Mike the Mad Biologist

Our Benevolent Seed Overlords ask “What is science’s rightful place?” which refers to a line from Obama’s inaugural address where he vowed to “restore science to its rightful place.”
Since ScienceBlogling Jake discussed the importance of basing policy on evidence–as well as correctly recognizing that the method we use to solve problems does not shed much light on whether we should address those problems in the first place–I want to bring up one problem that science faces: it is, to a great extent, elitist.

Before all of the TEH SCIENTISMZ R EVUL!!! crowd gets all hot and bothered, what I mean is that scientific expertise is not easily accessible–there is a lot of training, experience, and study that go into making a competent scientist. Good intentions and will are not enough:

…many issues require detailed knowledge and specific skills. You can’t just get some ‘good folks’ together and build a light water reactor.

James Galbraith, in his recent book The Predator State, described the problem as a erroneous conflation of consumerism and freedom (italics mine):

The concept of a freedom to shop has been extended, insidiously, from its origins in the realm of goods. It has reached, for instance, the realm of careers, where it plays even greater havoc with the normal use of words. In a “free” capitalist society, with private schools and universities able to admit whom they please and charge what the market will bear, the freedom to choose one’s profession becomes in part the freedom to become what one can afford to become. It is not the calling that does the choosing, in other words, but the person who chooses the calling he or she can pay for. The choice is free–because it’s mainly a matter of money. It depends only partly on talent, training, discipline or accomplishment of any kind; it does not depend on membership in any cultural elite. Money is, in this respect and from this perspective, a leveler–not a source of class distinctions but a way of breaking them down. The college dropout can become the country’s richest person and any charlatan a banker, business leader, or President of the United States. These are therefore the democratic professions, while those in mathematics or physical science that continue to govern themselves, or impose reasonably strict professional standards, are elitist. Money cannot buy an appointment in a physics department, and for this reason, physicists constitute a group whose public values are not entirely to be trusted.

For me, this explains a lot of disdain towards science from certain quarters (although rampant stupidity combined with religious fanaticism helps too). Scientific research is elitist*. So is the NBA. Most people can’t be like Mike (or Kobe, LeBron, or Tim Duncan), yet the NBA doesn’t receive accusations of ‘elitism’. Since most people don’t really understand how scientists reach the findings they do, scientific observations appear to be nothing more than pronouncements from upon high. Of course, most scientists don’t understand findings from other disciplines either, but, having used the scientific method and “strict professional standards” (hopefully) themselves, we trust the process.

The manifestations of this ersatz ‘populist’ definition of elitism appear in many different forms, from creationism to the “woo” that ScienceBlogling Orac and many others routinely decry. And let’s not forget global warming denialism. Suddenly, everyone is a self-proclaimed expert, even if he or she is astonishingly ignorant. As importantly, this idiot conception of elitism also transfers blame from the true elites–those who have disproportionate political and economic power–to ‘elites’ who have very little power (except over, perhaps, campus speech codes).

So, as a society, we must recognize that scientific expertise matters, and that when figuring out how to do something and indentifying basic phenomena (e.g., man-made global warming), it does trump the ‘politics of the gut.’ At the same, we, as scientists, must communicate our findings clearly so that all, not just a few, can use that information to fully participate in our democracy.

*So too, the practice of medicine, which probably explains why so many self-proclaimed experts (e.g., the anti-vaccinationists) abound.


  1. #1 James F
    January 27, 2009

    At the same, we, as scientists, must communicate our findings clearly so that all, not just a few, can use that information to fully participate in our democracy.

    I think it’s also important to strengthen our alliance with non-scientist science communicators. Clearly, there are serious problems, as the brouhaha over Graham Lawton’s article illustrates, but there are also clear successes like the work of Carl Zimmer. The latter ought to be the rule rather than the exception.

    As an aside, I’m struck by how intellectuals are “elites” but the super-rich aren’t.

  2. #2 llewelly
    January 27, 2009

    I’m struck by how intellectuals are “elites” but the super-rich aren’t.

    Nearly all Americans see the ability to do math and science (and art, and music) well as either an accident of birth, or a gift from god. Wealth, by contrast, is seen as something anyone can obtain, provided they ‘work hard’ and make the ‘right choices’.

