If Only We Knew: Increasing the Public Value of Social Science Research

John Willinsky (New York: Routledge, 2000)

 

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
    Knowledge
  2. Public
  3. Business
  4. Architecture
    Social Science
  5. Ethos
  6. Impact
  7. Chance
  8. Risk
  9. Footnote
    Politics
  10. Democracy
  11. Incunabula

Chapter One: Introduction (Draft)

 
When the well-known science writer and Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould was told at the age of 40 that he was suffering from an “invariably fatal” form of stomach cancer, he was as unsure as any of us would be about where to turn for consolation. He was fortunate enough, however, to have his faith. In his case, it was a faith in knowledge, and more specifically the knowledge of numbers and statistics. In his book Full House, which is one of the rare occasions in which he has written about his encounter with fate, he makes it clear, without explicitly acknowledging it, that he found immediate and lasting consolation in being able to learn what was known of the disease. What he learned that proved most helpful, in first looking into the disease at his neighborhood university library, was that his form of abdominal cancer had a “median mortality” of eight months.
[1]

After letting the shock of this sudden and harsh death sentence sink in, he then began to think through what such a median point meant to him as an individual. It was not necessarily his death sentence, he first realized. And from there, with each subsequent insight, you can hear in his writing just how consoled, empowered, and plain delighted he was by this unfolding understanding: “My initial burst of positivity…”; “The key insight that proved so life affirming…”; “The most precious of all gifts…”All of this out of a growing knowledge of how median mortality was used in health research. All of this, even as he recognized that “this insight gave me no guarantee of normal longevity.” As it turned out, fortunately, he has continued a vital life to this day, in part, it appears, through his risking of an experimental cure. But on his way there, he was obviously steadied by his ability to hold in his hands, and contemplate, these bits of knowledge.[2]

Now Gould is no ordinary man, it is safe to say, when it comes to knowledge. But his manifold gifts, notwithstanding, it has long been his very project to make the fascinations and consolations of knowledge a greater part of the public domain, if under his copyright, through his popular science writing. He has been a success at it, judging by how widely read his books on zoology, evolution, and the millennium are, with the weight of his achievement never more apparent than when he addresses the evil toward which such scientific knowledge can be directed, as he did in the award-winning Mismeasure of Man on the history and consequences of race science. Gould is proudly part of a more general public knowledge project that is inspired by the pleasures of sharing his sense of scientific wonder and the importance, if not always the same dramatic consolation, of knowing what there is to be known.

My book, in turn, makes a related case for improving the quality of public knowledge, inspired by Gould’s example. It is addressed to my colleagues in the social sciences, who have much to offer on a range of topics of importance to the public, such as health, education, justice, welfare, politics, families and so on. But this is not about calling for more Stephen Jay Goulds in the social sciences, who after conducting their research by day emerge in the evening write popular articles and books about their work. This book is about making the research itself, much as Gould found it at his greatest time of need, more widely available and accessible for the public. The research may not need the mediation. This book is about why and how it can be constituted as a public resource in itself.

The first signs of a direct-access movement for health research are already underway. In the short time since Gould’s initial diagnosis, what he learned about his disease has since become far more widely available to people through World Wide Web sites that provide remarkably thorough information on all matters of health and disease. The New York Times estimates that 25 million Americans will turn to the Internet for health information in the first year of the new millennium. And certainly, there are concerns about the quality of information among those 800 million webpages, and counting, that currently make up the web. Still, the Times’ example of an egregious error in health information was from the Encyclopedia Britannica website, suggesting that a new medium is not necessarily the only reason for caution. A site that has deeply impressed me with it offers to researchers, physicians, and public is Oncolink, a cancer information resource run by the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center which is visited by 150,000 people a month. The Internet has become many things to many people, but one of them is definitely as a new way into knowledge that matters to them, and not only, I will argue, when it is a matter of life or death to them.[3]

As it was, the knowledge that strengthened, inspired, and comforted Stephen Jay Gould, as he stood before the ultimate question mark of his own imminent mortality, was his understanding of probability, and how that concept is used in epidemiology (from the study of epidemics) to analyze the chances of survival and death in certain medical and social circumstances. Epidemiology is at the crossroads of medical science and social science, and social science is where, as I suggested, I enter the research picture. As a professor of education, I do social science research on the nature of learning and teaching within institutional settings such as the schools, and the public standing of social science research is what I feel responsible for, as we in this field assume that our intellectual activity brings a certain light to the world for the benefit of students, teachers, parents and people generally. This sense of responsibility, as scholar and educator, has led me to wonder if the entire field of social science research could not prove itself a better source of knowledge for the public, and whether this knowledge could not participate more in public and personal arenas of understanding and action, more in a sense that falls somewhere between the urgent reading of a statistical death sentence and the fascinating inquiry into a panda’s thumb. As a scholar and educator, I have come to wonder why the vast body of scholarship in which I participate does not, in itself, constitute greater educational value for the world at large.

My project with this book, then, is to explore why the time is right for social scientists to explore ways of improving the contribution which their research makes to public knowledge. As you can see from the book’s table of the contents, I go about this project by first asking how our concept of knowledge stands with this idea of the public, how it works within this new economy of information, and how it possesses a long architectural tradition of ordering and housing what we know. I then turn specifically to the social sciences with four aspects that bear on this field of inquiry’s contribution to public knowledge: what its owe to the public; what its impact has been up to this point; what it has made out of both risk and chance as a way of framing what we know; and what it might make of the ancient device of the footnote for pulling together what otherwise flies apart. Then I turn, finally, to where I began, with the political potential of a public knowledge backed by the diverse, eclectic reach of the social science inquiry.

