Celebrity academicsAcademics at institutions like Duke find themselves in an impossible double bind. On the one hand, they are expected to churn out groundbreaking research that will push boundaries in their field. On the other, we insist that their work have real world application beyond the ivory tower, and accuse them of elitism when they fail in this regard.
Enter the phenomenon of celebrity academics. Professors like former Princeton University professor Neil Degrasse Tyson, University of Chicago professor Steven Levitt and Duke's own Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of psychology and behavioral economics, have catapulted themselves to fame and wealth by distilling their research into widely accessible sound bites and disseminating it to general audiences. TED Talks, the popular online compendium of conferences, is often their platform of choice.
On the surface, this trend seems unequivocally positive: it gives millions of people access to work that would otherwise be inaccessible. It can introduce an ordinary person to a field they knew nothing about, whetting their appetite to learn more. Public forums now can certify academic success, freeing some scholars from the grip of academia’s traditional gatekeepers. They also compel researchers to consider the perspective of non-experts in the course of their work, which might ultimately ensure its relevancy to a broader audience.
Still, we ought to consider the potential downsides of packaging academic research for public consumption. There is an inevitable tradeoff between accessibility and nuance—no thought can be boiled down to a sound bite without losing some of its necessary complexity. Pop research may be so watered down that it resembles entertainment more than true academic inquiry.
The greatest risk, however, might be that sensations like TED Talks allow superficial scholarship to masquerade as legitimate research. Real academic discourse involves professionals in dialogue, approaching an issue from multiple angles. A best-selling book or a popular video presents a single “expert” opinion and may give the illusion that that view captures the singular truth, eschewing the debate that is so essential to learning.
Per academics’ part, the pop research phenomenon may warp incentives in the field, encouraging academics to spend less time on complex questions in order to answer simpler, more fashionable ones. In a profession known for low pay and anonymity, the desire to gain wealth and renown through mass media is understandable—however, the market forces that determine these extra earnings may compromise the depth and quality of one’s research.
While we appreciate the desire to spread education to a wider audience, we caution both users and contributors to be wary of its intellectual depth. Not all forms of academic research can or should be reduced to a user-friendly video clip. We should be conscious of the media through which we disseminate and receive information, which can lend themselves to entertainment more than scholarly inquiry.