Crises of Legitimacy of Science-Are we with science or not?

Crises of Legitimacy of Science-Are we with science or not?

Photo by ThisisEngineeringRAEng on Unsplash

Lou Swanson, Emeritus Vice President of Engagement, Colorado State University

Scott Reed, Vice Provost Emeritus, Outreach and Engagement, Oregon State University

Providing Evidence-based knowledge is a foundational raison d’être among Extension mission statements.  This blog and the next address the social and political delegitimation of science over the past few decades, as well as the acceleration of attacks on science as an academic and social enterprise. 

There is a public crisis of legitimacy for science.   Simply stated, science is becoming just another interest group competing with a vast array of conspiracy polemics in social media and in the polarized politics within the corridors of the federal government and most state governments. 

Perhaps current evidence of direct political attacks on science is not new, only more direct and magnified by the morphing and perceived legitimacy of social media platforms.  But this threat is real and gaining cultural momentum.  It is an existential threat that needs to be taken seriously.

Unheeded/uncountered, the corrosion of the value of science will continue.  But there is a great deal that can be done, starting with the foundations of higher education’s extraordinary successes in creating knowledge and expanding the thoughtfulness of the humanities. 

Higher Education’s history is an excellent starting point.  But simply celebrating our history will not be enough to stem the steady accumulating damage of this corrosion.  Innovative and university-wide repurposing of existing institutional capacities and talent are necessary to produce novel and impactful/purposeful programs.  This repurposing should not blame the public but engage the public on the value of the educational enterprise of American higher education.

Given the critical importance of this topic, we are dedicating our introductory thoughts to two blogs.  This blog briefly frames the characteristics of this threat.  The second provides foundations for aggressively and honestly repurposing existing social and political strengths while staying true to our principles.

Devaluation of science is evident at almost every point of the nation’s political compass.  Interest groups cherry pick the science that best fits their social and political agendas.  Echoes of the Scopes Monkey Trail of almost a century ago are taking new form today.  (For more on the Scopes Monkey Trail go to PBS, American Experience (2002): https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/monkeytrial/)

We are part of the problem.  There is a palatable disdain by scientists for a public that does not accept the obvious truth of their efforts.  There also are worthy debate platforms that devolve into dueling experts on important but often minute disputes that are seized upon as evidence that scientists really don’t have a settled science

The corrosion occurs within the narrow confines of subdisciplines but are most visible for transdisciplinary issues where science is a tool or a threat for political and economic interest groups.

Easily identified examples of politically polarized transdisciplinary conflicted terrains include the sustainability of the natural environment, global climate change, the current Covid-19 pandemic and the politicization of public health best practices, the denial of the vast net benefits of vaccinations, and the political inability to create just-in-time identification and sharing of information on zoonotic diseases.

If we are with science, then we must not sidestep the polarized political contests raging within our political landscapes.  This has been our tendency, particularly recent institutional duck and covering on climate change and pandemic epidemiology. 

We have the foundations for aggressive but measured responses, some necessary now and others that play to the future and require sustained but nimble institutional innovations. 

Simply yelling at those who degrade the legitimacy of science may feel good but likely is ephemeral and may even lead to further corrosion. 

Our university core missions are the starting point – teaching, research and public engagement. 

Our current students and future students presently in public schools are under-invested institutional legacies and political strengths. 

Among LGUs, Youth Development 4-H is an extraordinary platform – particularly in adding value to other youth organizations. 

Perhaps the most under-utilized university engagement tool to counter the delegitimation of science is ‘Citizen Science.’ 

The foundation for repurposing university responses to this threat is embracing university-wide transdisciplinary teaching, research and engagement (See former blog).

The next blog begins a discussion of ‘what can be done’ to counter, immediately and sustainably, the current crisis.

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