My concerns here begin with the scope of the relatively cloistered body of knowledge that comes of social science research activity largely in university settings. Imagine the many professors around the world who are working in anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, sociology, and in professional schools of law, commerce, education, and health. Then consider how the vast majority of them are engaged in researching how people live, coming up with not only the median death rate in abdominal cancer, but with a greater understanding of what happens in families and schools, street gangs and golf clubs, prison cells and court houses, voting booths and shop floors. The resulting wealth of knowledge, even as it is carefully screened by academic journals, now amounts to more than all but the richest university libraries can afford. The common cry of “a crisis in scholarly publishing,” heard from academic librarians, is the result of a proliferation of Titles amid wildly escalating subscription rates. Meanwhile, this new publishing medium looms on the cyberspace-horizon.[4]

Given this vast and complex accumulation of knowledge, it may seem simply crass to ask about the public return on this considerable financial and intellectual investment. Though there is no simple way to value this knowledge, there are many ways of improving its value, give that the social sciences’ pursuit of knowledge is intended, according to its authors, to serve the public good. This knowledge could do more for the decisions and deliberations by which people live, more in helping them assess the risks and possibilities which they face. It speaks, in all of its partiality and diversity, to what people identify as “the most important problem facing the country today.” And it could do more than it has in the past because we have new technologies that can vastly improve public access to such knowledge. Few people may possess the depth of Stephen Jay Gould’s faith in science as a way of understanding the world, but whatever their beliefs, they possess the right to know what is known, by virtue of the scientific endeavors conducted in their name. The benefits could work both ways. For doing more to engage the public in this knowledge project would, I believe, improve both social science research and public knowledge.[5]

Now, this sense of doing more to engage the public will entail every phase of the research project, from how studies are conceived, initiated, and funded, through how they are designed and operated, onto the data gathering and analysis, and into the writing up and publication of the results. Each of these steps has an impact on how a study makes sense of a social issue and on how a study relates to other studies, past and present. Each of these steps now needs to be rethought with an eye to how the coherence and intelligibility of the research enterprise could be improved for a wider public. Fortunately, efforts are underway on a dozen fronts with enhancing what we might take as the coherence of the social science research enterprise: collaborative and multidisciplinary studies are taking place on a global scale; large data-sets have been developed for shared use; website are testing research applications of hypertext and virtual reality, e-journals and indexing services; and what I would call “public knowledge” sites are being built that connect research, policy, and practice, as well as the people who work in each of these areas.[6]

This book supports these initiatives with a public-spirited philosophy focused on developing and understanding knowledge as a public resource. It addresses the prospects of creating public spaces online that integrate sources of knowledge, with my focus on social science research, as a way of exploring the ongoing relationship between democracy and technology (that dates back to the invention of the printing press, radio, TV). My hope is that this will contribute to a renewal of the sense of public purpose and support for research. After all, the social sciences continue to generate a considerable body of knowledge on the entire spectrum of social life, while social science researchers have access to new technologies that can connect and coordinate their efforts to an unprecedented degree. It all adds up to the social sciences playing a much more vital role in the public sector of a knowledge-based economy, leading to perhaps a far more knowledge-based politics. To suggest how this is well within reach, I draw on the history of knowledge and the state of the social sciences, while developing a rationale for improving research as a public resource, a source of greater public understanding and participation, and a tool of increased democratic action.

However, I recognize that such talk of greater coordination and coherence within the research enterprise needs to be approached cautiously, if we are not to lose the risky and rigorous, the creative and critical tensions that are the various basis of research’s contribution to knowledge. To put this more pointedly, I think that these is room for introducing more coordination and coherence, as well as a greater connection between research and other forms of public understanding, and I think that it can be done (1) without reverting to social engineering models of social science research; (2) without assuming that knowledge possesses an underlying unity that we can now realize; and (3) without taking the public value of research as a given. Let me explain.

First of all, what drives this work is not a sense that the social sciences could readily dispose of social problems if they just got their act together. I do not see research dictating a course of action, determining a policy, or otherwise being used to undermine the political and public processes that decide how people’s lives are governed. The driving image here is not one of coordinated teams of researchers swarming in and cleaning up social dilemmas, like a group of spandex-set superheroes. Rather, it is of a public finding it relatively easy to consult the range of relevant and diverse research, as they consider how to work with the challenges which they face. The research’s value, as knowledge, comes from its range of insights and how those can be understood, with some support, in relation to other forms of knowledge. The research, I am daring to presume, can improve its contribution to public understanding without presuming that its mandate is to, given its expertise, engineer social solutions. This relationship between research, understanding, and action, leads to the second distinction that I need to make.

These efforts at improving the coherence and coordination of social science research are not about uncovering the underlying unity of knowledge or of scientific research. While I return to this theme in the final chapter, let me state here that my interests in improving the coherence and comprehensibility of the social sciences is not about achieving the holy grail of a grand unifying theory (GUT) which continues to elude physics. This talk of coherence and coordination, then, is not about putting together the pieces of a single puzzle called the True Knowledge of the World. It is about helping people appreciate the relationship among different ways of understanding social phenomenon within the larger realm of values that we all live within. It is about testing whether this diverse body of research can improve its value to a broader public as a way of understanding, discussing and debating, making judgements and taking action. I am proposing, then, necessarily limited improvements that will enable greater connections and comparisons to be made both within this body of research activity and as it relates to policies, practices and programs in the larger social world. . So this public knowledge project is not about rendering the whole of the world intelligible in a singular sense. It is about making more readily available what can be known through these research activities, in the diversity of values and methods which the research represents.

