Richard Trembath argues that as higher education grapples with cutbacks, constraints and remote learning, it also has to counter anti-intellectualism.
‘Plato is credited with offering the first account of what we mean by knowledge, which was in three parts: you know something, he thought, if you hold it to be true, if it is true and you are justified in holding it to be true.’ Simon Blackburn, What Do We Really Know: The Big Questions of Philosophy.[i]
Christopher Hitchens: ‘What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.’
In May 2006 the ubiquitous Gideon Haigh wrote a lengthy analysis of how and why the then Federal Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, had vetoed ten applications for Australian Research Council funding, all, unsurprisingly, in the humanities and social sciences. Haigh referred to the role played by the equally ubiquitous Andrew Bolt who deplored ‘the mind rot in our universities’ as faddish trends and left-wing ideology dominated teaching and research. For Haigh, this unedifying spectacle demonstrated ‘how Australia’s arena of ideas is influenced by the power of media and the predispositions of politicians, and how resistance to an abiding anti-intellectualism is buckling in the face of the new populism’.[ii]
It is fifteen years since that article was published in the Monthly. ‘Populism’, as an easy to reach term has become, well, even more popular, though, as an explanation of social movements, it is very difficult to define. A corollary of contemporary populism is the claim that anti-intellectualism is now firmly established in Australia (and elsewhere), that this idea often manifests in conservative attacks on the academy, and that expertise is now distrusted or derided in many circles by people with causes to promote and axes to grind. This is a large topic, or set of topics, and here all I want to do is examine several key markers of what might turn out to be a significant wrong turn in public discourse.
Some context first. As mentioned, this phenomenon is not restricted to Australia. I shall do everybody a favour and not cross the Pacific and refer to Joe Biden’s predecessor. Instead, let us start in Britain where Michael Gove, senior Conservative politician and current Minister for the Cabinet Office, is prone to saying that people are weary (and wary) of experts and their frequently incorrect predictions. This led Richard Portes, Professor of Economics at the London Business School, and by anybody’s measure an expert, to argue in 2017 that:
More generally, distrust [of experts] has been encouraged by those who have vested interests in discrediting experts because they want to advance a particular agenda – be that in the field of economics, climate change, health or whatever – which may conflict with what expert opinion would be . . .
This distrust of experts has been encouraged and cynically manipulated. There is an element in our popular media which is quite prepared to quote supposed facts that aren’t at all factual, rubbishing what they don’t agree with and giving lavish coverage to claims that accord with their view of the world. Fake news, indeed.[iii]
For political scientist Lyn Snodgrass this distrust of informed opinion makes life especially difficult for academics who, on the one hand, can be charged with living in an ivory tower, and when they descend to the outside world face major difficulties with getting their views across. For Snodgrass, ‘the real challenge for academics in the public sphere is that we’re living in a post-truth world . . . a world where objective facts – scientific evidence – doesn’t influence public opinion . . .appeals to emotion and personal beliefs set the agenda.[iv]
I think that Portes is more balanced here than Snodgrass who describes a world which has descended into a dystopian rejection of science and evidence-based argument. The world, including Australia, has in fact not fallen that far. But both authors are representative of a large literature, from within and without the academy, that frets at the way expertise is abused and manipulated. If we try and determine when this phenomenon developed there are going to be several answers. In Australia, especially when writing an article for a journal called Australian Policy and History, it is tempting to start with the History Wars and inevitably they have to be considered. But the History Wars are one part of a wider conflict – the Culture Wars – so I want to go all the way back to 1992.
In that year the ailing Labor government in Victoria was cast aside at the polls by Jeff Kennett. During the early years of his seven year tenure, when he enjoyed widespread support, his critics were contemptuously referred to by Tony Parkinson of the Melbourne Age as ‘luvvies’, a term borrowed from the British and referring to over-educated inner urban ‘elites’ of a progressive tendency. Other Age journalists in that period such as Michael Barnard also criticised this mysterious group. Mercifully, the transplanted epithet of ‘luvvies’ seems to have died a quick death in the colonies. But attacking so-called elites has intensified in recent years especially in the context of the climate change debate. They might not be experts per se, but they are prone, it is claimed, to points of view not shared by John Howard’s battlers or the plain-speaking people of the bush. On several occasions, the now deposed deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, made witless comments about the ‘ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies’ or ‘the almond latte left’.[v] I consider ‘woke’ a nastier term than its predecessor, ‘politically correct’. The latter was a sneer; the former is a weapon.
These days the History Wars probably continue in guerrilla conflict rather than the more overt conflict of the Howard years. Straight up, let me say that I am one of those who detests the lazy labelling of issues, campaigns, whatever, as ‘wars’. And with the History Wars there were not actually two sides to the conflict. It was essentially a one-sided attempt by conservatives to shape a national narrative which both fitted their agenda and demonised a disparate set of groups. This article commenced with Brendan Nelson and his overruling of the Australian Research Council. Another example from the penultimate year of the Howard government demonstrated the same mindset in relation to the History Wars:
Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop will today call for a common national curriculum, claiming left-wing ideologues in state governments have hijacked what is being taught in schools, ‘with some themes coming straight from Chairman Mao.’
