Three pieces of news in recent weeks convince me that scholarship is being devalued faster than last year’s smart phone. The first was the claim that hate sites are gaming Google so that mundane searches return results that reflect right-wing extremist views. The second was that the Australian senator who flabbergasted the noted physicist Professor Brian Cox with his climate change denialism is to travel to the US to confer with President-Elect Trump’s advisors. And the third was an Australian cabinet minister who declined to express confidence in the government’s own Chief Scientist.
Perhaps the news about Google is the most distressing. Forget the extremist views: The crucial point is that the more we click on a specific topic, the more our supposedly neutral social media tools will feed similar stuff back at us until we are drowning in a pool of our own distilled personal opinion. Worse still, despite the teaching of critical literacy in our schools, the internet seems to have gained the authority of the encyclopedias we used to have on our shelves.
Remember that encyclopedias contained curated knowledge based on scholarship; social media contain knowledge curated by popular opinion and algorithms. I am constantly staggered by the recycling of discredited pseudo-knowledge through sharing, tagging, liking, and emoticonning. This way lies designer barbarism.
My career as academic was based on the notion that knowledge was built on the foundations laid down by the scholars who preceded me. The crucial tool was falsificationism – the technique by which you stress-test existing knowledge with the aim of disproving its validity or improving on it. You gather evidence. You evaluate it. You weigh up competing models. You make the best-informed conclusion that you can. That’s why we have cancer drugs, mass transport, clean water, and of course the internet.
And that’s why stunts like sideswiping our top scientist and claiming that NASA is faking climate data devalue the scholarship that separates us from the barbarians.
Emeritus Professor Stuart Campbell is a novelist and higher education governance expert.