Finally, I wish to make it clear that I, too, wonder if the world is really waiting with baited breath for all that social science research has to offer. This book describes a research project, inspired by some pretty significant questions: Can the public value of this knowledge be improved, can access to this knowledge support democratic participation, can it improve professional practices, can it help people make greater sense of the world and act on that world? We need to know because such knowledge could greatly help set the direction and support for the social sciences. My starting assumption is that research processes within the social sciences are not yet perfect or complete in themselves, and my hypothesis is that the public could be better served by this research and by the existing resources and talents devoted to it. I could be wrong, in more than one way. I could be wrong about whether more knowledge can be shared with the public than is currently shared, and I could be wrong about the value of this sharing for both public and researchers. But I can’t helping thinking that I am right about the importance of exploring and testing whether social science research has more to offer people than it currently does.

The obligation is certainly clear. Given that this knowledge has been carefully accumulated, often at public expense, why has it not produced more of a public resource for people to consider, to act on, to challenge and be challenged by? There must be a way, I’ve become convinced, to make the great body of social science research readily available to more people. So this book presents a rationale for the social sciences taking greater responsibility for the state of public knowledge. I see this public knowledge project as part of a long and closely associated history of knowledge and technology, in all our efforts to augment and extend and share what can be known of the world. At this critical juncture, however, I see the project directed at bolstering knowledge’s public sector, in this much-celebrated and much-wired era of knowledge-based economies. Among the ready-and-waiting sources of under-utilized public knowledge, the social sciences seem well positioned to add to people’s understanding, to the self-determination of their lives, and to their collective action and democratic processes. After all, the social sciences have long stood for a post-Enlightenment application of reason to our knowledge of what is human and what is just and fair within the scope of that humanity.

Now, I realize that I may be presuming too much about the social sciences. Social scientists are often a little vague about the intended audience of the knowledge they so feverishly seek to produce. They may unfailingly intend their work to benefit humankind. But how exactly? The common assumption is that the use of this knowledge is best left up to others, to professionals (policy makers, legal professionals, teachers, physicians, social workers, etc) who are equipped to apply it on behalf of humankind. Little thought is given to whether the ideas themselves might be of interest to humankind. Little concern is shown for a knowledge worth knowing as a source of understanding and insight in itself. And little credit is given to what the social sciences owe directly to the public and to public knowledge. Why can’t people turn as readily to see what the social sciences have to offer on an issue as they can in finding out a company’s stock performance or the quality of its consumer products? It will take some doing, I realize, to help people see that social science research does not provide definitive answers to what can be done about schoolyard bullies or working conditions in off-shore factories, but does provide a series of starting points around the scope and scale of the problems, around what has been done and what could be done, around the legal and economic issues, as well as the personal ones. This public knowledge project will be about improving the public’s ability to draw on what the relevant research has to offer by creating more coherent connections among studies and related information. The results of the research may be fascinating or consoling in themselves; they may inform decisions or be cited in taking action. In turn, this new level of public access may lead people to pose questions and challenges back to the research community about the work. Such access is now easy to imagine, and the team that I am currently working with, made up of Vivian Forssman, Henry Kang, Lisa Korteweg, Brenda Trofanenko, at the University of British Columbia has built an initial Public Knowledge website, described later in the book, which offers links among studies and forums, policies and practices. Such sites can point to books and other traditional sources providing a gateway between technologies, while enhancing access to them. Such ventures also call, we have come to realize, for new ways of thinking about how research is conducted and presented, so that its potential public role figures in thinking about the entire the process, rather than only after the fact, in ways that could benefit both social science and public knowledge.[7]

As things now stand, the exchange between public and social scientists is too often a fount of frustration for both parties. On the one hand, the public feels that it simply cannot get a straight answer from the research and social scientists. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it asks how to reduce the problems some children have with reading, break the cycle of poverty in families, or foster racial integration in communities. The answer often seems some combination of “It depends” and “More research is needed.” On other hand, social scientists grow tired of a media-driven public-attention that is limited to sound-bites which cannot help but distort and trivialize hard-won ideas. Researchers’ vanities may flourish during their moment in the bright lights, but the research continues to be directed largely toward sympathetic colleagues who at least appear to have time and reason to attend to it through journals and conferences. Even where social science research is ostensibly directed at informing the professionals working in education, justice, health, commerce, and social work, there is still a sense of a public poorly served by what research has to offer. Practitioners fondly refer to it as the great divide between theory and practice – “Well, that may be what the research says, but I know…” They are no less put off than the public by the complicating jargon and rarely reconciled contradictions within bodies of research. In my field of education, teachers often come back to graduate school to learn more about schooling and improve their credentials only to be struck by the seeming irrelevance of the research. A number of my colleagues have responded by getting teachers to conduct their own loosely structured inquiries, in the name of “action research.” Such is the search for the relevance among professionals of this pursuit of knowledge. Now, in this book I focus on the social sciences’ contribution to public knowledge, rather than to professional expertise, for two reasons. The first is the rather obvious point that, in most cases, if I can convince social scientists to increase the public value of their research – by improving its organization, connections, coherence, and intelligibility – it is bound to enhance its value for the related professions, as well as, in all likelihood, for other researchers. The second reason for focusing on the public rather than professional quality of the knowledge is political. Any improvements in professionals’ access to research may ultimately benefit the public, but it would also increase professional authority and public dependence upon it. Going public with this knowledge, for all of the challenges it poses, is about testing this form of knowledge as a democratic resource. It’s about testing whether this engagement between research and public, as it transforms what we know and how we go about knowing, can save us from what is otherwise developing into an increasing sense of information glut and knowledge fragmentation. This public knowledge project addresses a larger malaise of the times, much in line with Harvard Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel’s analysis of “democracy’s discontent.” For Sandel, the anxiety and frustration that besets us stems from a “fear that, individually and collectively, we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives” which is related to an unraveling of the moral fabric of our community, from family to nation. We can read about this discontent in the press and feel it on the street. And while the social sciences are one among many sources of understanding, they are so thoroughly devoted to a close and considered assessment of both “the forces that govern our lives” and the fabric of local and global communities, it seems absurd that so little is done to ensure that such knowledge as they have to offer is a source of greater control for people. In a theme I return in the final section of the book, the social sciences need to offer more to processes of public deliberation which Sandel and others feel is critical to extending the elements of self-government in our lives.[8]

