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Distributed for Athabasca University Press

Speaking Power to Truth

Digital Discourse and the Public Intellectual

Online discourse has created a new media environment for contributions to public life, one that challenges the social significance of the role of public intellectuals—intellectuals who, whether by choice or by circumstance, offer commentary on issues of the day. The value of such commentary is rooted in the assumption that, by virtue of their training and experience, intellectuals possess knowledge—that they understand what constitutes knowledge with respect to a particular topic, are able to distinguish it from mere opinion, and are in a position to define its relevance in different contexts. When intellectuals comment on matters of public concern, they are accordingly presumed to speak truth, whether they are writing books or op-ed columns or appearing as guests on radio and television news programs. At the same time, with increasing frequency, discourse on public life is taking place online—l an environment that is characterized by an abundance of speakers, discussion, and access. But has this democratization of knowledge, as some describe it brought with it a corresponding increase in truth?

Casting doubt on the assertion that online discourse, with its proliferation of voices, will somehow yield collective wisdom, Speaking Power to Truth raises concerns that this wealth of digitally enabled commentary is, in fact, too often bereft of the hallmarks of intellectual discourse: an epistemological framework and the provision of evidence to substantiate claims. Instead, the pursuit of truth finds itself in competition with the quest for public reputation, access to influence, and enhanced visibility. In exploring the implications of the digital transition, the contributors to Speaking Power to Truth provide both empirical evidence of, and philosophical


Table of Contents

Acknowledgements  vii

Introduction  New Challenges to Knowledge in the Public Sphere — Richard Hawkins and Michael Keren

PART I • PERSPECTIVES

1 Establishing the Public Legitimacy and Value of Scientific Knowledge in an Information Ether — Richard Hawkins

2 Public Intellectuals, Media Intellectuals, and Academic Intellectuals: Comparing the Space of Opinion in Canada and the United States — Eleanor Townsley

3 The Eye of the Swarm: Collective Intelligence and the Public Intellectual — Jacob G. Foster

4 Creating the Conditions for an Intellectually Active People: What Today’s Public Intellectual Can Learn from Anonymous — Liz Pirnie

PART II • CASE STUDIES

5 “Trust Me—I’m a Public Intellectual”: Margaret Atwood’s and David Suzuki’s Social Epistemologies of Climate Science — Boaz Miller

6 Engendering a New Generation of Public Intellectuals: Speaking Truth to Power with Grace and Humility — Karim-Aly Kassam

7 Reflections on My Dubious Experience as a Public Intellectual — Barry Cooper

8 Intellectual Discourse Online — Michael Keren

List of Contributors 199

Index 203

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