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The objective academic activist? – Guest post by Dr. Hisham Zerriffi July 26, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, Blogathon 2008.
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This post was contributed by Dr. Hisham Zerriffi, Assistant Professor with the Liu Institute for Global Issues at The University of British Columbia.

The Objective Activist Academic?

Note: While this post is about academics and specifically some issues that we have, I think it is relevant to a more general audience. Next time you see an academic advocating a certain position, you might want to keep this post in mind in order to figure out how to evaluate what they are saying.

As an academic I work on subjects that I also care quite deeply and passionately about, as do my students. I teach in an environmental sustainability program and everyone involved from faculty to students is there because they are concerned about the state of the world and want to create some positive change. I actually came from the NGO world before moving into academia. One of the things I have struggled with and which many of the students in the program struggle with is how to engage in the issues you care passionately about when you are supposed to be this objective academic observer. That’s what this post is about. First of all, I should say that not all of my colleagues face this problem. Some of them disengage from the whole issue of advocacy, public education or policy advice. They do their work and if someone else picks it up and runs with it, great. Others, however, see the need to try to be more proactive in creating change. The students often face this dilemma when thinking about signing on to a petition (e.g. save X rainforest) or writing an op-ed or engaging in any other type of activity that could be seen as advocacy. Second, I should also note that these are my views. My colleagues may very well disagree with me.

So, what is my approach to this problem? It is to keep the following in mind:

1) When I became a scientist and then an academic, I did not give up my rights as a citizen. I have every right to engage in public debate on issues I care about, just like everyone else.

2) Recognize that there is no such thing as total objectivity. There is good research and bad research. But even the decision on what to research is not an objective one. I do the work I do because I see problems in the world that need solutions. Within that, I try to do the best research I can, but I’ve already made a judgment that this topic is an important one. You also have to recognize that the question you ask will affect how you view the data. Asking the question a different way may make you parse the data one way versus another and come up with different conclusions. Here’s an example. Back in my NGO days, I got data from a government program regarding the safety and reliability of a particular technology. The government’s analysis of the data lumped both safety and reliability together and came up with a set of conclusions. I thought that it was better to separate them and when I analyzed the disaggregated data, the picture was quite different. Both analysis were “correct” based on the question asked, but the conclusions were different.

3) Don’t let yourself be labeled or put in a box. This can be a tough one to fight, but it is necessary. I used to work on nuclear issues at my NGO. We used our analytical skills to try to reduce the risks from nuclear weapons production and to argue for a move away from nuclear weapons. Our money often came from foundations. Of course, those in the industry tried to dismiss some of our work on the basis that it was biased because it was funded by foundations that had clear objectives in this regard. Interestingly, they never questioned their research skills because they were funded by the nuclear industry or by the federal government to work on nuclear weapons. You have to try to puncture this illusion that one side of an issue is “objective” while the other is not.

4) Distinguish values from facts (my thanks to a colleague at the university for emphasizing this in recent discussions). As an academic, I am also allowed to have values and make moral judgments. If I am going to support some cause based on my moral values rather than some piece of research or evidence, that is fine. However, I have to be clear about that. You can’t make people think that Dr. So-and-So thinks this is good so therefore there must be evidence to back it up when you are basing your decision on your values. This, however, is a tricky one. People may have a problem with this, either still thinking you are basing this on your expertise or now being dismissive of you because you have lost your “objectivity.” Don’t forget, in some cases you don’t have to sign on to something as an academic. You are a person outside your academic life (though I know it can be hard to believe that sometimes, especially when in the final leg of your Ph.D.). (also see point 1).

5) Get your facts right and communicate them well. This is critically important if you want to maintain credibility. The challenge is that sometimes what you are writing has to be a brief overview of the facts without all the nuance and caveats. That’s okay as long as you don’t twist the facts or be selective about the facts in a way that skews the overall picture. You also shouldn’t ignore inconvenient facts if they are *critical* to the problem. This doesn’t mean you have to take into account every piece of evidence, no matter how minor, when writing a short piece for the public. What is important is the balance of evidence.

6) Do good research. Be careful in your work, examine alternative hypotheses, ask the questions that need to be asked and then back it up with solid analysis. If you come under attack for your views and your research is strong, you will be in a much better place to defend yourself and explain why your position is valid.

7) Do good research. See above.

7) Don’t forget to do good research. Sorry, I know it’s a tired and cliched writing device to repeat yourself in a list, but seriously, I can’t emphasize this enough. And if you are outside the research community but really interested in a topic, do your research. Both on the topic and on the researchers.

So, when you see that scientist talking about climate change or that political scientist talking about the middle east, try to bear some of this in mind. Are they making an argument based on facts or values? Are they presenting the facts truthfully and honestly? Perhaps just as importantly, bear this in mind when you see pundits and commentators discussing the research of others. Climate change “skeptics” get a lot of press despite the overwhelming evidence and number of scientists that form the consensus on this issue.

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