Central to this idea that the social sciences could be far more publicly engaged is the Internet. Where some are quick to identify technology’s increasing surveillance and management of our lives, we need to stay focused on those who would so direct the technology against us rather than the machines per se. The questions to be posed about this technology are daunting, as when political scientists Cynthia Alexander of Acadia University and Leslie Pal, of Carleton University ask in their book on digital democracy: “(1) Who will create the new world information order? (2) Is the new world to be characterized by disorder?” The social sciences have responsibilities here both in analyzing the situation of information and order and, I am holding here, in contributing to the shape of that order.[9]

That is to say that I join with those who hold that the future is to-be-determined rather than already determined by the machines we live by, and that the social sciences have the opportunity to explore and demonstrate just how these new information technologies, like the printing press before it, can extend scientific inquiry, public knowledge, and democratic participation. In this case, I argue the need for the social sciences to experiment with improving public access to social science research by creating new sorts of public spaces for this knowledge to operate within. And while this book is the issues and arguments for change, rather than about the experiments still to be conducted, the very proposal to experiment may be taken by some as yet another threat posed by these technologies to the very quality of knowledge by which we live.[10]

I argue in this book, however, that humankind’s work with knowledge has always entailed innovative technologies of order and access. Many historically critical developments in information technology – whether one thinks of the papyrus scroll, the printing press, cheap paper, or the penny post – have been imaginatively used both to increase the store of public knowledge and to expand its reach. Take the electric light, for example, which Marshall McLuhan pointed out some decades ago, is every bit an information technology. This may seem rather a strange thing to claim, even for McLuhan, until you consider that one of the first large buildings to be fitted with this IT, at the turn of the century, was the New York Public Library. This enabled people who had worked all day, given what strength and will remained, to read into the evening under the light’s protective glow. And still today, with the recently refurbished Rose Reading Room at the library, which is equipped with reproductions of those reading lamps as well as high-speed Internet terminals, the library is without question one of the city’s most magnificent architectural tributes to public knowledge, as well as a vital contributor to that knowledge.[11]

What, then, of this new ubiquitous technology’s contribution to knowledge in the social sciences? It can be safely said that the professor’s ever-upgraded computer in the office and at home has sped up the research process of locating and applying for grants, gathering and analyzing data, and writing up and circulating studies. This results in more studies being published by more people in more journals. Yet this bulking up of knowledge’s body can also be seen to be slowing it down as a source of understanding or wonder or inspiration or action, through the extra effort needed to bring it together and connect it with the larger world. This leads me to propose that, rather than simply using the technology to increase rates of scholarly production (which if nothing else increases the stakes for tenure and promotion among professors), these technologies should be directed toward creating new ways of organizing and connecting research, creating fields of greater coherence, connecting critiques, responses and reconsiderations, aligning alternative perspectives among works, and engaging larger communities in the social sciences’ project with knowledge.

Of course, it is not unusual for a new generation of technologies to initially be used to simply speed up old processes, amounting to a brief and false first step, before the new technology reshapes them. When Gutenberg, the goldsmith-turned-printer, began to turn out page after page of the Bible in Mainz, Germany midway into the fifteenth century, he still needed to send the freshly printed and unbound pages to a scriptorium to be illuminated by hand, creating a hybrid work caught between epochal technologies. (This might be compared to today, when researchers and their editors prepare almost every aspect of their texts on-line, only to meet printed-page requirements that are sent along to the printer or are mounted on the web to resemble those pages.)

sIn the decades that followed Gutenberg’s invention, European printers, who originally acted as publishers, editors, graphic designers, author agents, and booksellers, began experimenting with new page-designs that were not only suited to printing-press technology, but were far easier to read and economical to produce. A clean crisp style of printing emerged, albeit with the loss of the intricate and idiosyncratic beauty of the illuminated manuscript page. What began with a breakthrough in casting typeface reshaped the culture and politics of the word. Yet it must have been hard to imagine in the fifteenth-century world of Latin literacy, that reading and writing would ever become a common skill among people. But, of course, the search for a broader market led to massive publishing in the European vernacular languages, even before literate standards of spelling and grammar had been developed for them. Although it took until the end of the 17th century for Latin to lose its hold on scholarly publication, by then Bacon, Descartes and others had made it apparent that plain and ordinary language, “naked and open” to the world was necessary for the scientific claims of veracity. The reverberations of this greater public engagement with the written word, through book or pamphlet, broadsheet or ballad, changed the world of politics, religion, literature science, and scholarship. Still, the long hard struggle for universal public education and literacy was to stretch well into the final decades of the 19th century for, among other reasons, the idea of this knowledge in the hands of the many was initially and rightly feared by the powerful few.[12]