    Prior to entering college, all of my teachers described my ability to do well on tests, especially math and science tests, as a ‘gift’ or a ‘special gift’, frequently followed by the words ‘from god’. I was constantly reminded, in both explicit and subtle ways, that ‘other children can’t possibly do so well’. It was not until I was much older that I realized I had put a great deal of time and effort into practicing these things, that other people did not.

    Both wealth and science ability are strongly predicted by one’s parents, but you can’t inherit an understanding of science without doing any of the work yourself.

  3. #3 D
    January 27, 2009

    Nearly all Americans see the ability to do math and science (and art, and music) well as either an accident of birth, or a gift from god. Wealth, by contrast, is seen as something anyone can obtain, provided they ‘work hard’ and make the ‘right choices’.

    Which myth conveniently keeps people from addressing the fact that the United States has very nearly the lowest intergenerational social mobility of any developed country.

    If you can’t afford to attend the Right Schools (never mention orthodontia, the “right” clothes, learning to wear those clothes, etc.) then your chances of fast-tracking in any US business is at best greatly reduced.

  4. #4 RickD
    January 27, 2009

    I would go a point further than what D says. There is far more class mobility in science than in business. I think of my own family history as an example. My grandfather was a coal miner, his son (my father) went to MIT and became a chemist reasonably close to the top of his field. If my father had wanted to go into politics, he would have been SOL.

    Also, I think it’s important to differentiate between “elites” and “elitists”. I think it is easy to define “elites” in an acceptable manner, but the meaning of “elitist” has been twisted and turned beyond recognition to the point where a Yale-educated son and grandson of other Yale-educated politically elite figures is treated as something other than an “elitist” simply because he presents himself as a born-again Christian and adopts anti-intellectual postures.

    I agree with the general point, that we need to actively fight against the air of anti-intellectualism in American culture.

  5. #5 Peter
    January 27, 2009

    I really wanted to become a physicist in college, but I eventually had to admit I just couldn’t cut it. So I became an attorney instead. 🙂 Lawyer jokes aside, I’m a much better lawyer than I would have been a physicist. I’m okay with the fact that I would have been a mediocre scientist at best. Elitism is good in many respects. It keeps wanna-be’s like me out of the scientific field and lets me find a better profession where I can actually achieve something.

  6. #6 james
    January 27, 2009

    “As an aside, I’m struck by how intellectuals are “elites” but the super-rich aren’t.”

    i’m not struck by that because it’s not true

  7. #7 Jack Kolinski
    January 28, 2009

    In one respect, science shouldn’t be concerned about ignorant people considering science “elitist.” “Sticks and stones will break my bones . . .” and all that. In a DIFFERENT respect, science needs to be VERY concerned about attempting to communicate in “every day English” what it has and is accomplishing. Thus, the importance of James F’s comment about communicating through “non-scientist science communicators” although they do not really have to be “non-scientists,” just good communicators. We need more Carl Sagans and Richard Dawkinses and Neil Shubins (?) (“Your Inner Fish”). Someone on one of these blogs or comments thereto mentioned Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” as being criticised as somehow “middlebrow” or some similar phrase apparently meaning more than a children’s book but “less” than scientifically thorough and acceptible (I’m both guessing and paraphrasing–not very scientific, I know, but my point might still be valid!). NOBODY did more to disabuse me of any final vestiges of my thorough Christian brainwashing than Dawkins in The God Delusion. We need LOTS more of these efforts by ALL scientists in ALL scientific disciplines including at least a few people who can actually tie a lot of it together to explain why it has improved our lives, saved lives and will continue to do so. IF it is OBVIOUS to most of us that science saves more lives and empowers more people and does more good than all the religions and prayers throughout history, SURELY the scientific community together with the freethinker community can come up with a few people and/or new methodologies to tell OUR story in a positive way that DEMONSTRATES (“shows” would be a better word for many of the people we are trying to “show”) the helpfulness and usefulness and importance of science, including “evolution” and “stem cells” and other aspects of science which are troublesome to our religious brethren and sistren. Science has made tremendous strides in enlarging our knowledge of our Earth and Universe down to our DNA and quarks. Can it not figure out a way to un-brainwash millions and millions of otherwise decent and intelligent people from the various god-myths?!? The Human Genome Project was an AWESOME accomplishment. Why not a “Save the Humans From Gods and Religion” project? I would donate money to such a cause. If one exists, please let me know how to get in touch with it. We need more than blogs about the “Culture Wars.” What better time than at the election of our first Afro-American president who acknowledged “unbelievers” in his (First) Inaugural Address?
    Can’t science (genetics, behavioural psychology and several other “ologies” I can’t even pronounce) help us to understand what makes these people tick? Somewhere on one of these blogs there is a discussion of a “religious” gene. Elsewhere there is an interesting article about research demonstrating how minority views can be turned into a unanimous consensus! Surely some of you scientist types can figure out how to put some of this stuff together to convince otherwise pretty ordinary and normal people to stop believing in Santa Claus, especially when Santa keeps telling people to kill each other for believing in the WRONG Santa!