Firing the latest salvo in the culture wars, Ms Bishop will say state governments have failed to protect the interests of young Australians from ‘trendy educational fads’, forcing the Federal Government to take action . . .
Prime Minister John Howard said this week: ‘Until recent times, it had become almost de rigeur in intellectual circumstances to regard Australian history as little more than a litany of sexism, racism and class warfare.’[vi]
You cannot make this stuff up. When referring to Chairman Mao, and his apparent influence on curriculum development in secondary education, all Bishop did was show her age. Maoism has been extinct in Australia for some time. In 2006 teaching authorities were just trying to insert a little balance into the way students approached this country’s history. The Prime Minister’s statement was a presage of his bizarre conclusion to the last televised debate in the 2007 election campaign when he wound up by saying that when Australians cast their vote, they should consider how they wanted their history to be framed. Not much about tax cuts there.
The conservative attack on the academy gathered pace with the intensification of the climate change debate, and, more importantly, the public acceptance of the need for change. Tony Abbott has several times portrayed climate change sceptics as martyrs to a fashionable academic ideology:
Abbott told the group the ostracisation of those who did not accept climate science was ‘the spirit of the Inquisition, the thought-police down the ages’. He also reprised his 2009 assertion that the ‘so-called settled science of climate change’ was ‘absolute crap.’
Measures to deal with climate change, which Abbott said would damage the economy, were likened to ‘primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods.’[vii]
The controversy over the treatment of Professor Peter Ridd by James Cook University seemed to some to confirm that higher education only paid lip service to the concept of intellectual freedom. Ridd’s case has yo-yoed through formal process and the courts, and I cannot judge whether the university was heavy handed in dismissing the trenchant critic of climate science. But the Institute of Public Affairs claimed in June this year that ‘Peter Ridd’s stand for academic freedom in the High Court on Wednesday should be remembered as a uniquely heroic moment in this nation’s history’. That is a big statement by any standards.[viii]
Similarly, the establishment of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation and its association with various Australian universities marked another division between the academy and its critics. More recently, the foundation of the Robert Menzies Institute at the University of Melbourne further fuelled the right-wing critique of educational institutions. John Roskam, executive director of the the Institute of Public Affairs, claimed that ‘the student-led opposition to the institute was being led by a minority of ‘left-wing” students who wanted to shut down debate in a sign of the cancer affecting our schools and universities’.[ix] The rhetoric is now consistently inflamed.
The Ridd case is evidence of how the right to free expression is wrought by some into the belief that no matter how wacky my opinion, it is as good as yours, even if I say, without the slightest claim to medical training, that deworming drugs are an effective treatment for COVID. This is not only poor science, it is lousy philosophy, so it is not surprising that philosophers have questioned the basis for exercising this right. For example, in 2012, Deakin University philosopher, Patrick Stokes, stated in a much read, much cited article that the ‘problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned.’ Further ‘this attitude feeds . . . into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.’[x] Eight years later, Stokes reflected on this essay and concluded that ‘if anything things got drastically worse!’[xi] To revert to the epigraph of this article, one has to earn the right to a factual claim through evidence and argument – in other words, expertise. If it is a matter of preference or personal taste, OK, go ahead, but not if something requires more thought than that. As another local philosopher, Christopher Cordner, says: ‘one’s position on important issues tends to be defined by your opposition to something rather than a creative articulation of possibility. Look at the history wars, the culture wars: it’s all about being against what the other stands for.’[xii] We end up as pugilists fighting the same dreary contest over and over again.
We come to the COVID era. During 2020 some commentators stated that the pandemic had enhanced the public’s faith in their political leaders and health officials, the latter emerging from obscurity to a daily presence in the media. I would not exaggerate here. In previous articles, I have argued that there was early and sustained media opposition to lockdown measures and social restrictions, even when these were less stringent than today. And this not only came from the likes of Andrew Bolt or Rita Panahi. Fairfax based economists such as Jessica Irvine and Ross Gittins made intemperate statements about the need to keep business going and the economy moving.[xiii] But then the death toll rose and they adopted a different tone. This is neither a cheap shot or a trite point. One of the major issues with experts is that expertise in one field does not generally translate to another arena. We don’t really think a handsome ex-athlete knows all about food supplements but perhaps we get more impressed by letters after someone’s surname, even when their discipline is only remotely connected to the issue at hand.
For Gemma Tognini, News Corp columnist, even ‘highly credentialled’ experts can be questioned for not having the appropriate work record to make crucial decisions in the current health crisis:
What I’m questioning is whether the people developing and imposing these policies have the appropriate experience to do so. If I wanted to open a café, I wouldn’t go ask a career public servant what to do. If I broke my leg, I wouldn’t go see my gynaecologist.
I’d invite you all to take a look at the CVs of each state’s chief health officer . . . A quick scan reveals an impressive mix of backgrounds that range from academe and research to time spent in the armed services and with non-government organisations overseas, as well as in rural and regional medicine in Australia . . .
