Trump’s victory yesterday was the result of many factors. The politics of academic publishing was hardly an important part of the elections results. Large for-profit publishers like Elsevier and Taylor and Francis did not secretly elevate Trump to victory, nor would the outcome have changed if voters in Florida had access the entire run of Anthropology and Humanism. But this election did raise issues that central to open access as a movement. It was about truth, credibility, and authority. It was about how the same fact pattern can be interpreted in different ways. It was about judging for yourself the quality of partial and possibly biased information. And what comes next is even more relevant to our academic values. In the next four years we will see many people pushing back against accepted truths — that African Americans face discrimination, that the holocaust occurred, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and much much more, I’m sure. Now, than, we academics need to explain what scholarly and scientific knowledge is, why it is important that non-experts should take it seriously, and how open access is central to a vibrant, functioning democracy.
The original title of this post was going to be “Maybe People Would Think That There Was Such A Thing As Truth If We Didn’t Keep It Behind A Paywall”. The idea that academics have the truth — THE TRUTH — and are keeping it hidden is appealing to us. It has an easy, self-congratulatory feel: All we have to do is tell them what we know, and the world will be repaired. And indeed, there is a nugget of truth to this claim. Providing freed, quality content is more important than ever today. What kind of world can we hope for when the people giving away knowledge for free are Stormfront and ISIS? Academics have worked hard to paint a picture of the world that is the best and more accurate that we have. We have confidence in our findings, and we think everyone else should too.
But this is too easy. It flatters our egos and vastly overestimates the power of academic prose to change hearts and minds. What open access really has to contribute to Trump’s America is not scholarly findings, but scholarly process. Not scholarly facts, but scholarly fact-making. Opening up our publications means showing people that we as academics have less certainty, more conflict, and greater indecision about the truth than we ever let on. It means modeling for people a wide variety of the ways in which knowledge is made, debated, criticized, and verified. Open access’s most important role today is not in creating new knowledge, but shaping citizens who are capable of participating in democracy through the critical use of their reason.
Let me give you two examples of what I mean.
The example comes from the highlands of Papua New Guinea. When I first began working in the Porgera valley nearly 20 years ago, information got in and out of the valley by word of mouth, a few landlines, and the national newspaper (which was typically a day or two old). Sure, workers inside the gold mine in the valley could access the Internet, and yes, there was a small number of trade stores with VCRs. Since then, broadcast television has come to the valley, as have mobile phones. Not everyone has a smart phone, of course, and people struggle to keep their phone powered up and in good condition. But, in essence, people in Porgera have access to a wealth of open access information on the Internet. Even if you just restrict that to text files, this includes multiple lifetimes of readings — novels, history, plays. It’s amazing.
What most Porgerans lack, however, is the capacity to use that knowledge. Literacy rates are low, as are peoples’ ability to detect crap on the Internet. They now little about the history of their country, or of the world in general, so they can’t evaluate sources critically. Photoshopped pictures of mermaids circulate widely, as do Internet scams. These scams are the most painful and saddening for me. In the United States, we laugh away cons which ask us to send money to potential spouses. In Porgera, where people are so desperate to make their lives better, and where they have so little, these scams seems attractive. In this case, people have bandwidth and content, but not the cultivated capacities needed to take advantage of it.
Some what’s needed in this situation is content: The who, what, where, whys, and how of biology, history, chemistry, anthropology. It doesn’t take much biology to realize that accounts of mermaids are not credible. So yes, people need to fill their tanks and learn the basic facts of life.
But mostly what’s needed is an education in process: how to evaluate claims, how to detect weak arguments, how to take seriously positions that you disagree with, and how to be critical of positions you want to believe are true. How to parse Google search results. How to have the cynicism necessary to recognize that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. How to decide which sources are credible, but also how to reserve room for your own best judgment. How to be prudent, impartial, and judicious.
Here’s another story: I rarely discuss my teaching on this blog since I think what happens in the classroom should stay in the classroom. But I’ve been struck lately by the way that my students have metaphysical confidence but epistemological skepticism. They believe that there is such a thing as truth, that it is objective and real and indisputable. But they also believe that it is impossible to ever know what that truth is — largely because of the large number of contradictory and self-interested voices on the Internet. As a result, their truth is like Kafka’s hope: There’s plenty of it, just not for them. As a result, they can become cynical, apathetic, and lack confidence in any form of actually existing knowledge.
The ironic thing about this situation is that we as educators have been too successful in convincing others of our epistemological authority. They’ve kept the belief in truth, but unhitched it from faith in authoritative speakers of truth. As a result they believe knowing anything — and especially things about social life — is impossible.
Exposing students to the process of science as it actually occurs, rather than how it portrayed in a text book, reveals a very different picture of knowledge production. Our books and journals show a community of scholars which is less optimistic about the transcendent nature of our knowledge, but much more confident about the process through which we get it. Expert knowledge creators can see the seams in their work. They know their findings are partial and provisional, and that philosophical issues of truth and reality are intractable. This is why we have a dark sense of humor about out ability to uncover an eternal and timeless truth, a humor that we can see in classic academic lines like “you’re going to be dead and you’re going to be wrong — it’s just a question of which comes first” and “science advances one funeral at a time”. We don’t think of science as creating facts, we see it as creating arguments (or ignorance).
Opening our publications reveals that scholars and scientists only do whatever one always does: Argue. We are just far, far, more focused on our topics than most other people. And we are also (hopefully) specialized in keeping our cool and doing our best to follow the facts where they take us, even if it is a place we’d rather not go. We can’t tell nonexperts that we are wizards and they are muggles. The bad news is that truth is that truth is less certain and less eternal than some of my students would like to believe. The even badder news is that producing it is everyone’s task, not just academics.
This election season has been full of self-certainty from all sides. What our country needs now are less answers and more questions. More emotional strength and more dialogue- especially with people whose viewpoints you don’t share. This method of science is what our country needs more of at the moment. It is to cultivate thinkers who can take advantage of open access content, and can learn to become part of the intellectual conversation that produced them. And what’s more, this current crisis gives us the opportunity not just to bring academic values to the public square, but to make us live up to our values — to become better scholars and scientists.
Social media and the Internet have transformed how knowledge circulates on our planet. In doing so, it has created a freer, more open, and more democratic space for discussion. The old monopolies and privileges of higher education are gone. The days of citation-free encyclopedias carefully consulted in the town library have passed away. Academics can no longer rely on our institutional authority to make claims to truth. It’s incredibly discomforting, because of how strongly we disagree with some of the voices that have previously been silenced. We must argue for our claims outside the academy the way we have argued for them inside the academy. For those without privileged subject positions, this is nothing new. For others, it feels raw and painful. How this experiment — the American experiment — goes is up to us. Those who can afford to can throw up their hands and retreat behind private paywalls. Others Will write off our critics as filled with irrational hate. The real challenge now is to bring the quality of debate that is inside our journals out into the world, to model critical intelligence intelligence and deep erudition. There are many voices in these new conversations, and they are not going away. We need to find a way to make our claims in the public square, as convincingly as possible, each day every day. Not only will our readers learn, but we might learn something new as well. As distressing as this current moment is, I remain optimistic that we have something that the world needs, and that it will be a better place if we model it, share it, and free it.