Knowledge and Expertise after the Election

By Dan Morrison, Vanderbilt University

Note: This is a revised version of the leading essay in the November 2016 issue of Skatology. Dan Morrison takes full responsibility for its content, and thanks Scott Frickel for his comments on an earlier draft.

Donald J. Trump is President-elect here in the United States. Articles like those Joe Waggle wrote in the November 2016 issue of SKATology on 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 Myron Bell, Mr. Trump’s choice to oversee the EPA transition from President Obama to Trump is a well-known denier of the overwhelming consensus on climate. His nominee for EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has sued the agency he is nominated to run 14 times. One suit aimed to stop protections for his state’s air. Pruitt is known to deny scientific consensus on climate change and his selection has potentially devastating consequences for the recent Paris Climate Accord.

Based on our many discussions with colleagues in the immediate post-election period, I 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. It seems likely that the incoming administration will 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 institutionsbased on mass participation (228).

I 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.

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). I think that as scholars we have a great deal of responsibility moving ahead. If you are an American citizen, you may have special duties as well. We all 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. I am thinking specifically of scholars such as Alondra Nelson, Ruha Benjamin, and Tony Hatch.

Let us begin again in our sociological work that is also political and, if we take up the challenge, oriented towards justice.

References

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.

Note: This post has been updated to include information about Scott Pruitt, Mr. Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

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