I happily serve as a member of the communications committee for the Science, Knowledge, and Technology section of the ASA, SKAT.
One of the most important tasks is to develop three newsletters per year, and with the help of section chair Scott Frickel and two council members, Jennifer Singh and Tony Hatch, I and my fellow committee members share the work.
I wrote most of the following after consulting with Scott Frickel, and the parts at the end, especially the quotes, didn't make the final cut. I take full responsibility for the text below and post it here for those who would like to read more.
Knowledge and Expertise after the Election
by Dan Morrison
By now, everyone recognizes that Donald J. Trump is President-elect here in the United States. This makes Joe Waggle’s contribution regarding science policy under Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green administrations both an artifact of pre-election history and an important document on what might have been. We do know that Mr. Trump garnered over 270 electoral votes and thus will be the next President.
As Waggle recognizes, we do not know much about what science policy under a Trump administration will look like except to the extent that any decisions will be made with an eye towards economic competitiveness and market dominance. We do know that his pick to oversee the EPA transition from President Obama to Trump is a well-known denier of the overwhelming consensus on climate. Should Myron Bell take the top job at EPA, this choice has potentially devastating consequences for the recent Paris Climate Accord.
Based on our many discussions with colleagues in the immediate post-election period, we think it is likely that those who rely on federally funded research institutions such as the NSF, NIH, NEH, and others, are experiencing a profound level of anxiety. Those with “soft-money” jobs are concerned that their grants will be either cut, or that funding for their granting agency will be slashed to such an extent that future work is in peril. There are just too many unknowns at this point. Past Republican-controlled Congress sessions have voted to cut funding for political science. We think that the incoming administration is likely to finance its other priorities by reducing or eliminating several federally funded research programs, with the possible exception of research aimed at protecting national security or increasing economic competitiveness.
We may well be in an era of retrenchment. But we may also be in an era that is ready for sociological analyses of expertise and knowledge. Our area of the discipline may be more important than ever. We have studied the rise of new professions, the creation of academic disciplines, and the construction of expertise. Sociologists of science and knowledge have been active for decades in investigating how expertise is legitimated, and the links between legitimation and power. What might we do within the public sphere to advocate for justified beliefs without turning to naïve positivism?
Related to the problem of expertise is the problem of low-information, or active ignorance. In a 2008 article for Sociology Compass, Robert Evans wrote:
… how are we to understand decision-making in the absence of information? This problem is particularly acute for the political sphere where a disinterested or uninformed public can undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions based on mass participation (228).
I, Morrison, have been reflecting on the earliest sociologists in America, the Atlanta and Chicago schools, seeking inspiration for what may be a difficult four years for those of us who would foster democratic values and want America to become America for all. The words of Langston Hughes still ring out:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
-excerpt from “Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his The Souls of Black Folk, “Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched, --criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led,--this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society” (1903: 45-46). We think that as scholars and (if this is you, reader), as citizens, we have a great deal of responsibility moving ahead. We must take up that responsibility and defend our society and our institutions, including our colleges and universities as sanctuaries for critical reflection and action. The philosopher and pragmatist John Dewey once wrote:
Society exists through a process of transmission… this transmission occurs by means of communication of habits of doing, thinking, and feeling from the older to the younger. Without this communication of ideals, hopes, expectations, standards, opinions, from those members of society who are passing out of the group life to those who are coming into it, social life could not survive… Unless pains are taken to see that genuine and thorough transmission takes place, the most civilized group will relapse into barbarism and then into savagery (1916: 3).
As always, we have much to do, and several SKAT section members have written extensively about these issues. We are thinking specifically of scholars such as Alondra Nelson, Ruha Benjamin, and Tony Hatch.
Let us begin the work. We offer this newsletter, SKATology, our section blog (asaskat.com/blog), our facebook group and Twitter presence (@ASA_SKAT) as platforms for members to share their thoughts and reflections. We welcome your submissions to a SKAT sponsored “Resource Hub” for information regarding science policy under the coming administration. We also welcome short submissions that track the local impacts of policy change. We are in desperate need of resources that can be widely shared with members of the public, policy makers, and journalists who wish to understand the sociology of expertise, the social structure of ignorance, and the impacts of science policy on society.
Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.
Evans, Robert. 2008. “The Sociology of Expertise: The Distribution of Social Fluency.” Sociology Compass 2: 281-298.
Hughes, Langston. 1994. “Let America be America Again.” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, eds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.