In life, we are often told to do our own thing without thinking about what others think. Be yourself. In academia, the sentiment can often be to do your own thing because what others think is uneducated bull-pucky. This is maybe a bit extreme, but often, consideration for what the public thinks about our research is nonexistent. In contrast, significant aspects of this fellowship have been geared towards a more general audience, both in the form of these blogs and the public-facing component of our projects. But why should we care about making projects that are open to the public? Support for our disciplines often comes from an engaged public who believe that anthropology, history and other humanities departments should exist. That is why I want to talk about why we as academic scholars should care about how our fields are perceived by a general, nonacademic audience. Many of my thoughts in this blog were shaped by conversations with MSU faculty; the book Bioarchaeologists Speak Out, edited by Jane E. Buikstra; the CHI Fellowship; and my experiences as a LEADR graduate assistant. 

Where are the Experts?

News Media, social media and other kinds of popular media are how most people get their information. Not through peer-reviewed journals. In conversations with tenured faculty, however, there is a general acknowledgement that while getting the word out on our discipline is nice, it’s not how you move your career as an academic. The push to publish, speak at conferences and be active in academia are reasonable expectations for paid scholars, but where does motivation to interact with the public come into the picture? Shouldn’t there be a motivation?

Oftentimes, the experts in the field are missing. They are instead having their work interpreted by nonspecialists in popular media outlets. I certainly was not getting to the source by reading peer-reviewed journals before my foray into academia, what with the paywall, jargon and the 9 uninteresting articles for every article I did want to read. I now enjoy these articles a bit more than I used to. Partly out of necessity, and partly because I am more familiar with my discipline, so it is easier to digest.

The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

Even if one does enjoy peer-reviewed research, it is still easy to find oneself looking at articles on social media (Twitter and Reddit for example) for what is going on in the world. Occasionally, I’ll find a ridiculous article about an archaeological topic and wonder how it has gotten so many upvotes. Yet, I will take heavily popular posts on other topics at their word. Funny enough, another Reddit comment pointed me to the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I have included a quote on the topic below, but the gist is that the media does not have to be factual to be popular. As experts in a particular field, we can read an article in the newspaper on that field and notice all the faulty claims and logic. Yet, when we discover an article outside our expertise, it can be easy to forget our previous disbelief .

Briefly stated, the [Murray] Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.”

Michael Crichton

What to Do?

Speculatively, I can say that this effect is alive as ever. Therefore, I believe that there is an imperative for those of us in academia, to put our voices out there. Nobody knows who or what to believe. Or worse, they only believe what they want to believe. I am not, however, saying that we should see ourselves as the authorities of all knowledge. Much of the theory in the humanities these days grapples with the inherent biases of researchers and the problems associated with living in the ivory tower. Putting our voice out there and being publicly engaged should be more about inserting ourselves into the popular conversation more meaningfully, rather than simply making it our goal to discount the flawed thinking of non-academics. 

Not everybody wants to be a scholar, nor should that be the case. But there is speculative click-bait on big-topic issues such as climate change, immigration, and healthcare that the public needs to know about. Unfortunately, there is an industry of click-bait and special interests to compete with who are even targeting the experts. Nobody is an expert in everything, which is why it is important to contribute where we can. Some of the authors in Bioarchaeologists Speak Out suggest some ways to accomplish this:

  • Contribute to popular media outlets such as newspapers and science websites (For instance, I would like to write an article for The Conversation some day when I am the expert) 
  • Start your own blog
  • Tone down the jargon when reaching out
  • Track how your research is talked about online 

I recommend reading the book or doing a google search for advice on the first three points. But the last tactic was interesting to me, because I recently discovered you can easily set up notifications for when your name, or research is mentioned online. It then becomes possible to join the comment section and fight in the trenches about how your work is interpreted. It can be time-consuming and potentially dangerous to be vigilant and active in the public discussion, however.

Caring About the Public is Difficult and Crucial

What we put out there not only reflects what we think, but also the reputation of the institution behind us. And this is an important consideration. As a graduate student, I have greater freedom to say what I want than established persons, who will not only have more weight to their voice, but also more of a magnifying glass over them. Will the institution that you represent protect you if there is backlash, or even support your public outreach at all? Is this something that you will have to do on your own dime? 

The number of views on your blog is almost certainly not a metric that is going to get you a tenured position. This is often built into the bones of the educational system and I am unfortunately inexperienced and unqualified to talk about how to make changes to that system. All I can say is that outreach should be rewarded. Especially when it seems to me that the reason funding in America is so poor, is because the larger public does not see the value of what we do. How are they supposed to know our value when good research on important topics is unavailable due to paywalls, jargon and the sheer boringness of it?

There is obviously a lot to consider when talking about bringing our life’s work outside of academia. It takes effort to make our work digestible, but it is worth it. Other interests outside of academia, such as INC Christianity, are already realizing the power of media to spread their message. Perhaps I am preaching to the choir, but academics from all disciplines should care about how the public perceive their work if we don’t want to be left in the dust.