Leader: Avoid the shadows of doubt

To maintain its reputation for trustworthiness, the academy must ensure that its scholarly scepticism is not misapplied

August 16, 2012

"Trust me - I'm an academic" is a phrase that remains largely superfluous, even as other professions, from journalism to banking, languish in the gutter of public opinion.

According to the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual analysis of who and what is deemed credible by the public, academics remain the most trusted source of information. The survey asked 30,000 people in 20 countries: "If you heard information about a company from one of these people, how credible would that information be?"

Academics came out on top, with 68 per cent rating them as "credible" or "very credible", compared with just 29 per cent for government officials or regulators. Some of the lower scores are understandable given the widespread disillusion caused by the banking crisis. But the esteem in which academics are still held is underlined by the fact that participants in the poll judged them to be even more trustworthy than "someone like me".

So how free from vested interest and corporate influence is academia?

The question is posed by our cover feature, which considers threats to academic credibility.

Universities may suffer from comparatively little overt corruption of the sort in which academics simply churn out the research results their paymasters demand of them.

Yet a number of recent writers, mainly academics, have made a persuasive case that powerful industries have taken a leaf from Big Tobacco's book and manoeuvred some scholars to serve their ends by spreading doubt.

It was noticeable during the recent UK consultation on the future of cigarette packaging, for example, that academic studies were wheeled out by tobacco industry lobbyists to lend credibility to their rather odd position that advertising has no effect on the recruitment of new smokers, only on the brand chosen by those already hooked.

Researchers are meant to be sceptical, but anyone who casts doubt on the dangers of smoking - or today disputes the reality of man-made climate change - helps interested parties prevent or delay regulation.

Robert Proctor, professor of the history of science at Stanford University, has demonstrated the sheer scale on which this happened, reporting that "thousands of scholars" - experts in everything from cardiology to computer science, psychology to pulmonology, not to mention history - have worked as consultants for Big Tobacco. Many have carried out work that is perfectly legitimate in itself but, he argues, serves to "distract attention from the 'main issue' - the deadly harms of smoking".

Industry representatives (and on occasion academics themselves) have sometimes selectively presented the evidence in order to hoodwink the public. The oil and nuclear industries have used similar tactics to protect profits while others pay the cost in environmental damage and lives cut short or damaged by ill health.

In this context, while it is obviously important to examine any explicitly corrupting links between the academy and industry, it is equally important to monitor how universities have been tainted by what Proctor calls "agnotology": keeping doubt alive in areas where the matter is settled and where information is essential for an appropriate policy response.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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