Re-engaging truth: development, engagement and post-truth politics

  • The Re-engaging Truth project team
10 October, 2017

This term, ODID will be hosting a new research seminar series exploring a political issue relevant across the world, and one which spans both Euro-America and developing countries: the place of knowledge in a ‘post-truth’ political landscape.

Over the past year, democracies have grappled with the politics of polarisation. Heavily contested elections in the US; the Brexit referendum in the UK; the continued rise of reactionary politics in the Netherlands, France and India; attempts to curtail press freedom in Hungary, Poland and Israel; and fake-news-fuelled moral panics and incitement in Nigeria and Kenya are just a few examples.

Truth has always been the first casualty of politics, but 2016 saw the rise to prominence of what is being called ‘post-truth’ politics, a socio-political environment in which truth, fact, fiction and lies blend into an incoherent information feed. The proliferation of ‘alternative facts’ has highlighted the potential power of echo-chambers and filter bubbles and seen the rise of fact checkers.

This is not merely a crisis of democracy but a crisis of institutions. In particular, the degrading of established traditions of objectivity and expertise presents a profound challenge to the vocation of academia itself; a challenge with which we need to engage thoughtfully and methodically.  So the idea behind the series is to reflect critically and methodically on the challenges (and opportunities) that this poses for our own role as university-based academics in the 21st century.

As traditional media, political institutions and regulatory bodies all struggle to contend with this new landscape, we are keen to stress that it is important for academics to avoid simply lamenting that publics seem suddenly not to like the kind of facts we might think are good for them. We also need to turn the focus back on ourselves and factor the means by which knowledge is filtered and consumed into our processes of generating it.

Evidence suggests that the manner and channels through which evidence is presented matters deeply to the way it is evaluated. Perhaps it is our fault too, for being insufficiently embedded in our research methods and philosophies? Perhaps the forms we use, or the tones we take, are inhibiting the reception of what we produce? Perhaps our understanding of ‘impact’ is too elitist and top-down? Perhaps as institutions our universities are disconnected from the communities in which they operate?

We are going to engage with this as a practical problem of research design, dissemination and communication. But before that we need to tackle bigger questions of interest to all researchers: what should the role of publicly-funded academics be in relation to social changes and policies? Should we be critics or actively involved in interventions based on what we produce? Does our responsibility stop at the department door, or should we be more accessible to the publics who pay our salaries?

In the upcoming series, subjects to be discussed include the relationship between information landscapes and objective fact; trust in expertise, especially during the Brexit debate; the role of academics in policy; how information is shaped through new and old media; and what a locally engaged university could look like.

The series starts with a launch of historian, journalist and liberal political thinker Matthew D’Ancona’s book Post Truth: The new war on truth and how to fight back in ODID at 5pm on Friday 13 October.

Looking ahead

The seminar series will help us prepare a trial mini-experiment which seeks to investigate how academically produced knowledge or expertise resonates (or fails to) in the local community. Building on an interdisciplinary discussion group on post-truth politics and international development started by members of ODID, we have been developing an approach which considers the involvement of publics in co-creating and consuming knowledge created by specialists such as academics.

We will select from issues which proved to be publicly salient in the debates surrounding Brexit and which are relevant to our shared expertise in ODID (such as refugees, sovereignty, and UK development aid). We will then pilot ways of creating, presenting and disseminating data in different forms in order to see whether these have any effect, and importantly, if they have different effects, in changing public attitudes on the issue selected.

We feel strongly that this project can contribute to wider thinking on how the academy can remain relevant to public life in a milieu of profound distrust of institutions. In particular, we hope to find out whether or not the ‘medium’ – in terms of discipline, research methodology, engagement processes, and means of communicating findings – makes an impact on the reception of the ‘message’, before we get crowded out of our own information space.

This project is supported by an award from the John Fell Fund.

Research seminars will take place on Fridays at 5pm in Seminar Room 1, ODID

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About the author(s)
The Re-engaging Truth project team