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Open academic culture, more crucial than ever, is in peril
Why campuses are becoming polarized — and what we can do about it.
- The narrowing of academic freedom is a major problem for institutions of higher education.
- Social media, external pressures, and increasingly diverse student bodies — while providing some positives — create more opportunity for misunderstanding and miscommunication.
- Reaffirming the value of and commitment to open debate ensures a more vibrant academic culture.
Polarization, which divides our country to a historic degree these days, is no stranger to academia. Many people on campuses nationwide, including professors, cite a feeling of walking on eggshells around students and colleagues. Academic freedom and a commitment to open inquiry and open discussion, long the mission of colleges and universities, is endangered.
While polling reveals universities continue to do better than other institutions as places to meet and discuss big ideas across divides, outrage mobs targeted at academics (sometimes by other academics) and recent instances of banning speakers suggests that the narrowing of academic freedom is a growing problem.
How academic freedom strengthens the bonds of accumulated knowledge
Several factors play into this trend. Social media is a blessing and a curse — a great way for up-and-coming scholars to quickly share their work but also an instantaneous vehicle for acrimony. External pressures, be they state budget cutbacks, enrollment fluctuations, or a desire to put on a good face for alumni and donors, squeeze our institutions with a new level of ferocity. Changes in funding can encourage administrations to view university resources as zero sum, pushing individuals into a defensive, rather than open, mindset. And, as institutions become more and more conscious of outsiders' perceptions, faculty with controversial opinions can be treated as liabilities.
Finally, the diversification of student bodies, a cause for celebration, can inadvertently create new challenges. The postwar period has seen more and more women, minorities, non-traditional students, and first-generation college attendees pursuing degrees. The value of increased access to college education is immense — for individuals, universities, and the country at large. Diversity enriches perspectives present on campus, but it can also lead to increased opportunity for misunderstanding and miscommunication across divides if not handled well at the expense of open debate.
Many of these pressures on open academic discourse are not unique to academia. Some, particularly the increasing range of Americans who can attend college, are great positives. But all point to an institution undergoing seismic change. When added to the many other opportunities and challenges universities face concerning access, quality, and equipping today's students for success, it is easy to lose sight of the important culture of openness that makes our universities special compared to any other institution.
Reaffirming the importance of an open academy
How can we ensure that our colleges and universities remain places where controversial ideas are openly discussed and differences in thought and opinion are not just expressed but listened to? Faculty must remain committed to a culture of open debate; no one else within the academy can be regularly relied upon to be advocates for these values.
This is not to suggest that administrators or presidents are hostile to free expression. Far from it. Many presidents, such as Mitch Daniels at Purdue or Robert Zimmerman at the University of Chicago have robustly and articulately defended the value of open discourse. But university leaders are not involved in the daily give-and-take of academic discourse. Professors are the linchpin of academic freedom, and they must lead the charge to open debate.
In reaffirming these values, it is important for faculty to incorporate them in their own work. This means welcoming other views and recognizing the value they add to the conversation. While the rest of the culture may be consumed by partisan rancor on social media, academics can and should aspire to be better. Creating a truly open conversation requires a willingness to be a little kinder to each other and to assume that others in the academic enterprise are acting with best intentions even when they might be wrong. It's faculty who most benefit from a university's commitment to open discourse; it is they who must become its most ardent defenders.
Faculty must become educators not only in their field but as advocates for open inquiry. As those who uphold and create a vibrant academic culture, professors are the ones who can educate others in that culture — students, administrators, donors and lawmakers. In much the same way that many media organizations look, as they deliver the news, to educate their readers about the importance of sourcing and fact-checking — core practices of reliable news gathering—faculty should emphasize how a culture of openness is critical to conducting their work. The goal should be to welcome and incorporate new voices while retaining a commitment to core university values.
How can we improve the quality of higher education?
Pandemic rumors and information overload make separating fact from fancy difficult, putting people's health and lives at risk.
