Will it be international associations? I really hope so. Because this is a problem that can’t be delegated to governments, nor can it be crowd-sourced by citizens-at-large, nor outsourced to corporations or underfunded universities. This problem doesn’t recognize national borders, it isn’t a priority for the vast majority of media companies, and lacks its own UN agency. And as for the Big Tech players, their ubiquitous obtrusiveness is dramatically expanding the scale and urgency of the problem, not least because of their insistence that they are actually the solution!
When all is said and done, which organizations apart from associations have the in-house and frontline experience, worldwide expertise-networks, depths of curated content, quality-management systems, review processes, and the (all too often ignored) contextual understanding to take on this role?
Coming full circle
Associations have historically been loath to define themselves as society’s guarantors of knowledge and expertise, except with regard to their own narrow community. Pre-internet, without needing to push themselves forward, associations’ expertise was sought after by policymakers and trusted by the vast majority of the public. There was no need to advocate and promote this role.
Things are very different today. As Tom Nichols puts it in his book “The Death of Expertise”: “We have come full circle from a premodern age, in which folk wisdom filled unavoidable gaps in human knowledge, through a period of rapid development based heavily on specialization and expertise, and now to a post-industrial, information-oriented world where all citizens believe themselves to be experts on everything.”
The world’s accumulated cornucopia of knowledge is waiting to be plucked with the swipe of a finger or a click of the mouse. Unfortunately, it’s also waiting to be misunderstood and misused, decontextualised and disbelieved. And mixed in amongst this treasure trove there lurks an even larger agglomeration of myths, fantasies, lies and disinformation, cunningly disguised to be virtually indistinguishable. We may have generated more data in the last two years than in the entire previous history of human civilisation, but that doesn’t mean society at large is automatically getting smarter!
What can associations do to take on this societally invaluable role? Here are a few suggestions:
Encourage your Board to explicitly include this role in your Mission or advocacy strategy.
Constantly improve quality standards for your scientific papers, poster submissions, and educational products. Refuse substandard material: more is not better! And please don’t ignore replication studies in favour of novel material, currently a huge problem in many fields.
Provide dedicated platforms for objective, evidence-based, expert-led debate on new theories and disputed conclusions. Remain open to the possibility of radical new concepts (remember: Darwin’s and Einstein’s big ideas were hugely controversial for most biologists and physicists when first presented!).
Actively oppose “predatory” conference organizers and publishers, whose reckless, avaricious, quality-free business models damage the reputation of both bona-fide associations and scientific knowledge itself. It’s not enough to ignore them!
Support and promote knowledge-enhancing initiatives that don’t originate in your own organization. A great recent example is The Datalab at the University of Oxford, set up by Ben Goldacre, making huge datasets and analytical tools freely available for healthcare and scientific research.
Incorporate public awareness and education programmes into your agenda. We shouldn’t just talk with each other, often using impenetrable jargon, safe inside our bubbles; we have to reach out to wider groups of citizens, many of whom are desperate for factual, reputable, reliable knowledge, communicated clearly.
Elite association groupings
Don’t act alone! It’s vital that leading associations in specialized fields obtain expert validation from their peers in neighbouring disciplines, who may not possess identical deep specialist knowledge, but who understand related scientific fields, who can endorse the principles and practices in your certifications and curatorial processes. It’s possible that elite association groupings such as AC Forum and the Washington DC-based Healthcare Leadership Council will play a bigger role in this validation process, helping to drive up knowledge-quality standards everywhere. I predict a big growth in these peer-to-peer “circles of excellence”.
What are the roles in this undertaking that can be played by association-friendly cities such as the members of Global Association Hubs: Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC? Firstly, we can encourage and facilitate our locally-based associations to come together and advance these issues. Secondly, we provide easy access to association-aware policymakers and institutions that are open to advocacy programmes in support of these objectives. And thirdly, we are already committed to stimulating a wider debate on the big issues that will determine the relevance and future success of the entire association sector. And nothing is bigger than the struggle to reclaim the primacy of knowledge and expertise in this post-truth era.