We live in a rapidly changing world or rather two worlds: the “real” and tangible on the one hand, and the digital on the other. And on the one hand, we have an access to more information than ever before, but on the other, we have less time than ever to process the incoming information. It gives us endless opportunities, but what do we need them for if we have virtually no time to benefit from them?

When we have little time, everything must be processed, simple and easy. We are consuming fast food, fast fashion and, out of necessity, fast information. I believe that whenever we think about openness and accessibility of whatever is generated within academia, we need to remember that whomever the addressee is, she has already a lot on her plate. Whatever we share must be clear and simple. And herein lies the first risk: knowledge rarely is simple. Most of the time it is just one take on reality, generated by one of many theories of how things work in the world. But if we have a look at research-driven public talks, hardly anyone says “this is only one way of looking at things”. We are taught to present our research in terms of “this is how this works”, not “this is how it might work”. Without this attitude we would never publish in high impact journals or be invited to high impact lectures because our honesty would be simply perceived as a lack of confidence in our research. And the public does not like experts that do not ooze confidence. Why waste our precious time on someone who tells us that this is only a part of the bigger picture? We want the whole picture, and we want it now.

I think that this is the first problem with openness. We cannot really be open and honest about possible troubles with our theories and our data because someone else will happily step in and tell the public how things really are. Expertise will always lose with overt confidence, and we simply cannot help it when we decide if we should listen to someone or not.

Selling our take on reality without disclosing that it is indeed only one version and one approach, gives the public an illusion of knowing how things are. Sometimes, when one digs deeper, one finds that because this version has been so simplified, it is not even consistent with actual sources on which it has been built. For instance, let us have a look at an example from Sweden (because I am living and working here right now). In October 2018 SVT, the Swedish national public television, broadcasted an interview with Jordan B. Peterson, a professor of psychology who recently gained world-wide recognition for telling people how to live their lives. He was not the only guest – Annie Lööf, a Swedish politician, and Erlend Loe, a Norwegian writer were also invited to participate in the discussion. Now let me remove the names from the further parts of this story because it is not about Jordan B. Peterson, Annie Lööf or Erlend Loe, it’s about people, their professions and claims they are entitled to make in the public because of these professions. A professor of psychology can present a more-or-less coherent take on reality and support it with scientific sources. A politician and a writer can feel that something is not holding up, and at best relate to own experience or try to look for a hole in the professor’s reasoning. As you can probably guess, they fail to do that; but the hole is there and can be only found if one reaches out to the cited sources. The professor may, for instance, say: “What you find is, the more egalitarian the society, the more different the men and the women become”, and claim that this is because in an egalitarian society men and women simply have freedom to choose what they want to do. And because women and men have different natural inclinations, they will take on different jobs. Therefore, it is wrong to fight for equal gender distributions at workplaces.

Regardless of the last statement, which might be right or might be wrong, let’s focus on the first one: the more equal the individuals in the society, the more different the men and the women become. A source of this statement is given because, after all, it is a professor who is speaking to us. This statement comes, for instance, from this paper: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6412/eaas9899. Fine, the statement is supported by some empirical data. But claiming that this is because in an egalitarian society individuals have more freedom of choice, is another story. This second statement is uttered with the same confidence as the first and yet it shouldn’t be. If one has a look at another paper, entitled “Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures” (here: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2007-19165-013), one will find that the authors clearly state that “In summary, [they] have found that differences between men and women in their personality traits become more extreme with the increasing development of human society”, but perhaps because “In traditional and less developed countries, therefore, an average man is more like an average woman, not in terms of his social roles or value preferences, but in his basic personality tendencies to feel, think, and act in a way more comparable with women.”.

So the professor doesn’t have to be right, and yet he gives the public an impression that he is right. Paired with a politician, or with a writer, he can basically say whatever he likes and the opponent will not be able to verify his statements. I have done it only because this is what I’m paid for and what I’m trained in; otherwise I wouldn’t even give it a second thought. This lengthy example reveals another problem: gaining knowledge is not enough; a certain tool kit should come with it so we could verify what experts are saying. We need to know how to read and access the sources, how to verify the logic behind certain statements, and most of all we need to know that we are presented with one version of how the world might be.

During the second topic of #ONL191, I started to wonder why the public would even need to be aware of such problems. After all, the academic community is paid to verify such statements and not feed half-truths to the rest of society. We pay lawyers to know the law, we pay doctors so they can heal us; so what do we pay the academics for? I guess that for pushing the research forward and taking responsibility for the state of knowledge in the society. Is openness enough, and is openness even desirable? I think that there is no use in openness which opens the public discussion up for manipulation: the public has an illussion of knowing, but does not really know. Openness is desirable; but perhaps not until the academics take responsibility for own and others’ presence in the public eye.

Open or accessible?