May 5, 2021

Annual community forum tackles timely topics of the day in the spirit of public debate

40th anniversary edition of Calgary Institute for the Humanities Community Forum set for May 7
Director of the CIH, Jim Ellis, addressing the crowd at a past community forum
Director of the CIH, Jim Ellis, addresses the crowd at a past community forum.

It’s hard to deny that society’s conception of expertise has been challenged greatly in the internet age, rapidly changing along the way.

We’ve witnessed this on a grand scale with the rapid rise of climate change denial, vaccination hesitancy, and populist political movements. With a glut of information at our fingertips online — information that can be biased, confusing, contradictory or flat-out inaccurate — we’ve seen an ever-increasing questioning of traditional sources of knowledge and authority.

“With the rise of the internet, and the way information is now disseminated, it often encourages people to believe they’re experts on important and complex matters,” says Dr. Noreen Humble, PhD, acting director of the venerable Calgary Institute for the Humanities (CIH) at the University of Calgary. “This often corresponds with a denouncement of traditional modes of intellectual authority, including science, mainstream journalism and academia.”

The End of Expertise

This is the heady topic on the table at the CIH’s 40th Annual Community Forum, to be held May 7 (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) on Zoom. It couldn’t be more timely, notes Humble, in a world where a U.S. president recently rose to power, spouting hyperbole and mistruths on social media, stoking the fires of populist dissent and declaring any news outlet that called him out to be “fake news.” 

One might say this year’s community forum hits the nail on the head, as it were, tackling one of the most relevant and pressing topics of the day. As Humble points out, that’s been the approach of the CIH community forums from the start.

The CIH was founded in 1976, as an academic institute focused on the study of human realities and values in a rapidly changing world. The first CIH Community Forum was held in 1981, as a means of engaging the public on important matters, initiating a conversation between the University of Calgary and the community.

The topic of the first CIH Community Forum was Calgary’s Growth: Bane or Boon? It was an issue foremost on the minds of many a Calgarian as the city was then beginning to experience exponential growth.

“One of the things that stands out for me, when looking back at the CIH community forums, is how often they’ve been really prescient,” says Humble, a professor in the Department of Classics and Religion. “Take 1991, for example. The topic was Healthcare for the Elderly. We’ve seen during the pandemic that this issue has not been resolved. In 1999 the topic was Dilemmas of Reconciliation. Nearly a decade before the federal government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we were discussing this matter with the community.”

That forward-thinking approach has been a strength of the CIH Community Forums throughout its 40-year history. Other examples of this would include The Evolution of Multiculturalism in 1988, or, 2004’s topic addressing the complexities of climate change: What Does It Mean To Be Green?

one of this year's guest speakers, Steven Sloman, a cognitive scientist from Brown University

One of this year's guest speakers, Steven Sloman, a cognitive scientist from Brown University.

A pillar event of the CIH year, the forums have been a popular community draw. “We’ve had really strong participation from the community,” notes Humble. “Some years up to 80 per cent of the attendees have been from the general public.” From 2002 to 2012, the forum was broadcast on CBC Ideas and since 2016 the University of Calgary Press has published books based on each year’s topic.

Continuity of healthy debate

Humble notes that the CIH forums are a place for healthy intellectual debates on crucial issues, and this year is no different.

“On the changing conceptions of expertise, we know that there have been some very valid challenges to our traditional sources of knowledge and authority,” she says. “Feminist questioning of male biases in science; Indigenous groups protesting paternalistic and colonial development schemes. This is not a black-and-white issue. Are these challenges to traditional expertise part of a healthy debate, or are they too often part of a dangerous slide towards populism?”

She adds: “The CIH Community Forums are, I think, a long-standing model of one of the ways in which the university has long engaged productively and collaboratively with the surrounding community.”

Guest speakers at this year’s CIH Community Forum include Dr. Harry Collins (Cardiff University), Dr. Maya Goldenberg (University of Guelph), and Dr. Steven Sloman (Brown University).

Register for the online event.