Today, we are often told, truth is old hat, attention spans are the length of a tweet and the public conversation is so dumbed down that there is no longer an appetite for serious debate. Ignorance is now the name of the game. This seems unduly pessimistic, but where might one find evidence to challenge it?
A good place to start might be the radio programmes that are uncompromising in presenting difficult academic thinking but still attract large numbers of listeners. Notable examples on BBC Radio 4 (and available on podcasts far more widely) include: Thinking Allowed, devoted to “new research on how society works” and presented by Times Higher Education’s own columnist Laurie Taylor; and The Life Scientific, presented by Jim Al-Khalili. Even more wide-ranging is In Our Time, which has been hosted by Melvyn Bragg for almost two decades.
Some of the back catalogue of almost 800 episodes, admittedly, explores familiar topics such as Africa, ageing and Alexander the Great. But how many people have a prior interest in the Baltic Crusades, the Carolingian Renaissance or the Continental-Analytical Split?
Despite the apparent obscurity of the areas it sometimes covers, as Bragg explains in an interview I did with him for THE, the programme attracts 2.5 million listeners to its live morning edition and evening repeat, not to mention 3 million downloads of the podcast per month. The formula could hardly be more straightforward – academic experts talking about subjects they really know about – but figures like these surely explode the notion that dumbness now rules.
Bragg offers some intriguing insights into the secrets of In Our Time’s success, what it tells us about the value of British universities and why they are now under threat. He even reports people who have told him: “You are giving me an education – I left school at 15.”
As a further celebration of deep thinking, this week THE also publishes a survey of 50 Nobel prizewinners, who give their views on science funding, the importance of international mobility, the dangers of populism and the greatest threats to the human race. Some are indeed worried by the way that “facts seem to be questioned by many people who prefer to believe rumours rather than well-established scientific facts” or see a “real danger” in “anti-intellectualism”. Yet about three-quarters believe that their own prizewinning research would “definitely” or "possibly” still be funded today, with one adding that “society was, and continues to be, very generous”.
Although the US may have a president who, in the words of one Nobel laureate, “flaunts his ignorance” and “could play a villain in a Batman movie”, it seems far too early to conclude that we are all just dumb and getting dumber.
Matthew Reisz is books editor at Times Higher Education.