Are Academic Scholars “Lost to the Academy”? A Call for More Public Intellectuals in the Climate Change Debate


To a large degree, the public is scientifically illiterate. And that illiteracy is driving the social debate over climate change, much to the dismay of physical and social scientists around the world. Consider this interesting and disturbing pair of facts:

  1. A survey by the California Academy of Sciences shows that the majority of the U.S. public is unable to pass even a basic scientific literacy test and the National Science Foundation reports that two-thirds of Americans do not clearly understand the scientific process.
  2. A survey by The Carsey Institute at UNH found that 83% of respondents reported a “great deal” or “moderate” understanding of climate change issues.

While Americans tend to have a strong confidence in their technical and scientific understanding of climate change, data proves otherwise.

According to the California Academy of Sciences, only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun; only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time; only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth's surface that is covered with water; and only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

Knowledge about some key scientific issues is also low. Despite the fact that access to fresh water is likely to be one of the most pressing environmental issues over the coming years, less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet's water is fresh (the correct answer is 3%). Nearly half didn't even hazard a guess.

A Dangerous Situation

We live in an age when scientific issues permeate our social, economic, and political culture. People must be educated on science and the scientific process if we are to make rational and informed decisions that affect our future – a well functioning democracy requires it.

The relative absence of academics and academic scholarship in the public discourse creates a vacuum into which uninformed, wrong, and downright destructive viewpoints get voiced and take hold. For example, conservative pundit, Rush Limbaugh, argued after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that: "The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there… It's natural. It's as natural as the ocean water is."

The Role of Academics in Public Discourse

Academics and academic scholarship must play a greater role in public discourse, business decision-making, and policy development. We need another Carl Sagan, someone who can take complex scientific ideas and make them understandable. We need someone who can present this information in way that recognizes both the scientific models that are developed and the cultural underpinnings that cause people to accept or reject them. Science is never socially or politically inert (especially in today’s politically polarized environment); scientists have a duty to both recognize its impact on society and communicate that impact to those who must live with the consequences.  

And yet, much of the work of physical and social scientists remains within the pages of academic journals that, with the exception of select consultants (who profit from their ability to translate this work), few practitioners will ever read. Valuable knowledge is left on the academic table and fails to reach the attention of policy-makers and the public that need it desperately.

Lost to the Academy...

Why is this so? New York Times commentator David Brooks captured the nature of the problem when he was asked on a National Public Radio broadcast if he thought any current scholars might have the same influence as mid-twentieth century intellectual, Reinhold Niebuhr.  He replied,

“ favorite period of American social science is the period roughly between '55 and '65. And this was a period when you had a series of public intellectuals who were not lost in academic disciplines, but who are much higher-brow than your average journalist... the milieu that created these big daring public intellectuals just isn't there right now.”

Today’s scientists are indeed “lost to the Academy.” The role of the “public intellectual” that David Brooks refers has become an arcane and elusive option for today’s academic scholar. As he says, the milieu that created them in the 50s and 60s just doesn’t exist today.  The failure of this milieu begins with training in doctoral programs and continues through professional development where the constant immersion in academic seminars and journals to the exclusion of practitioner seminars, meetings, and journals serves to weaken literacy in the languages of the public, economic, and political domain.

A recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford found that of the 244 individuals quoted in news stories following the UN Copenhagen climate summit, only 4% were scientists.. Another study in Organizations & Environment found that, of the nearly 750 editorials and letters to the editor written for major newspapers and magazine between 2007 and 2009, only 9% were written by academy-based scientists. And still another study in the Journal of Management Inquiry found that the top 30 journals in management and business published only 40 articles on climate change between 1970 and 2006; the top 30 sociology journals, the same number, and the top 30 political science outlets, only 11.


