must be prepared to stick their heads above the parapet." Noting that emission of greenhouse gases has continued to rise and denialists and climate change contrarians are multiplying, Natureproposes that "climate scientists must be even more energetic in taking their message to citizens."

Such sentiments are well-intentioned and the cause is urgent. But this perspective illustrates a dramatically limited concept of what "climate politics" involves.

The Nature editorialists equate politics with "messaging," an equation which is widespread in the academic world. But the challenges we face in the real world are well beyond the capacities of science to provide crisp solutions delivered via a one-way transmission of information. The cult of the expert cannot ultimately prescribe effective solutions. Reality demands a different framework.

This new framework is not to be found in the tide of anti-science, an anti-intellectual stance of victimhood and grievance which appeals to "common-sense values" and personal experience. This animates many of today's candidates on the conservative side, from Sarah Palin to Rick Santorum. Just as the cult of the expert falls short in solving real-world problems, so too does openly denying scientific evidence.

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