The dark side of the information age<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU1NzYwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjE3MzY3Nn0.0HveQP16MbMkj9HXE8miohSHXETOak7oFDtBdXtE7lM/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C400%2C0%2C256&height=700" id="60d48" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9085c1a7d5b3f81344c3002acdf1df68" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A South Korean church became a viral hotspot after church officials sprayed a salt water "cure" in congregants mouths, without disinfecting the nozzle between uses.
The cure for bad information is good<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="e0tfZ3YB" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="601aa46855087a4dfcf02a67a160e0c4"> <div id="botr_e0tfZ3YB_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/e0tfZ3YB-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/e0tfZ3YB-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/e0tfZ3YB-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p><strong></strong><strong></strong>That doesn't mean we are defenseless. The best cure for rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories is good, evidence-based information. We just have to know how to recognize it when we find it. Unfortunately, that's difficult in the center of the infodemic vortex.</p><p>"Information overload is incredibly anxiety-provoking—which is true even when the information is accurate," Jaimie Meyer, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist, <a href="https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/covid-19-infodemic/" target="_blank">told <em>Yale Medicine</em></a>. "But here, if people get the wrong information from unreliable sources, we may have more trouble slowing the spread of the virus. And we can't afford to get this wrong."</p><p>In their study, the researchers concluded that governments and health agencies should study the patterns of pandemic rumors, track the misinformation, and develop communication strategies to circumvent these messages. </p><p>In the <em>Yale Medicine </em>article, Meyer provides advice for helping individuals deal with information overload. She recommends looking at data and graphs carefully, considering how individual studies connect with established facts, and considering the whole story (not just the eye-catching headline). </p><p>When it comes to garnering information from social media, proceed with caution.</p><p>"Everything looks the same on Twitter," Meyer said. "When you have a tweet from Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Association of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, next to a tweet that says the opposite thing from a celebrity or some random person—and they all appear similar, you have to weigh the credibility of your sources." </p><p>She recommends following health agencies like <a href="https://twitter.com/who?lang=en" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">the WHO</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/CDCgov?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a>, and your local and state health agencies. When you come across a pandemic rumor or something that seems suspect, you can double-check it against these authoritative sources, such as the WHO's <a href="https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">COVID-19 mythbusters page</a>. And if you find yourself stressing out over the news and your social media feed, <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/mental-health-activities-coronavirus-lockdown" target="_self" rel="dofollow">take a mental break</a>.</p><p>We all would like a return to some form of normalcy, but that return will not emanate from a miracle cure. It will be a slow, steady course of handwashing, social distancing, and learning to navigate the infodemic.</p>
Carbon locked in soils can be emitted by bacteria.Turning up the heat on them releases more carbon.
- A new study shows that an increase in temperature can increase the amount of carbon released by the soil.
- This is in line with previous studies, though this one demonstrates a larger increase than the older experiments.
- The risk is that increasing temperatures cause a positive feedback loop.