  8. #8 Eofhan
    January 28, 2009

    What should one expect from a group of people, told from birth that the most important thing is that “We’re all Somebody! And each of us has something Important to contribute!”

  9. #9 Bill Gue
    January 29, 2009

    I posted a comment about this blog yesterday, but I guess it got lost in cyberspace.

    Just wanted to share a perspective of an educated layperson to this discussion. I am no scientist (haven’t studied it since college), but I have a growing interest in it–mostly for the reason that many of you have mentioned–I think the general public in the US needs to be more knowledgable about happening in the science world. After all, it affects all of us.

    One potential barrier for me, is that in reading many of these science blogs, I have am picking up a rather nasty tone directed toward people like me, who 1) aren’t scientific experts on anything, and 2) are people of faith.

    Scientific knowledge isn’t the only type of knowledge, and scientific truth isn’t the only truth. And it doesn’t help the cause, of bringing science to the common man and woman, to call us “idots,” “primative,” or “ignorant.” After all, we are all ignorant of much, unless someone would dare to say they know everything.

    Ok, I’m sounding a bit preachy now, but I hope those who might read this can understand my point, that this kind of language, and the attitude that it betrays, is exactly what people are talking about when talk about elitism.

    I would love to see more initiatives taken to educate and inform American adults about the advances of science, medicine, and technology. And doing that in down to earth language and format could be a great way to “put science back where it belongs.” But nobody wants to sit and listen to someone who (brilliant as they may be) carries an heir of superiority.

    I have enjoyed reading other’s thoughts, and would love to “hear” thoughtful responses to my own comments.

  10. #10 Bill Gue
    January 29, 2009

    Sorry for the grammatical errors in my last comment. Should have reviewed it first.

  11. #11 Mike the Mad Biologist
    January 29, 2009


    I assume by “person of faith”, you mean religious. I, too, am religious, but, when religions become political ideologies, I call them out, just like I would for any secular ideology with which I disagree. There is little I despise more than a public policy debate where one side cowers behind the altar.

    I’m also willing to call out particular religions when I think the consequences of those belief systems are harmful. As to other commenters and ScienceBloggers, some of them do it differently.

    Regarding truth, I don’t think science speaks to metaphysics (by definition), but it is a wonderful tool for understanding physical reality.

  12. #12 tl
    January 30, 2009

    I’ve noticed that there are two definitions of “elitist” that are bandied about by different groups, leading to a massive communication gulf. To one group, elitist = member of the elite; For the other an elitist is one who believes that his talent, ability, family, etc. makes him/her inherently superior to others.

    For most people, being smart, athletic, or lucky is not a bad thing, so they don’t mind those types of “elites”. What they object to are the egotistical ones. All it takes are a few vocal intellectuals who are dismissive of the common man to feed the persistent stereotype that college/graduate school breeds elitism. In my experience, academics are often viewed as egotistical snobs, dismissive of the whims of the rabble, or the “common man”.

    If you want to attack the negative perception, we need to counter those voices that feed into the stereotype, and generate voices that counter the stereotype. Most athletes learn early in their career to be careful with their words, to avoid the negative public reaction that comes from being a braggart (granted, quite a few manage to make a career doing the opposite, but they are the minority). Academics generally don’t get the feedback necessary to learn this lesson until it is too late. Can you imagine what people would think of athletes if they only heard quotes from Deon Sanders? Or the poorly chosen words of an excited college player that sounded too dismissive of his opponents? Unfortunately, for a significant number of people, that is what they get from academics. They either hear the outrageous comments that filter into the mainstream news feed, or they hear the funny or intentionally misquoted comments that are passed around in other channels.