Theory Fetish

Scientists limit involvement in such “outside” activities because tenure and promotion is based primarily on the publication of top-tier academic journal articles. And the metric of quality in a large number of top-tier journals is theoretical rigor, not empirical relevance. We, at least in the field of management, have a theory fetish!  Publishing in public journals, writing trade books, speaking at policy conferences, and even serving on government panels are discouraged as “anti-intellectual” at worst and an “impractical” waste of time at best . In the end, the system of near-term incentives for young academics is perverse, not only for the ultimate interests of the individual scholar and for the potency and relevance of the field, but also for society, which is harmed by the absence of critical, rigorous, data driven voices for informing and resolving the climate debate.

Signs of Change

But there are signs that this model of scholarly isolation is changing.  Some academic leaders have begun to call for more engagement within the public arena.  Michael Burawoy has been calling for “public sociology” as a way to invigorate the discipline. Highlighting “four types of knowledge: professional, critical, policy, and public” as a template for divergent individual careers.

Similarly within the field of management, there are critical calls from both outside and inside the field  for more work that balances “rigor and relevance,” pointing out that the continued disconnect between work that has direct linkages to real world problems in favor of work that only extends theory, leaves the field impotent and in danger of increasing irrelevance in the world.  And individual scholars have begun to take steps to break the dominant model of scholarship.  There is noted to be an increasing trend in “problem-based research,” work that draws on theoretical principles in its examination of problems as phenomena.

In my view, few contemporary issues warrant critical analysis by problem-focused researchers more than environmental sustainability issues, and particularly climate change. It has import, not only for the future of our natural world, but also for the future of our economy which is based upon it.  And this work must encompass all disciplines in examining both the scientific basis for defining the problem and the economic and policy basis for developing solutions.

Overlaying each of these domains is a critical need for more sociological, cultural and cognitive research to understand the basis by which people either accept or reject the problem and solution statements.  We need to take all this knowledge and train emerging scholars in the skills and techniques of science and risk communication.  We need to develop a new generation of scholars for which the role of public intellectual is not an anachronism.

What's at stake?

If we don’t do this, the climate change debate will devolve into a “logic schism” where the ideological extremes of the debate dominate the conversion and the solution space disappears into a rhetorical shouting match over a falsely dichotomous presentation of the science. Much like the abortion debate, we can already see signs of the two sides talking past each other, seeking only information that confirms their position and disconfirms the other; even demonizing the other.

Surveys show that the percentage of conservatives and Republicans who believe that the effects of global warming have already begun to happen declined from roughly 50% in 2001 to about 30% in 2010 while the corresponding percentage of liberals and Democrats increased from roughly 60% in 2001 to about 70% in 2010.  Other surveys show that, overall, belief in climate change has declined in the American public from 71% to 57% between April 2008 and October 2009.   The issue is becoming mired in the partisanship of today’s so called “culture wars.”  We must stop this slide.  There is simply too much at stake for knowledgeable academic scholars to sit on the sidelines.

In the end, one of the ultimate, sad ironies about the climate change debate may be that many of the physical and social scientists that can help generate greater understanding on the many facets of the issue would turn down such opportunities because they must write a few more arcane scholarly articles to satisfy their tenure and promotion committees.

About the Author

Andrew Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, with joint appointments at the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan.  He is also the Director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.

  • Thomas Manaugh

    Mr. Hamann:

    I agree, more input from scientists on public forums would help.  Another help would be more focus on solutions.  Presently, scientists are focused on documenting evidence that global warming is happening and what its effects will be.  Climate deniers might be in denial in part because there seems to be not much hope to stop global warming and its effects — e.g., global sea level rise.

    The west slope of Antarctica is ground zero for concern about significant, rapid sea level rise because of melting of the southern polar ice cap, where 80% of the Earth’s glacier ice is stored. A very ambitious and action-oriented proposal is offered at for how melting of ice in Antarctica could be slowed. The proposed solution would be extraordinarily costly, but the costs would be smaller than the ultimate price of inaction. If every nation in the world would accept global warming as an existential threat, solutions could be implemented that are commensurate with the threat. A budget of $2 trillion per year (approximately what is spent on wars and military preparedness) would do the job. See–Energy-Island-a-Solution-to-Global-Warming.html for an update on the feasibility of an ocean-based solution to global warming that uses proven technologies.