I’m not for a moment saying they’re not highly credentialed in their fields and roles. What I’d like to suggest though is that perhaps the health edicts deciding how we all live should be developed, at least in part, by specialists who are daily immersed in the field of infectious diseases. Would it not make sense to bring them into the room?[xiv]
From my time spent working as an historian within the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, I can assure Tognini that the Chief Health Officers, the epidemiologists and the like are the experts in infectious diseases she so desperately wants to bring onside. And disagreement between authorities is not an infallible sign that the whole lot cannot be trusted. As Margaret Simons stated, ‘theories are often revised or even replaced as a normal part of the scientific process’, yet this may adversely affect the wider community who, ‘encouraged to think of science as a matter of certainty, may consider these changes a lack of authority or expertise’.[xv]
Throughout the COVID pandemic I have collected many articles from a wide range of Australian media, concentrating on how they present the changing situation, especially its statistical aspects, to their readership. With rare honourable exceptions, such as Liam Mannix in the Age, the inevitable demands of an unbroken news cycle often result in an inadequate analysis of data and professional opinion. Further, this can lead to unsound criticism of government policies – or excessive praise for the same. The academy is just there for the quotable quote or soundbite. For Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe in their re-examination of Dark Emu’s evidential underpinnings, the ‘journalistic abandonment of the academy, if that is what it is, seems to be symptomatic of a break from the past – a past in which professional knowledge and lay knowledge were more distinct, and the distinction more respected.’ They conclude that ‘the authority of the academy has slipped.’[xvi]
I am wary of Golden Ages, where things – in this case, the prestige of universities – were so much better. Nostalgia is addictive and misleading. But as higher education grapples with cutbacks, constraints and remote learning, it also has to counter anti-intellectualism in whatever form it takes. Good luck.
[i] Simon Blackburn, What Do We Really Know: The Big Questions of Philosophy, Quercus, London, 2012, p. 43.
[ii] Gideon Haigh, ‘The nelson touch’, The Monthly, May 2006, https://www.themonthly.com.au/monthly-essays-gideon-haigh-nelson-touch-research-funding-new-censorhsip-214#mtr, accessed 14 August 2021.
[iii] Richard Portes, ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’, Think at London Business School, 9 May 2017, https://www.london.edu.au/think/who-needs-experts, accessed 30 July 2021.
[iv] Lyn Snodgrass, ‘Academics can’t change the world when they’re distrusted and discredited’, The Conversation, 19 May 2017, https://theconversation.com/academics-cant-change-the-world-when-theyre-distrusted-and-discredited-77420, accessed 27 July 2021.
[v] David Crowe, ‘Deputy PM slams people raising climate change in relation to NSW bushfires’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/raving-inner-city-lunatics-michael-mccormack-dismisses-link-between-climate-change-and-bushfires-20191111-p539ap.html, accessed 30 August 2021; Jacqueline Maley, ‘Most Australians love the ABC and only tolerate politicians’, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 2020, https://smh.com.au/national/most-australians-love-the-abc-and-only-tolerate-politicians-20201026-p568p0.html, accessed 30 August 2021.
[vi] ‘Lib calls for national curriculum’, Age, 6 October 2006, https://www.theage.com.au/national/lib-calls-for-national-curriculum-20061006-ge3a1i.html, accessed 14 August 2021.
[vii] ‘Tony Abbott says climate change is probably doing good’, Guardian, 10 October 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/oct/10/tony-abbott-says-climate-change-is-probably-doing-good, accessed 8 August 2021.
[viii] Institute of Public Affairs, ‘Dr Peter Ridd vs James Cook University: The fight for freedom of speech on climate change’, 25 June 2021, https://ipa.org.au/peterridd, accessed 3 September 2021.
[ix] ‘Menzies centre needs “Labor voice” ’, Age, 24 July 2021.
[x] Patrick Stokes, ‘No, you’re not entitled to your opinion’, The Conversation, 5 October 2012, https://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978, accessed 30 July 2021.
[xi] ‘You’re entitled to your opinion . . .sort of’, ADI (Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation), 13 February 2020, https://adi.deakin.edu.au/news/youre-entitled-to-your-opinion-sort-of, accessed30 July 2021.
[xii] John Elder, ‘Is anti-intellectualism killing the national conversation?’, Age, 13 August 2015, https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/is-antiintellectualism-killing-the-national-conversation-20150801-gipids-html, accessed 30 July 2021.
[xiii] I have a list of references if any reader wants to pursue this issue further.
[xiv] Gemma Tognini, ‘Vulnerable silently lose out in each snap lockdown’, Australian, 17 July 2021, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/vulnerable-silently-lose-out-in-each-snap-lockdown/news-story/f4a4bd7a70cf38434ad79a7eabcaZe40, accessed 27 July 2021.
[xv] Margaret Simons, ;’Trust the science’ is the mantra of the COVID crisis – but what about human fallibility?’, Guardian Australia, 24 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jul/24/trust-the-science-is-the-mantra-of-the-covid-crisis-but-what-about-hyman-fallibility, accessed 26 July 2021.
[xvi] Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers: The Dark Emu Debate, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2021, p. 21.