How do we learn what’s true?

Narrative fluency and the pedagogy of information

Narrative Fluency in Higher Education

Should academics reach out or turn inward?

Those who advocate for media literacy and critical thinking in K–12 champion intellectual diversity, but in the previous section we saw how their curriculum actually herds students toward mainstream narratives. We see a similar misalignment of goals and outcomes in higher education, where reforms aimed at upholding “complexity” discourage ambitious intellectual projects.

For better or worse, we assume college freshmen can make basic distinctions between facts and opinions. Movements in higher education invoke larger moral concerns about how we frame questions and apply facts and methodologies in answering them. Academic specialization and public scholarship are two examples of trends that seek to escape the word-against-word debates characteristic of high-school pedagogy. But the way they clamor after factual and moral certainties, we can detect the same epistemological stridency. What scholars care about most of all is scholarship.

Specialization

Each fall, the various academic fields bear a new crop of … subfields. I remember premed students at my undergrad enumerating the pros and cons of a doing a degree in human biology as opposed to just biology. My sister studied biogeochemistry, which is what you get when you take ecology and add math. When it comes to academic research, precise scholarly units like these make confident conclusions about the phenomena they study. But the same narrowness that grants them certainty also helps them dodge the big, tough questions that exist prior to academic departments—the very questions we depend on scholars to answer.

The work of the historian: arranging facts into narrative. CU Boulder Libraries via Flickr

Let’s focus on the discipline of history, which has been fragmented by specialization and is now having second thoughts. Today’s research historians tend to work with relatively narrow date ranges, small geographic regions, and tight demographic foci. This trend, called microhistory, answers to a statistical suspicion about grand narratives. Unlike historians in Marxist, feminist, and other ideological traditions, who sought patterns in the historical record, microhistorians argue that history is a Brownian process: technically determinist, but far too complex to assess meaningfully. Thus, we need to zoom in. A typical microhistory might examine the impact of a given subsidy on a local farming community or a neighborhood church’s liturgical practices before and after a regime change. For microhistorians, the unit of research ought to be small enough to discern individual collisions among people, actions, and places, lest we get distracted by random patterns in the noise.

Recently, macrohistory (with an a) has staged a comeback. A new generation of academics has come to question microhistory’s political agnosticism, and the average dissertation’s timespan is widening again. Moreover, thanks to new technologies and data-processing techniques, historians are learning to make their work more relevant. History departments have surrendered their loyalty to the tightly-reasoned 80,000-word thesis and are asking their PhD students to code websites, produce documentaries, and compile digital archives. The recrudescence of the long term earns a warm welcome from historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage, who argue that the problem with microhistory is that parochial histories of moments and places fail to answer meaningful historical questions.4

Asked why things turn out the way they do, microhistory can only throw its hands in the air and say, “It’s a snarl of conflicting forces.” Forget Howard Zinn: Alex Jones will gladly bring a machete down on this Gordian knot. His narratives, if bullshit, at least satisfy our desire for explanations.

The work of history is to fish whys and hows from the ocean of facts. When historians shy away from this task, they hand their audience over to malevolent actors who will entertain them with facile, seductive arguments about how history “really” plays out. The same can be said of increasing specialization in other academic fields.

Talented researchers who chase narrow certainties leave it to ignorant pundits to answer the big questions. How can we ensure that smart people receive some airtime, too? One group of academics argues that the title of PhD confers a responsibility to educate the public.

Public Scholarship

Historians’ use of technology to upgrade their field’s popular standing exemplifies a push for public scholarship across all disciplines. Against stereotypes of aloof professors who rest on the laurels of tenure, a cohort of progressive academics argues that knowledgeable people must mobilize against bad-faith narratives. And why shouldn’t they? Democracy works best when the public is well-informed. However, the intellectual compromises academics inevitably make in their efforts at outreach raise doubts about the promises of public scholarship.

With CNN-ready congeniality, grad students affiliated with USC’s Korean Studies Institute discuss their research.