The dirty details of an aggravated carbon cycle<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="CabkeAzx" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="169377c88f392a86f6c42180b74820a5"> <div id="botr_CabkeAzx_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/CabkeAzx-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>There is a lot of carbon in the dirt. The world's soil contains more carbon than the atmosphere, all the plants, or all the animals<a href="https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/02/21/can-soil-help-combat-climate-change/" target="_blank"></a>. A third of this trove of carbon resides in the soils of the <a href="https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/26866/20200813/tropical-soils-highly-sensitive-climate-change.htm" target="_blank">tropics</a>. Under normal circumstances, this works as a carbon <a href="https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/CarbonCycle" target="_blank">sink</a>, keeping carbon in storage and out of the atmosphere. Some of this carbon is used by bacteria in the soil to provide the building blocks of new microbes. They expel surplus carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. </p><p>Many of these microbes are known to be more active when exposed to higher temperatures. To determine what this could mean for carbon emissions, a team from The University of Edenborough and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute turned up the heat in tropical soils to see what would happen. </p><p>The researchers went to an undisturbed plot of forest on Barro Colorado Panama, the home of the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute. They placed heating rods just over a meter into the soil and turned up the heat, warming the earth by four degrees centigrade. They then measured the carbon emissions from the heated ground and another nearby patch left at ambient temperature. These measurements covered two years.</p><p>Their findings, published in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2566-4" target="_blank">Nature</a>, show that the heated soil emitted 55% more carbon than the control plot<a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200812144102.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow"></a>. <br> <br> Study lead author Andrew Nottingham commented on these findings to the <a href="https://phys.org/news/2020-08-global-tropical-soils-leak-carbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">AFP</a>. "Carbon held in tropical soils is more sensitive to warming than previously recognized. Even a small increase in respiration from tropical forest soils could have a large effect on atmospheric CO<sub>2</sub> concentrations, with consequences for global climate."</p><p>You can probably also spot the potential feedback loop here: If the global temperature increases too much, more carbon will be released from tropical soils, which then increase the greenhouse effect, which causes global temperatures to rise. </p>
Once is happenstance, twice is a coincidence, thrice is evidence of a pattern.<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="8PLWDgcM" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="378380d273bf4a1c9606370acea15e58"> <div id="botr_8PLWDgcM_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/8PLWDgcM-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/8PLWDgcM-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/8PLWDgcM-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Previous studies on this topic point in the same direction. Those studies and the models they inspired suggested that increased temperatures could increase soil-based carbon emissions, but they all underestimated how much carbon would be involved.</p><p>A 2016 study focusing on temperate soils also concluded that increasing soil temperatures would increase their carbon <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature20150" target="_blank">emissions</a>. They predicted that, if left unchecked, these emissions would equal the amount produced by a country similar to the United States over the next few <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">decades</a>. Another experiment in Colorado found similar <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6332/1420" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">results</a>. Both of these studies found lower increases in carbon emissions by percentage than the study on Barro Colorado. </p><p>However, these studies did not take place in the tropics, and the differences in the soils between temperate and tropical zones could explain the differences between the studies. Moreover, the dirt on Barro Colorado Island differs from the dirt in the Amazon and may be more inclined to produce more emissions when the heat is turned up. The same can be said of tropical soils <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/12/climate/tropical-soils-climate-change.html?searchResultPosition=3&utm_campaign=Hot%20News&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=93170710&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8McWKRhE8U9ChcWW2qkqNyp2Qndzr1aJmGlrMUwK_h1bM8RDQukWcM8r2OcBKW2Y0bWlRr9o4WUixKDzIo4HzKkVv19g&utm_content=93170710&utm_source=hs_email" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">elsewhere</a>. </p><p>Another <a href="https://www.forestwarming.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">experiment</a>, very similar to the one in Panama, is currently underway in Puerto Rico. However, this experiment is taking the extra step of also heating the plants near the heated soil to see what the effect of warmer temperatures is on their ability to absorb carbon.</p><p>The current study also did not heat the soil past the one-meter mark and cannot provide us with predictions of what more comprehensive heating of the soil would do to emissions. It was also comparatively short, and the effect may be reduced in the long run as the nutrients in the soil are depleted by the increased activity of the microbes, which are using the carbon and other resources to <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02266-9" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">reproduce</a>. </p><p>The team behind the most recent study will continue their experiment to try and understand how tropical ecosystems respond to increased <a href="https://www.earth.com/news/billions-of-tons-of-co2-could-be-released-from-tropical-soils/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">temperatures</a> over more extended periods of time. </p><p>As we increase our understanding of the planet and its various environmental systems, the potential consequences of climate change become clearer and more horrifying. This new study supports previous findings that suggest disrupting soils can increase carbon emissions. While it may be too soon to tell if the eye-popping increases found by this study are typical or an outlier, they do re-enforce the notion that a breakdown in the systems that keep the climate stable is possible if nothing changes. </p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
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