The close of the 19th century saw two terrific gains in public knowledge in the West – public education and public libraries. The reasons for these reforms, in the case of the schools, may have been as much about a declining market for child labor and a desire to assimilate immigrants and the industrial classes, as it was about using print technologies to expand democratic capacities. By the same token, for all of the dubious reasons behind the heavenward intentions of Andrew’s Carnegie’s generous funding of some 2,500 public libraries around the English-speaking world between 1890 and 1920, it still adds up to a single-handed and extremely large contribution to the store of public knowledge. Carnegie sought “to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means…” and I recognize that this philanthropic theme of investing in character is bound to remain an aspect of provisions for public knowledge. But those children walking home with their checked-out library books eventually turned to far more than was dreamt of in Carnegie’s philosophy, and we may expect the same from the children who leave the libraries in “under-served rural and urban areas” which the Gates Library Initiative is now equipping with computers and Internet service, with plans to extend to support to 13,000 libraries in Canada and the United States within five years.[13]

What the printing press did for expanding the community of readers, the Internet stands poised to do again, as it is directed toward the interests of public knowledge. This converted olive press did not determine the Reformation, the rise of nationalism, or the spread of democracy. It only provided a means for doing with the word what had not been done before. It took the imagination and commitment of thousands more to realize just what this technology could mean for the balance of power in people’s lives. And many of the resulting cultural and political changes took place, it is well to remember going into a new era, amid deadly and destructive struggles that cost many lives. We can hope that we are all somewhat wiser today, and we can only wonder if the knowledge at issue is somewhat less volatile this time. Still, there’s no predicting how these things will unfold, and yet that offers little excuse for sitting back and waiting to see.

By briefly calling up the drumbeat of history like this, with more detailed analysis of critical historical moments and figures to follow, I only mean to suggest the reasonableness of considering, at this juncture, what this new generation of information technologies offers for rethinking and redesigning the representations of knowledge in this one area of academic inquiry. It has become clear over the last few years that this sense of impending change is not just the digital soap-boxing of techno-enthusiasts. Everywhere there is the sense that the Internet is going to be the publishing medium of more and more materials, no less in scholarship than in other areas.

What will this technology do, then, to the nature of knowledge? We are too close upon it to judge, but it does seem that something is afoot. The web is being used, in an experiment with the British Library for Development studies, to create global access to scholarly materials that were once the privilege of industrialized nations. It is being used to mount the primary documents for historical works, such as Avner Cohen’s Israel and the Bomb which supports its argument that Israel became a nuclear power in the 1960s, despite the country’s denials. “I am saying, ‘Look at my raw material on line,” this senior research associate at the National Security Archive in Washington holds, “You don’t have to buy my interpretation. Here are the documents. Judge for yourself.” Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, which is associated with George Washington University, doesn’t hesitate to proclaim the dawning of new times for scholarship: “I believe that this is the beginning of a new era in this kind of endeavor for people to be able to see primary source unmediated together with the advantage of the mediation. You have them side by side.” Archivist Blanton may have forgotten those medieval biblical and talmudic traditions that enveloped their primary source, namely the Bible, with endless streams of commentary, done in many hands. But still, the technology is being used to change the nature of authority in knowledge.[14]

A similar sense of impending change can be heard in the voice of Douglas C. Bennett, vice president of the American Council of Learned Societies, when he speaks of how Council members “believe the technologies of digital networks will plow up and replant the worlds of scholarship and education.” Bennett also shares my hope that the digital network will work against “the context of disconnection” which currently dominates scholarly activity, which is especially noticeable in “the sharp separation of scholars from the general public.” The isolated journal article will be replaced, as he hazards, by more connected and coherent forms of publication, while that tired tradition of shrouding scholarship in obscurity in the name of academic freedom just isn’t going to cut it anymore.[15]

This is encouraging talk for a public knowledge project such as this one. For this project has to be about more than transferring academic journals from paper to the web, which would do as much for public knowledge as handing out university library cards or free copies of social science journals on buses and streetcars. When Henry Oldenburg set out the mission of the first English academic journal in 1665, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, he insisted that publishing in this way would assist new ideas to reach a wider circle of practice, as well as other scholars: “Whereas there is nothing more necessary for promoting the improvement of Philosophical Matters, than the communicating to such, as apply their Studies and Endeavors that way, such things as are discovered or put in practice by others; it is therefore thought fit to employ the Press, as the most proper way to gratify those, whose engagement in such Studies and delight in the advancement of Learning and profitable Discoveries, doth enTitle them to the knowledge of this Kingdom.” As this transfer into practice was achieved in the sciences in Oldenburg’s day, I am looking to extend the circle of communication to include, for the social sciences, the public. I would not ask that all forms of academic research be listed on some sort of scholarly stock market, rising and falling in value as they post their returns in the larger world and watch to see how they are valued. But I do think that the rest of the university needs to recognize a sea change within the realm of knowledge, a change which the universities are already navigating through new technologies and economies.[16]

Certainly nifty search tools and multiple indexes have been developed on the web, and certainly new forms will have evolved by the time you are reading this, but I am proposing that we take hold of the process at this point and give some thought to the potential we have to reshape the representation knowledge by study and field. It could begin with the elements of design and coordination among studies; it could include how studies are presented to allow different levels of access, so that the connections with other research, with common bodies of data, with practices, policies, and programs can be readily realized. It could encourage much greater exchanges among researchers, participants, practitioners, and public. What will work and what will stick can hardly be predicted but that shouldn’t deter wanting to go public with the process.

