In oral arguments during the Supreme Court’s recent case about partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin, political science research was presented to demonstrate the effects of redistricting plans on voting outcomes. In response, Chief Justice John Roberts commented that he was wary of “sociological gobbledygook,” questioning the data presented. As public figures like Roberts question expert knowledge, social scientists are increasingly concerned about public perceptions of social science research and maintaining trust between the academy, the government, and the public. Examining the relationship between experts and the public helps us understand the role of social science in the public sphere.
Some scholars have suggested that distrusting experts might be rooted in the American value of an open society that treats everyone equally. According to this explanation, people distrust social scientists –and experts in general– because they believe these experts belong to a privileged and disconnected “intellectual class.”
- Pierre Bourdieu. 1988. Homo Academicus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Richard Hofstadter. 1963. Anti-intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.
Negative views of this intellectual class matter because they lead people to think experts have hidden political biases and that they use scientific knowledge to obtain self-interested political and economic advantages. These views also affect the way people evaluate political movements and politicians.
- Neil Gross, 2013. Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Amy Binder and Kate Wood. 2013. Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Matthew Motta. 2017. The Dynamics and Political Implications of Anti-Intellectualism in the United States. American Politics Research.
Social scientists are looking for strategies that could help them bridge the gap between their research and the public, and some recommend social scientists get involved in the public sphere. A study of academic credibility among college students found that students often view faculty who work in the public sphere as more credible because of their perceived personal commitment to the broader community.
- Timothy L. O’Brien and Oren Pizmony-Levy. 2016. “Going Public, Gaining Credibility: Student Perceptions of Publicly Engaged Scholars.” Sociological Perspectives 59(2): 246-269.