Communicating with the public: absent-minded professors and the Latin Mass

latin mass absent01

Lately I’ve been thinking about how academic ideas affect (or don’t affect) public policy.  One of my favorite sources that tries to connect the public with academic thought is The Conversation.  In its own words, The Conversation “is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.  Our team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public.”

I’m not so sure ‘unlock’ works as a verb. Let me try out some ideas on you, dear reader.

The Latin Mass theory: One interpretation is that experts keep their knowledge away from the public by locking it up behind jargon, equations, and all of the other things academics use to communicate with one another. The wider public shakes the lock, tries the knob, but can’t get in.  Further, scholars have few incentives to open the door because tenure, promotion, and prestige depend on the keeping the mystery going.  This is Steven Pinker’s view (see Why Academic Writing Stinks) and can be alleviated in part by changing the incentives specialists face.

I call this the Latin Mass theory because this is the reason I hear most often when Catholics tell me that they miss the old ways of doing things.  It was beautiful and mysterious!  Stop by an economics or mathematics seminar at a research university and you’ll hear the same phrase.

The Absent-minded Professor theory: Another reading is that experts are bound up in their ivory towers and need help getting out. That is, academics want to communicate with the public but don’t know how to do it.  They’re like Jerry Lewis or Fred MacMurray: brilliant but clueless when it comes to connecting with real human beings.

The solution is to develop the right skills among scholars: teach them how to translate their findings into plain language, learn to tell stories instead of drawing diagrams.  Two programs at Stony Brook University take this approach: Naomi Wolf’s project, “The Public Intellectual,” and Alan Alda’s work on communicating scientific findings (now enshrined in the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.)

I think these theories are complementary and together explain much of why academic work, generally, and policy analysis, in particular, seem to not enter the general public’s consciousness. However, I think both of these theories describe the supply side of the problem.  They assume that if we just get the knowledge out there in a tasty and nutritious fashion a hungry public will eat up.

I don’t think that’s the case.  That is, do politicians who oppose free trade really want to learn why their arguments might be wrong?  Are pundits who wax eloquently about the virtues of free markets interested in understanding how markets work well in some cases but badly in others?  I doubt it.

There’s plenty of work to do on the supply side of getting policy findings into the hands of those who need them, but we’ve also got to think hard about how to get people inside and outside of government to want them.