Public scholarship looks different in every field. My university’s music school hosted a community-outreach program through which students performed educational concerts in local public schools (I participated). The law school let third-years substitute an internship at a law firm for an elective course. And the international-relations department put grad students through mock TV interviews, coaching them to answer expansive questions about foreign policy in soundbite-sized paragraphs.

Public scholarship feels most urgent in the sciences, where researchers seeking to dispel fake news have been (re)learning to write for general readers about climate, health, and biology. For example, in 2018, a group of geneticists at the University of Copenhagen identified a statistical relationship between certain genetic signals and racial subgroups. The lead author of their article, Fernando Racimo, knew that white nationalist groups like to cite such studies in diatribes about “race realism,” so he preempted the disinformation campaign by uploading a Google doc summarizing the research and disclaiming such interpretations. His goal was to ensure journalists wouldn’t omit the relevant hedges in their reporting on the study. To the joy of the public-scholarship caucus, Racimo’s strategy worked. After the researchers’ findings were announced, journalists referenced Racimo’s primer and included paragraphs in their stories debunking shoddy racial science.5

But was Racimo’s case the norm or the exception? We must credit his campaign’s success in part to the novelty of the gesture: journalists found Racimo’s Google doc—his rejection of scholarly indifference—more newsworthy than the underlying research. Other public-scholarship initiatives have not been so successful. Take a look at The Conversation, a website designed to help academics communicate their research to a nonspecialist audience. Its articles are worded precisely, hedged carefully, and eminently boring. Browsing the website’s comments, one senses that most of its traffic comes from academics and nerds with expired university library credentials—people like you and me, not the typical voter. The Conversation makes a poor example of public scholarship because it caters to people who already value scholarship. And conversation, for that matter.

Pop cartography: an 1893 map, complete with Biblical citations, depicts a nonspherical Earth. Orlando Ferguson via Library of Congress (check out the 322.5 MB TIFF version, too)

The mark of successful public scholarship isn’t whether it impresses other public scholars, but whether it changes the minds of regular people. And as savvy envirosci grads know, to win skeptics over to the reality of anthropogenic climate change, academics must speak in a lower register and save the p-values for their colleagues. While some scholars possess both the endurance and charisma to instruct the general public in complexity, on average, facile narratives ring truer to human ears.6 Thus, before we drag academics’ lackluster writing chops, we must confront the possibility that academic conclusions—“assuming that,” “in some circumstances,” “given our current knowledge”—are necessarily deficient in the intuitive generalizations lay readers desire.

Because most people are not very smart, public scholarship involves drawing compromises between intellectual honesty and general accessibility: you can dumb down your results and score more converts, or you can persist in fussy academic uncertainty and pray for an angel journalist to see your hedged prose clearly. Academics believe more in the methodologies of their colleagues than the reading-comprehension skills of journalists, so they’ve favored the latter approach (The Conversation is an example). But if the advocates of public scholarship pursued their actual goal—winning the public over to academic consensus—they’d exploit the same cognitive cheat codes beloved by the purveyors of disinformation across the aisle. We’d have memes depicting napalm-tinged climate Armageddon and schools shuttered for good by measles outbreaks.

We’re right back to where we started. It seems that no matter how earnestly we try to redesign pedagogy in a way that protects truth and rejects deception, such concepts as media literacy, critical thinking, and public scholarship force us to choose one system of truth-telling or another. They reproduce the very power structures they seek to dismantle.

  1. Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

  2. Fernando Racimo, Jeremy J. Berg and Joseph K. Pickrell, “Detecting Polygenic Adaptation in Admixture Graphs,” Genetics 208, no. 4 (April 1, 2018): 1565–84 is the original genetic study. “Detecting Polygenic Adaptation in Admixture Graphs: Frequently Asked Questions,” Google Docs, uploaded May 12, 2017, is Racimo’s primer for general readers.

    For an example of a journalist who heeded Racimo’s recommendation of taking a cautious tone in reporting on his research findings, see Amy Harmon, “Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed),” The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2018.

  3. See Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2018), chap. 17 and Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), chap. 19 on the allure of narrative.