Does anyone else remember when the US was known for being a highly innovative country? Sure, we’re not the only one, but some great stuff has come out of here in the past couple hundred years, inventions that have changed the world. There’s a reason we have forever attracted the best and brightest to our universities and our corporations. Nikola Tesla didn’t choose this place for nothing. We used to be really good at engineering. We also used to be really good at science and art, for that matter. As individuals, we still are, but as a society, I don’t think we can say that anymore.
I’ve read probably a hundred articles, from every type of source, about the mentality that brought our world to things like Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, and the one common thread is distrust of experts. Say what you will about why that is, but it’s virtually undeniable that it’s happening. I remember growing up, being taught that when you really want to know about something, you ask someone with a PhD in it. I grew up in a university town. People with PhD’s were everywhere. It wasn’t uncommon to get help on your economics assignment from a friend of your parents, who just happened to be a Professor Emeritus on the subject. You weren’t going to win the science fair any given year without enlisting the help of a grad student to proof read your paper for style, or even to give ideas on methodology. Where I come from, we trust experts. Call it millennial disillusionment if you have to, but I always expected that when I grew up and became a subject matter expert, people would trust me when it came to my field. It isn’t that I want to have the last word on all things road and bridge related. Everybody knows that doesn’t exist anyway. It’s that I want people to understand that maybe, just maybe, a person who has published research on a subject knows more about that subject than someone who googled a few conspiracy theory articles.
That’s the world we live in, though. Google makes people overestimate their knowledge on subjects, for profit universities are rampant, and quality education is so far out of reach to so many that our society has, in large part, convinced itself that it isn’t worth it anyway. They seem to figure that those of us who have attained it are so far out of touch with the “real” people (Everyone thinks their group is the real people) that we’re really not worth listening to at all. As a group, we have no idea what to do with this. I’ve read articles about how to deal with people who just don’t care about facts or research, and not one has had a real solution to the problem. How can we reach these people when we are on two different planes? I don’t have an answer to that question.
What I do know is that every time a harmful regime has taken over any country, anti-intellectualism was one of their most powerful weapons, and like it or not, about 25% of our country elected one hell of an anti-intellectual government. (I don’t just mean the president. Have you seen Congress lately?!) These people love that Average America distrusts experts. It means that when those experts say of any given policy they propose, “Hey, guys, this is a really bad idea because [insert well researched reason here]. Call your representatives and tell them you won’t vote for them again if they pass it.” The voters respond, “You clueless academic! You don’t know my life!” and the politicians screw the people once again. Anti-intellectualism is more effective than just about anything else when it comes to getting horrible laws passed that don’t benefit the people in the slightest. By disempowering everyone who knows enough to discredit their ideas, the politicians leave the people with nobody to listen to but themselves, and to some extent, low information news sources.
We are seeing a lot of results of this lately. Here are a few:
-The National Endowment For The Arts is likely closing. It will take NPR and PBS with it, in addition to countless grants that people rely on to fund their work. -Research fellows in climate science and water resources are losing funding for their work. -The government is refusing to answer questions from the press. -All reference to climate change has been removed from White House web pages. -There are proposed cuts to government agencies that are vital to engineering, such as the Department of Transportation.
This is scary. As a member of the STEM community, an engineer who relies on climate scientists and water resources engineers to advise me so that I can design effectively, the uncertainty of what the next four years (at least) will hold, never leaves my mind. In light of this, we have to act mindfully, and all of us who are in the business of innovation, information, or anything related (yes, that includes art!) have a huge responsibility right now.
Journalist friends, when you are in a press conference, and one of your colleagues does not get their question answered, you ask it again for them, and the next person after you ask it again, and the person after them, until it is either answered, or you get to document photographically that you were all thrown out without a single question answered, and the people can see for themselves what is going on. I know this repeating tactic works because female engineering students have been using similar tactics to be heard in hostile lecture halls for as long as anyone can remember. Do what every female engineer has known to do since the beginning, and back your colleagues up, loudly.
Everybody, support your artist friends who are losing their funding at an alarming rate. Buy their work. Don’t be that jerk who asks them to do things for free. Pay for quality. Buy local. You always thought your friend made the prettiest paintings? Now is the time to buy one. You’re getting married and need music? Your friend plays the violin? Connect the dots. Make donations to your local folk life center, community art education organization, or community theater. We have a responsibility to preserve our national artistic heritage, and this comes down, in large part, to voting with our dollars. Vote for your artist friends’ success, and with it, our nation’s cultural heritage.
Scientist friends and engineer friends, we are the guardians of data. Keep it safe. Yes, most of us are working under intellectual property agreements that mean our work belongs to whoever signs our paychecks, but at the end of the day, we discovered or created these things, and without breaking any agreements, we can do quite a lot to make sure they’re not lost. Save things in multiple locations. Publish internationally as well as in the US. Your facts are your facts. Nothing can take any of that away. Even if it seems like nobody is listening to us anymore, someday they will, and when that day comes, we will need our research and designs more than ever.
Teacher friends, tell the truth. I don’t mean spread biased political opinions. I mean teach evolution. Teach climate change. Teach art. Teach that all of these things are important because a society is not a society without them. Our children are looking to all of us, but they particularly like you, so you have to do this for their good.
More than anything, we need to check in with each other. This isn’t going to be easy. All of us who are in the information and innovation business are feeling threatened right now, and we have to support each other in any way we can. Speak truth, guard information, support what is real. I don’t know what else we can do.