If we wish to see serious changes in the way society works we have to stop rehashing misconceptions that have led us to where we are now. Academics are generally trusted as sources of information. Unfortunately many take money producing junk science for major corporations. Although the attempt to turn as all into good little corporate citizens is bad enough in itself the problem runs much deeper.
One might hope that in
universities the finest minds come together to work out new ideas and
solutions. Sadly, this is not often the case. The most closed minds I come
across tend to be in the academic world. As an undergrad I spent years
being dismissed as a fringe conspiracy nut because I kept bringing up the
Project for the New American Century.  I was saying
that this very sinister group of people were planning some extremely
serious and nasty business. Given that they now hold the positions of US
Vice-President, President of the World Bank, US Ambassador to the UN, US
Secretary of State and many more and have begun a series of illegal wars,
I feel I have been somewhat vindicated.
Firstly though, some history…
In a 1778 sermon Phillips
Payson commented on “circumstances favorable for a free government and
public liberty.” He states that "A wicked rich man soon corrupts a
whole neighbourhood, and a few of them will poison the morals of a whole
community." To counteract this he suggests the "general diffusion of
knowledge" as a remedy. The idea is for the “general diffusion of
knowledge” to bring about social good and counteract the machinations of
the moneyed and the powerful.
Some academics in the U.S. certainly formed part of a “bought priesthood” by working in covert operations with the U.S. government and intelligence communities in military operations. Project Troy was conducted in the 1950s in America. The US government sought to recruit top academics in both the natural and the social sciences in order to help with psychological warfare and propaganda during the cold war. Furthermore,
One of the members of the
Project Troy team, Elting Morison (an historian), showed his conception of
the social sciences as being within the realm of current political
constructs rather than as attempting to improve, change or do away with
them. He asked how values “created by our relatively free society in a
past that was, for the most part serene” [How anyone, social scientist or
otherwise, could describe a past that included the annexation of part of
Mexico, wars with Britain, Spain, France, nuking Japan and the genocide of
almost an entire race as “for the most part serene” is beyond me] could be
“perpetuated within a relatively controlled society during an ominous
present? Or, more simply, how can we maintain democracy in a garrison?”
Control over academic output
is not usually so conspicuous as Project Troy. I believe that there must
have been similar events in the UK but the UK is generally a more
secretive society and the declassified record is not as complete as in the
This historical aspect explains much of the situation we are in now.
Another reason for the aversion to new sources is generational. A large majority of the academics working now studied from books and journals -- not the web. This can lead to a sort of snobbery regarding web sources. You often hear that "there is a lot of rubbish on the web." Well of course there is, but there is a lot of rubbish written in textbooks as well. Academics happen to be very quick to point this out if someone they don't like has written a book.
Post-modern conceptions about the nature of truth that are espoused by philosophy departments have also created a barrier between the public and the academic world. It is often seen as a form of arrogance to claim that one knows “the truth” definitively and in response to this much academic literature is worded in less forthright language. As Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language”: "It is easier -- even quicker, once you have the habit -- to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think."
Education could serve the
function that Payson hoped it would, but it certainly doesn't at the
moment. I think that many social scientists are far more concerned
with the reactions of their peers in the academic world to their work than
(i) the Aristotelian, Socratic and Platonic ideas of the “Intellectual
Tradition” (that is, in short, the duty to reflect on the truth then
report it back to as many people as possible), (ii) the reaction of the
public at large, or (iii) any impact the work may have on societal
structures. There is also a large element of not wanting to upset the
Even for those academics who decide to attack authority, the rules are slightly different. Tom Lehrer is a case in point, an American satirist who mocked US institutions but was also part of them; Lehrer was a Harvard math professor. Though he pointedly attacked many of the pillars of US society he was not treated in the scandalous way that people like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were. In short, the establishment finds it easier to forgive one of its own (Jeffrey Archer anyone?).
There are many university
staff members who genuinely want to help people find the best methods of
finding things out for themselves. This is by far the most useful sort of
education. Unfortunately, there are also many who use their position to
reinforce dogma whilst claiming objectivity.
The “objectivity” lie is the first lie forced on you.
Noam Chomsky, Mellon Lecture, Loyola University, Chicago October 19, 1994,