Business professor encourages academia to resist fake news

Wednesday, September 20, 2017 - 7:21pm

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Emma Richter/Daily

 

Many professors, researchers and academics administration in the White House have gone on record in resisting President Donald Trump’s administration’s affinity for ultra-right-wing news outlets often reporting unfounded stories.

Andrew J. Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the Ross School of Business and School for Environment and Sustainability, said it is too early to give up. Instead, he said academics can save a “post-truth” world by not shying away from politics and aggressively engaging with the public.

“Some academics just want to put their information out to the general public and not cause any commotion,” Hoffman said. “In my view, if you didn’t cause a commotion, you didn’t really challenge people’s beliefs. … If you’re saying something important, you will offend people.”

Hoffman teaches about the environment and sustainability, topics he believes have experienced major political setbacks under current administration. Trump; Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency; and many other prominent Republicans are climate skeptics, though 87 percent of scientists agree climate change is caused by human activity. Only 50 percent of the public acknowledges the same, however, and Hoffman said social media makes it easier for people to encounter fake information and propaganda.

Hoffman said he views “fake news” as a failure of academics to join public and political discourse. He argued academics need to be trained and given incentives to spread their research beyond the ivory tower, although he warned against drifting too far into punditry.

“Some schools are creating financial incentives,” Hoffman said, referencing the creation of two new public engagement awards created by the University. “I would also like to see changes in the annual review process that professors go through and the tenure and promotion process.”

Hoffman explained approaching people with terms and forms they can find familiar is crucial during public engagement. Academic jargon and intra-university pats on the back, as Hoffman says, only serve to alienate the rest of the population from scientists.

President Mark Schlissel echoed the same sentiments in a May 2015 conference that Hoffman also attended.

“If we’re perceived as being an ivory tower and talking to one another and being proud of our discoveries and our awards and our accomplishments and the letters after our names, I think in the long run the enterprise is going to suffer in society’s eyes and our potential for impact will diminish,” Schlissel said. “The willingness of society to support us will decrease.”

Hoffman also argued the ways in which scientists think about public engagement is crucial. The present-day structure of public engagement is based on what is known as the "knowledge deficit model," which starts with the presumption of “If you knew what I knew, you’d think what I think.” Hoffman said this approach works in the classroom, where students are already eager to learn, but makes professors look arrogant and widens the trust gap between them and non-academics.

“When you come into the classroom, you are an empty vessel and we in the classroom teach you information, knowledge, reasoning skills and so forth,” Hoffman said. “That works in the classroom. But the general public, they didn’t buy into that contract. And so you have to win trust and you don’t do that by lecturing. You do that by engaging.”

In addition, Hoffman cautioned that consumers also need to be wary of the information they encounter online, arguing schools need to focus more on teaching students epistemology. Citing a quote from former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Hoffman stressed the need of the common man to separate facts from the interpretation of facts: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

“I do think from a younger age, we have to start to think more critically about the information we do have, where they come from, and we develop a thoughtful, reasonable and informed knowledge base to make our decisions,” Hoffman said.

Jo Angela Oehrli, senior associate librarian at the University library system, who also teaches a course on fake news called "Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction", agreed. She asserted academia and media need to foster safe places for people with differing viewpoints to help them out of their comfort zone.

“People telling other people what the facts are isn't cutting it anymore,” Oehrli wrote in an email interview. “We need to provide opportunities for people to explore and discover facts that are new to them on their own. And we need to provide tools and critical thinking opportunities for people to figure it out on their own.”

Hoffman concluded that professors who do go out of traditional academic boundaries should be rewarded immediately so others will also be incentivized to do so. Only then can academics counter the massive influence the outsized figures can exert on Americans.

“Writing editorials for The New York Times, giving testimony in subcommittee hearings, it’s really not recognized,” Hoffman wrote. “And certainly, Donald Trump has shown us that social media is tremendously influential and we’re not rewarded for doing that either. So something’s got to give here.”

LSA senior Alvin Garcia, vice president of the Michigan Association of Communication Studies, said he shares Hoffman’s belief professors should be proactive in pushing the truth. Like Hoffman, he argued professors should not be juggling with false equivalencies and unambiguously discuss the truth even if it may bring anger from some students.

“Sometimes people don’t want to tell people they’re wrong because they don’t want to seem mean or come across as liberal or conservative,” Garcia said. “Sometimes you just have to go with the truth, and professors would have a huge benefit by doing that.”