Although this book is about how knowledge is organized and driven largely in the social sciences, and only obliquely about the technology behind it, it is certainly inspired by the technological developments largely driven these days by those seeking competitive advantages, market share, increased security, and other variations on an e-commerce model for the private sector. The challenge for defenders of the public sector is to catch the wave and play on technology’s plasticity to direct the machines toward broader interests of education, reflection, and action. To a degree, this is already well underway. The Internet has already proven a great site of political agitation for interest groups and other parties. It is undoubtedly a source of public knowledge across a wide range of areas, from personal health to consumerism. Now with all that the social sciences are doing to expand what is known, by their lights, of how people live, love, play, work, and die, it keeps leading me back to two questions, one obvious, one intriguing. Why aren’t the publicly funded aspects of this knowledge available to those with an interest in them, when the means for such access appears to exist? What would happen to this headlong production of research, if the public were a greater part of why it was going on?

This work falls within a long history of public-broadcasting efforts which have proven fundamental to the growth of democracy and the struggle for greater equality that it represents. However hard it is to gauge what is achieved by these technologically-enabled increases in the freedom of expression, the sense of an informed public, aware of the issues that unite and divide us, can be taken as a good in itself. So, this call for strengthening public knowledge is not so much radical or innovative as inevitable. Yet against this gradual sense of inevitability is the current situation of information technologies devoted, in large measure, to developing the private and commercial side of this knowledge economy, resulting in vastly improved resources for investors, consumers, travelers, and, above all, sports fans.[17]

To place this historic opportunity in perspective, I ask you not only to look ahead, into what can be, but back to a time no less speculative from whence we came. For according to one substantial source in the Judeo-Christian tradition, in the beginning, before there was data and information, there was the temptation of knowledge. We would do well to let Francis Bacon be our guide in this, given that he did more than a little to inspire modern data-mongering by giving rise to modern conceptions of science. Bacon saw that in those biblical days, “the aspiring to overmuch knowledge was the original temptation.” It certainly proved an apple too many for Eve and Adam. And then Bacon also remind us that it was not long before the likes of such wise men as King Solomon were complaining “that there is no end of making books, and that much reading is weariness of the flesh,” adding for good measure the wise king’s warning that “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth anxiety.”[18]

Bacon himself set about increasing knowledge and anxiety by launching the modern scientific project, in his own foretaste of the Newtonian apple. And he did so by proposing that rather than pursue a prideful knowledge of good and evil – challenging God’s order – we pursue what he called “the pure knowledge of nature and universality.” Such was to be the dominion of the sciences, and the pursuit of this new knowledge order became the work of the Royal Society. These ambitions soon propelled imperialism’s great scientific expeditions around the globe, carrying naturalist-adventurers who eagerly harvested scientific specimens and recorded data for European museums, laboratories, and universities, as well as circuses and collectors. From biblical Eden to Renaissance Europe, each era has had its own sense of knowledge surfeit, each era its worries about the public purposes to which this knowing should be turned. And each era draws a few mind, given the opportunity and privilege, to worrying about the harnessing and ordering this overweening knowledge, with this book pausing over the contributions of Bacon, Leibniz, Pascal, Diderot, Dewey, and Borges, among others.[19]

While prolific amounts of information and knowledge are spun out in all directions by those compelled to take the quest in so many different forms down so many likely and unlikely paths, others must anxiously reign this abundance in, trying to give it order and a center. This tug of war between these two forces continues within both the big and the small of knowledge’s forces in the social sciences, whether in working with global economic systems or infant-mother interactions. Today, as research results fill libraries and swell databases, it seems only reasonable to wonder if information technologies could introduce new levels of order, integration, and accessibility, that might stem the increasing fragmentation that is reducing the overall value of this research prolificacy.

Today’s great epistemological dilemma, for all of the postmodern fervor over the death and dearth of truth, is no more than the dilemma that Solomon and Bacon faced – bringing some greater order to what we know, however you name that knowledge. For the real prize comes of the ordering, which reveals the junctures, gaps, tensions, alternatives. This is not about deciding between information or knowledge, truth or convenience, divergence or unity. It is about improving the value of the work that has been done in the name of knowing, improving the value of this public investment in social science research. “The political problem during the final years of the twentieth century,” as sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz would name it, “is much less the amount of scientific information and technical material available than the integration and accessibility of the value of that information.”[20]

Horowitz fears we are falling “behind in the orderly processing of data and information as such,” while I tend to think that this has always been the case and, as such, has provided the impetus for new ways of working with knowledge, from libraries and encyclopedia to networks and databases. And yet where I see the need to extend the technologies of knowledge, Horowitz sees the machines posing “a near insoluble problem… [which] is less with its totalitarian capabilities than its anarchical consequences.”[21]

I hold that those consequences, at least in some small part, lie in our hands. Thus my hopes and plans for directing more of this silicon towards just the sort of “integration and accessibility” which Horowitz sees as wanting. We need to see how these machines can help us extract greater value and connection from this information overload, or else, we face what Horowitz characterizes as the “purely narcotizing dysfunction” and the “increased chance of anomie and normlessness” that comes of facing simply too much information.[22]

