We live in times when “truth” is becoming increasingly relative and where the highest political levels in several countries wish to use “alternative facts.” When the scientific community, after many years of discussions and virtually unanimously, has come to the conclusion that we have man-made, ongoing climate change, political forces intend to suppress the dissemination of this knowledge or question it by simply stating that they do not believe that there is any connection between our daily human activities and the global climate. This is an example of what is going on at this moment.
We also live in a time where the free movement of people and ideas is becoming increasingly limited. Researchers, our members, are no longer able to travel freely in the world to places of their choice in order to exchange views and arguments face-to-face. In Turkey, journalists and academics have been detained or dismissed to an extent not equalled in any other country in the world. Every day, journalists, university teachers and researchers perform the basic operations that underpin an open and democratic society. The media’s ability to report is limited or ridiculed by governments, even in democratic countries such as Poland, Hungary and the USA.
The newly-elected President of the United States has put an end to government agencies communicating new research to the public until new managers are appointed to approve what may be said. Researchers at the US Government are now working frantically to save scientific documentation for posterity fearing that politically-sensitive knowledge and materials will become subject to a dissemination ban or simply be destroyed. In Canada, researchers employed in government agencies have long been saddled with a type of gag order. (Clarification: the situation in Canada for researchers has improved since the change in government in 2015)
With modern information technology, information and scientific knowledge is more accessible than ever, but at the same time, more and more of us live in something of a bubble in which the news, information and advertising we encounter through social media is adapted (often without our knowledge) to what data giants such as Google and Facebook using the “Big Data” have figured out that we want, or should want. On social media, we socialise primarily with others who think the same as we do. Fewer and fewer young people, our students, read journalistic quality media such as newspapers or listen to public service radio and TV. Source criticism is often absent among our media consumers. This also applies to the media as they sometimes prioritise speed over rechecking facts.
In this turbulent time with the relativism of knowledge and lack of source criticism it is more important than ever that we who work in the academic world stand up for academic freedom and political independence, for knowledge and for education. As university teachers, we must, more strongly than ever before in our daily teaching, ensure that we meet the objectives of the Higher Education Act:
§8 First-cycle courses and study programmes shall develop:
– the ability of students to make independent and critical assessments,
– the ability of students to identify, formulate and solve problems autonomously
As a union and professional association for Sweden’s university teachers and researchers we must, in my opinion, now take these threats to research, education and free speech really seriously and sustainably mobilise all possible positive forces to attempt to reverse these trends.