In my last post, I asked whether it was a threat to academia for academics to make a concerted effort to engage the public with their work.
Tamara Piety had a thoughtful response (see here). She made a number of interesting points about the value of reaching out to non-academics and of risking being wrong. As she explained, “I think the argument that speaking to the general public somehow undermines your scholarly credentials is often just used as a weapon to try to intimidate and silence those with novel ideas (or ones the critic disagrees with).”
Overall, I think Tamara and I are in agreement that the benefits of academics striving to translate their research for a popular audience are worth the (not insignificant) costs. (I, or course, welcome comments from those who disagree!)
But what about mind scientists and legal scholars who go beyond penning blog posts, magazine articles, and books to actually lobbying for changes (to the legal system or elsewhere), testifying as experts in court cases, or working for corporations eager to increase profits.
Certainly, there is a long history of those interested in human psychology working with marketers and advertisers. (Indeed, reading over an old issue of the Monitor on Psychology this weekend, I was reminded of the efforts of Edward L. Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, on behalf of Lucky Strike to convince women to smoke.) On a different note, psychologists and law professors were instrumental, back in 1999, in producing an 8,000-word national guide for the U.S. Department of Justice on collecting and preserving eyewitness evidence. And, just last week, the Washington Post had a story on how Emory’s Drew Westen has taken on a more formal role advising Democrat leaders in the Senate and House in anticipation of the fall elections.
Should we think about these activities differently than we think about writing for a popular audience? What is it that makes us uncomfortable in certain cases—the possibility that money might alter judgments; that consumers, voters, or juries might be manipulated? Isn’t it beneficial to have people with actual expertise exercising more real world decision-making authority?
* * *
To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Heart, Brain, or Wallet…How Do You Vote?,” “Drew Westen on the Political Brain, Part I, and Part II,” “Your Brain on Politics,” “The Century of Dipositionism – Part I, Part II, and Part III,” “Mass Marketing,” and “Deep Capture – Part VII.”