This, too, is part of our current epistemological malaise. So much information, so little sense of how it works together and where to go with it. What this looks like with the social sciences might be imagined, using the beautiful Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library, which is nearly the length of a football field. It contains massive oak reading tables, one set after the other, running in two long rows almost the length of the room. Each table might be assigned to three or four of the hundreds of different social concerns, from infant care to geriatric support. At the table, researchers are carefully cutting out jigsaw pieces representing their studies on the topics at that table, while at the same time copies of other jigsaw pieces, representing related studies, are continually being dropped off at each table. The pieces would seem to be cut for a great number of puzzles or perhaps (some suspect) for one great puzzle, with even the researchers who are cutting them out not certain about the consequences of their cuts. When these people pause from their cutting to arrange the pieces, they find that some pieces readily snap together, while others bring, it is obvious from the expression on some of the faces, the very idea of the puzzle into question, and always there are too many pieces arriving at the table, as in truth roughly 3,000 articles are published each month in the social sciences. And that does not count all the papers presented at the endless stream of conferences hosted in hotels and campuses around the world. Then, there are the unpublished research reports commissioned by governments and private agencies, and on and on it goes. Now what’s missing from this picture, and rightly so, is the public, although they are welcome to come in and watch, as they are welcome to use the university libraries where much of this work is ordinarily stored.[23]

What I am asking, however, is that we explore ways of improving this situation, helping with connecting the pieces, for examples, in ways that make greater sense for the interested and those with a stake among the public, for the related professions, including policy officials, and for the researchers and their students. Although it may sound at times that I imagine all things are technologically possible, my goal is not to build a Big Fat Website (BFW as they are now known in the industry) that would suddenly or eventually turn all of the social sciences into a handy, comprehensible resource for people. My interests are in exploring the why and wherefore for even considering such a project. They are in what it can teach us about knowledge as a professional calling, public resource, a political device. They are in inspiring others to take up similar public knowledge projects, so that new standards and conventions that do serve public knowledge will take hold. Whatever the speed of technological change, I know that even slight changes in habits of understanding, genres, and research take place slowly over time. But changes there must be, given current returns on public investment in the social sciences, which seem all the more indefensible in the face of the corporate deployment of these technologies to manage, distribute and increase the value of its knowledge resources. The current push of conservative governments to have public universities use performance indicators and productivity measures to improve their accountability will only offer a finer take on the problem of what this knowledge is about when it is not working in and on the world that exists beyond the career-lives of social scientists.

In this book, I set aside the question of corporate organization and technological design that I pursued in Technologies of Knowing: A Proposal for the Human Sciences, to explore the historical and epistemological reasons for using technology to improve the social sciences’ contribution to public knowledge.[24] It works with how, within this emerging knowledge economy, the academy is to find its place in support of the public sector. It works through the contributions of technology to what has been made and what can still be made of books and libraries, indexes and footnotes, encyclopedia and databases as vehicles of public knowledge. The driving ethic here remains deriving more good from what has already been produced in the public interest. It is not a matter of convincing the public to invest in a new strain of unproven wheat, hoping it will produce another green revolution; it is rather that we are producing warehouses full of what is claimed to be golden grain, grown for the benefit of humankind, but which, for all intents and purposes, feeds and seeds our own work. If we really were to get knowledge onto people’s tables, only to find that it fails to feed their mind and soul, then we need to stop and rethink what we are doing in the name of the social sciences. Such are the assumptions of this project on increasing the public value of the social sciences.

By examining the current ethos and impact of the social sciences, the book addresses how the social scientists seek to do more and could do more for public knowledge, and do so without sacrificing the rich diversity of understandings generated by their wide range of research activities. My approach is to work between issues and instances, including research on foster children, science teaching, and crime rates, to propose the formation of a more coherent and comprehensible body of knowledge. My aim is to inspire discussion and action among both social scientists and public. How do we provide a coherent sense of the probabilities and possibilities, the tentative and pragmatic understandings, and the other forms of knowledge which so many social scientists have worked for so long to produce?

The lessons drawn from this historical and contemporary analysis are directed at increasing the flow between social science research and public knowledge in ways that would further knowledge’s place within the democratic project, as a means of increasing people’s participation in decision-making processes. Yet let me be clear at the outset that none of this is given, neither the public value of social science research nor the political force of coordinated bodies of information. These ideas need to be thought through and tested. New formats, genres, apparatuses and technologies need to be explored for making more of the knowledge at hand. This book deals in the long-standing potential and promise of knowledge. I have no doubts that the public value of social science research can be improved, if only in small increments, through the imaginative use of new technologies, matched by corresponding changes in how we go about doing social science research. The very working out of these new forms is bound to change the nature of the knowledge, in turn, and the basis of democratic self-determination. Given that the global expansion of democratic systems is underwritten by knowledge-based economies that have a rather different agenda for knowledge than the majority of those working in the social sciences, it seems a time for the workers and employers, the defenders and benefactors, of the public (knowledge) sector to ask whether there is not more that these knowing machines, this technology of systematic inquiry, can do for all of us.



[1] Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1996).

[2] Gould: “My initial burst of positivity amounted to little more than an emotional gut reaction – and would have endured for only a short time, had I not been able to bolster the feeling with a genuine reason for optimism based upon a better analysis of papers that seemed so brutally pessimistic…. I then had the key insight that proved so life affirming at such a crucial moment. I started to think about the variation…This insight gave me no guarantee of normal longevity, but at least I had obtained the most precious of all gifts at a crucial moment: the prospect of substantial time.” (Ibid., 48-50, my emphasis).

[3] Jane E. Brody, “The Health Hazards of Point-and-Click Medicine,” New York Times, 31 August 1999, D1; OncoLink, http://cancer.med.upenn.edu/; another powerful health information site is Clinical Trials Listing Service™ operated by CenterWatch, a Boston-area publishing company. As I write, CenterWatch is visited each month by 85,000 patients and those looking for a little research money who are able on this web site to search through some 7,000 clinical trials of new drugs and procedures with, for example, 423 listings for hypertension and 73 for H.I.V; CenterWatch (Sept 1998) http://www.centerwatch.com.

