Readers want academic expertise

From The Bookseller:

In May of this year, SAGE publishing took a step that was part gamble, part experiment. As discussions over lockdown policies dominated the global conversation, Professor Stephen Reicher emerged as one of the most authoritative voices in the field, through his work with the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (or as we call it, ‘the other SAGE’). Reicher was a contributor to Together Apart: The Psychology of Covid-19, a book we had originally scheduled for publication in October. 

We took the decision to release a free, uncorrected proof of the book on the community site, Social Science Space, with the aim of prioritising the public’s need to know the facts, where politics so often seeks to camouflage and obscure. To date, the manuscript has been accessed over 48,000 times.

The widespread take up of an academic publication was gratifying, but it confirmed what we’d suspected at SAGE: in an age of memes and misinformation, there’s a huge countering hunger for books that are serious, in-depth and written and produced by, yes, experts.

In recent years trade publishers have seen massive success with the likes of Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens, Tim Harford’s How to Make the World Add Up, and Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. These are serious books tackling big systemic issues and drawing on academic expertise. 

It is thought in some circles that accessible, trade publishing and academic rigour don’t mix: in academic publishing, there is a wariness of the “X changed the world” (Cod; Christianity, Spanish Flu); academia can be seen by trade publishers as narrowly focused, overcomplicated and, as a result, lacking in commerciality. 

But there is no real reason why complexity should be sacrificed to accessibility. 

. . . .

Academic expertise has rarely been so important or so devalued as it is today. The world’s leading experts on the most pressing issues of our time are often overlooked, or thought of as hidden in journals and academic studies. 

Now is the time for publishers to do their bit to surface research and expertise that can explain, define and even change society for the better. We must take seriously our role in fighting misinformation and not under-estimate the public’s appetite for well-researched, grounded content. Crucially, we must seek and amplify diverse voices, so that we can understand the nuances of society from all angles and viewpoints. 

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG will be happy to read any thoughts visitors to TPV care to share.

However, PG’s initial response to the idea described OP was not terribly positive.

In PG’s perception, at least in the United States, over the past few decades, academics seem to have become more and more of a political monoculture.

This might not be important if, also over the past few decades, almost everything has become political.

For example, some books, essays, etc., that were once considered to be provocative have, at least in some academic settings, become verboten. Some commonly-used terms and phrases of 50 years ago are now racist, sexist or some other type of -ist.

If something or someone (dead or alive) becomes any type of -ist, that person, book, theory, idea, poem, song, etc., must not only condemned, but removed – if not destroyed, it must be hidden away where, like a cobra, it can only be approached by trained experts in protective clothing.

As one example, PG will mention a poem, The Congo, subtitled A Study of the Negro Race, by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931).

PG read/performed The Congo for a class assignment during the Bronze Age. He recalls including in his introduction a note that Lindsay was a man of his time and used terms that were common when he lived, but not regarded as acceptable any more.

The first words of The Congo, in a section Lindsay titled, I. Their Basic Savagery, will provide a sense of some of the language Lindsay used:

Fat Black Bucks in a wine-barrel room

The poem elaborates on this theme in America, then changes locations to Africa, The Congo, to be specific and depicts a primitive and violent culture.

The third section of the poem – III. The Hope of Their Religion – begins with a depiction of an African-American Christian minister calling his congregation to repentance, urging them to change from their evil and unchristian ways.

The scene then changes back to a vision of the Congo and depicts the influence of Christianity on its people:

And the gray sky opened like a new-rent veil
And showed the apostles with their coats of mail.

The vision expands further, describing a wonderful and redemptive change among the former savages:

Then along that river-bank, a thousand miles,
The vine-snared trees fell down in files.
Pioneer angels cleared the way
For a Congo paradise, for babes at play,
For sacred capitals, for temples clean.
Gone were the skull-faced witch-men lean.
There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
A million boats of the angels sailed
With oars of silver, and prows of blue
And silken pennants that the sun shone through.
‘Twas a land transfigured, ’twas a new creation,
Oh, a singing wind swept the Negro nation;

PG thinks he has a good idea of what would happen to him today if he performed the same poem for a classroom full of college students and a professor who had fainted shortly after the beginning of the performance.

So what do we do with what was, in its time, an enlightened literary depiction of the possibilities a white man foresaw for an African-American population in the United States that had been freed from slavery, but were still regarded by many as a sub-human race?

From a history-of-American-poetry perspective, Lindsay was also was one of the first writers who wrote singing poetry, poetry meant to be sung or chanted. Ironically, singing poetry, sometimes called praise song, is one of the most common forms of poetry in Sub-Saharan Africa and often includes a religious theme.

PG has included three videos, one, a very old recording of Vachel Lindsay performing The Congo (it’s 5 minutes plus long, but you’ll get the idea pretty quickly) and two short videos of the performance of modern African praise poets.

4 thoughts on “Readers want academic expertise”

  1. We have recent examples showing the folks who call themselves experts don’t know much.

    For years, the experts told us there could be no peace between the Israelis and Arabs until the Palestinian question was settled. This was an almost universal doctrine championed for years by experts and academics. Some even wrote books about it.

    However, now we see peace treaties between Israel and the Emirates without a Palestinian settlement. Bahrain then joined up. Neither could have done that without the blessing of Saudi Arabia.

    Staying in the area, the withdrawal of US troops from the Syrian border was confidently predicted by the experts to be a disaster that would lead to a large war. What happened? Nothing.

    And finally, in the same area, the experts said moving the US embassy to Jerusalem would lead to widespread unrest and war. Experts wrong again.

    This kind of thing makes experts very angry.

    • I don’t think Americans in general give two cents where our embassy in Israel is. Except the ones who think this means the end of the world is nigh because of it.

      It must have inconvenienced an enormous number of people in the process of moving.

  2. Readers want information.
    Not “authoritative voices” telling them what to think.

    I agree with PG that anything coming out of the ivory towers today needs to be examined critically for bias and not-so hidden agenda.

    Monoculture has long been decried by academics when it comes to software but apparently it is fine when it comes to enforcing the orthodoxy of the day. Cancel culture didn’t come out of nowhere after 2016; the kneejerk rejection of new ideas and demonization of challengers to the “accepted status quo” has long been the default in the Ivory Towers. Examples abound of “heretics” being proven correct…eventually.

    Most notably, Clarke’s First Law:
    “When a distinguished, but elderly, scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

    These days skepticism is a survival trait.

  3. I think we are stretching the OP a little far and misconstruing opinion with fact and expertise. More pointedly, the OP says:

    “This enables the reader to firstly understand the current literature, and secondly, to gain an insight into some recommendations by a prominent expert in the field.”

    IMO, what they are really talking about is someone who can curate what’s out there, can communicate it well, and does so with the intent of increasing understanding. It doesn’t say you’ll agree with them, or that you’ll follow their recommendations, but rather that you’ll understand it and be able to respond on evidence and fact, not because you don’t like which political party they voted for…

    To me, the desire in the info age is for someone to be able to explain stuff in a way that it is understood, without the reader having to self-curate 1000s of articles, worry about the bias or evidence base in each one, sift through the chaff to find the wheat. We are all overwhelmed by the deluge of information and misinformation…if anyone offers a reliable curation of what’s out there, and does it well, people tend to flock to them.

    It is, after all, why many of us follow TPG, isn’t it? Or someone like Mike Shatzkin or The Data Guy or Kristine Kathryn Rusch? Because they see the sea and distill it down to a fine spirit that we can drink?

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