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How can universities resist populism?

Marianna Koli | December 1, 2016

The reputation of expert knowledge has taken a battering this year, as the English-speaking world announced it had “had enough of experts“. Many academics have been thinking hard about why respect for university research, even university education, appears to be in decline. Why do many voters seem to prefer to believe attractive false promises?

A disconnect between academics and the general public has opened up. The intelligent solution is not to retreat further into our respective bubbles or maintain anger between the groups, but to understand why the largely sensible messages produced by academics get garbled along the way to the general public – and how we might be able to keep the messages clear all the way through.

Here’s a recent example. The chart below tries to get (and has got) maximum attention with a scary headline and simple graph that purports to answer a key question: “Do most people still support democracy?”. We are led to believe that most people now don’t support democracy, and the young support it least of all.


The sensationalistic further headlines followed.

The New York Times tweeted: “New research suggests that Western democracy may be seriously ill”.

An Oxford academic called it “The scariest chart nobody knows about.”

There are problems with these interpretations. Many of the problems are discussed in the academic paper, but the audience of the academic paper will be but a tiny fraction of the New York Times’s 32 million Twitter followers and all of the followers of those who retweet and share that chart.

And crucially, most of the Twitter followers don’t have the expertise to go back to the original paper and check the details. It is usually a journalist, blogger, or think tank analyst, rather than the academic, who massages the academic message into a public one. We all rely on those people for all the information that we are not personally equipped to analyse from scratch.

In this chart, there is a basic communication mistake stemming from most people’s inability to interpret raw survey findings correctly. When responding to the survey, the respondent had to give a “10” on a 10-point scale in order to end up as a “friend of democracy” on this chart. It’s a well-known fact of survey design that most people avoid using the extreme scores (0 and 10) when responding to surveys (known as “central tendency bias”: link, link).

Statistically, most of the people who were shocked by this chart would probably not themselves have responded with a “10” on the survey.

If academics don’t communicate their own findings clearly, a journalist, blogger, or analyst might do it for them. Most times, that communication will be done inaccurately and won’t match the academic findings.

Academics themselves can contribute by, for example, distributing their findings on social media platforms, or writing accessible pieces for mass media publications. However, that is not enough: we also need to work on the ability of the middlemen to reproduce the content accurately.

One major education gap in Britain is the variety and breadth of education given to those who dedicate their lives to social commentary. To comment on politics, it is not enough to know political science; one must also appreciate economic constraints and know political rhetoric. To comment on economics, one must understand not only how an economic forecast is born, but how audiences handle conflicting economic messages, and how to present a complex finding without being ignored. A good analyst of society can also sniff out the cultural undercurrents that are resonating at any given moment, and tailor his or her message to those trends to make it heard.

Today’s public information is not only produced in a rapidly increasing pool of expert analysis, but also reproduced in multifaceted ways, through interactive news media and the rise of user-generated content. To match these trends in the media, and ensure that our communication is as effective as it can possibly be, we must embrace the new networks. We must resist fiercely the idea that the modern production of knowledge only involves top-down communication from expert to public.

The education of any societal analyst should aim to produce people who can handle the whole chain of information production, from understanding survey design and basic statistics, all the way to communicating findings in a public-appropriate, savvy, culturally informed way.

My institution has a new project in the pipelines to make our contribution to better academic communication. I’m excited. Stay tuned.

Marianna Koli

Head of Faculty for Economics