[4] By way of scale, the Social Sciences Citation Index works with 1,700 Titles in English; the British Library for Development subscribes to 5,000 journals related to economic and social development; the Harvard University Library, with the largest serials holding in the United States, has 90,000 Titles covering all fields; Social Science Citation Index (Philadelphia, PA: Institute for Scientific Information, 1998). Maureen Mahoney, “Overcoming Information Poverty: The Research Information Shared Pilot Scheme,” Information Development, 15 No. 1 (March 1999), 44. “The Crisis in Scholarly Publishing,” University of Waterloo Electronic Library: Scholarly Societies Projects (Sept 1998) http://library.uwaterloo.ca/society/crisis.html.

[5] In the 1999 Gallup poll, the most import problems facing the country today were identified as “ethics, morality, family decline” (18 percent), “crime, violence” (17 percent), “education” (11 percent), and “guns, gun control” (10 percent); “What’s the Problem?” New York Times (1 August 1999), WK4. In 1980, by comparison, 99 percent of the people selected the top four categories (foreign policy, inflation, energy, unemployment) versus 56 percent in the top four categories for 1999.

[6] For a summary of recent developments in educational research, see Roy D. Pea , “New Media Communications Forums for Improving Education Research and Practice” in Issues in Educational Research, Ed. E. Condliff Lagemann and L. S. Shulman (CA: Jossey Bass, 1999) and Jeremy Roschelle and Roy D. Pea, “Trajectories From Today's WWW To a Powerful Educational Infrastructure” Educational Researcher, 28 No. 5 (June-July 1999), http://www.cilt.org/html/publications.html.

[7] Henry Kang, Lisa Korteweg, Brenda Trofanenko, and John Willinsky, Public Knowledge Project, in conjunction with the Vancouver Sun (April 24-29, 1999), http://www.educ.ubc.ca/faculty/ctg/pkp.

[8] Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 3.

[9] Cynthia Alexander and Leslie Pal, Digital Democracy: Policy and Politics in the Wired World (Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 1998), 3.

[10] Andrew Feenberg: “Technology is one of the major sources of public power in modern societies. So far as decisions affecting our daily lives are concerned, political democracy is largely overshadowed by the enormous power wielded by the masters of technical systems: corporate and military leaders, and professional associations of groups such as physicians and engineers”; “Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Democracy” in Technology and the Politics of Knowledge, ed. Andrew Feenberg and Alastair Hannay (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995). A public knowledge project such as this should also be able to add to “the democratic politics of technology” advocated by Richard Sclove, founder of FASTnet (Federation of Activists on Science and Technology Network); Democracy and Technology (New York: Guilford Press, 1995).

[11] Julie V. Iovine, “Open for Travel in Realms of Gold,” New York Times, 5 November 1998, D14.

[12] Bacon cited by Robert N. Proctor, Value-Free Science: Purity and Power in Modern Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 34. On mass literacy, see Patrick Brantlinger, The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999) and my The Triumph of Literature/The Fate of Literacy (New York: Teachers College Press, 1991).

[13] Cited in Abigail A. Van Slyck, Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 10; Sam Howe Vewrhovek, “Elder Bill Gates Takes on the Role of Philanthropist,” New York Times, 12 September 1999, A1.

[14] Mahoney, “Overcoming Information Poverty”; Ethan Bronner, “A Ticking Bomb on the Web,” New York Times, 31 October 1998, A21. The Research Libraries Group, an international alliance of 160 libraries, is attempting to create a directory for online archives, including the Library of Congress’ 4 million digitized items and London’s Public Records Office with materials dating back to the 11th century Doomsday Book; Jo Thomas, “Web Surfers Jump Onto Archivists’ Bandwagon,” Globe & Mail, 17 December, 1998, D2.

[15] Douglas C. Bennett, “New Connections for Scholars: The Changing Missions of Learning Society in an Era of Digital Networks,” Occasional Paper No. 36, (Washington: American Council of Learned Societies, 1997). http://www.acls.org/op36.htm.

[16] Oldenburg cited by Jean-Claude Guédon, “Electronic Academic Journals: From Disciplines to ‘Seminars,’” in Computer Networking and Scholarly Communication in the Twenty-First Century, ed. T. M. Harrison & T. Stephen (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1966), 336.

[17] “The World Wide Web has served the sports fan even better than the sex addict… The Internet extends his access to databases on which he thrives as well as to a variety of sources from which to drawn opinions. Chat rooms and bulletin boards given him the chance to test (of steal) assertions”; Douglas Rushkoff, “Sports May Be the Internet’s ‘Killer Application,’” Globe & Mail, 3 February 1999, C9.

[18] Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning and the New Atlantis (1605; reprint, London: Oxford University Press, 1906), I.i.2.

[19] Ibid., I.i.3. Some time after, David Hume was to explain that Baconian passion for discovering the secrets of nature by suggesting that it is “so agreeable to the natural vanity and curiosity of men”; The History of Great Britain, vol. 2 (London, 1757), 454.

[20] Irving Louis Horowitz, Communicating Ideas: The Politics of Scholarly Publishing, 2nd Ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1991), 23.

[21] Ibid. The Holocaust Museum in Washington includes in its exhibit the totalitarian capabilities of information technologies, when, in the 1930s, the Nazi were using early versions of IBM computers for the automated tracking of Jewish populations through census data.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Social Science Citation Index (Philadelphia, PA: Institute for Scientific Information, 1998).

[24] John Willinsky, Technologies of Knowing: A Proposal for the Human Sciences (Boston: Beacon, 1999).