    So I think you need to reassess why people consider scientists and academics elitist. I suspect it is because they have a limited exposure to scientists and academics; and that exposure often comes in the form of comments that add to the elitist stereotype.

  13. #13 Bill Gue
    February 3, 2009

    Hey, Mike.

    Just wanted to say thanks for your thoughtful (and respectful) response a few days ago. I am a Christian, and a student of logic (not an “A” student, mind you). But I have a pretty good sniffer for weak logical arguments.

    Like you, I can’t stand it when religious folks inject little religious quips into a discussion to “trump” their opponents (ie. “the fool says in his heart there is no God,” or “the Bible says it, I beleive it, and that settles it”). I wish that instead they, would just say, “that’s a good point,” or “I don’t know,” and go home and look into it. I’ve heard these little zingers from Christian radio people, and friends in the church all my life.

    I believe I have also seen this in the scientific world. But instead of hiding behind an altar, scientist sometimes hide behind a superior attitude. Several times in my life, I have been brushed off by science professors who, instead of saying, “you make a good point” or “I don’t know,” took on a superior attitude, and acted as if I was just not smart enough to “get it.” Cop out!

    Like I said, I am only a layperson in the science world, but I know BS when I smell it.

    So, I’m hoping that through communicating with good folks like you, I can begin to understand why science is so convinced that evolution is THE truth about our origins. I’m not saying it’s not, mind you, but so far I haven’t been totally convinced by anyone I’ve talked to. And I have no problem with being an evolved creature, but like I said no one thus far has been able to help me see the amazing, unquestionable proof that evolution is the only possible answer to the question of our origins.

    I’d also like to better understand what is happening with stem-cell research, and why science seems ok with doing as it pleases with any human being who has not yet passed through the birth canal. I confess that this is an area where I truly am “ignorant,” and have only the pop media to go by, at this point.

    Well, gotta go. My 6-year-old wants some “Lucky Charms” for breakfast:)

  14. #14 Mike the Mad Biologist
    February 4, 2009


    The evolution topic is a very long one, and won’t fit in the comments section of a blog (which is why introductory evolution courses are a semester long…). I would recommend the following books:

    1) The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner (it’s a very good description and lay analysis of the work done on the Galapagos finches)

    2) The Superorganism: the beauty, elegance, and strangeness of insect societies by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson (an ant colony is as every bit as complicated as a person)

    3) Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution by Ken Miller

    4) Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth R. Miller

    5) Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne

    6) Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald Prothero

    7) Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction by Scott & Eldridge

    That’ll keep you busy… If you have specific questions, talkorigins.org is also a good resource.

    Regarding stem cell research, I don’t speak for any scientist but this one, but here’s why I think stem cell research is ethical–and opposition to it is unethical:

    1) I don’t think an embryo that’s a few cell divisions old, and that, by definition, is so undifferentiated that a single cell amoeba is more interactive with the environment is in any meaningful way, human. We’re not talking about a seven month old fetus, but an undifferentiated clump of cells, 50-70 percent of which are spontaneously aborted by women at this stage.

    2) In Judaism, we are taught that the embryo, for the first month, “is as water”–that is, it isn’t a human being. For me, it’s not an salient ethical issue.

    3) These embryos can’t be used for in vitro fertilization (which is where they come from; they’re the ‘unused leftovers’)–they will be destroyed (an argument also made by far right Republican senator Orrin Hatch). We might as well use them for a good purpose–curing disease.

    4) Related to #3, in vitro fertilization produces far more embryos than are needed (and has to do so to ensure reasonable success). Isn’t IVF the culprit here? Why aren’t those opposed to stem cell research also opposed to ‘test tube babies’?

    5) Given reasons 1-3, for me, it is unethical not to engage in research that might result in cures for horrible diseases.

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  18. #18 Min
    December 25, 2009

    James Galbraith: “Money cannot buy an appointment in a physics department, and for this reason, physicists constitute a group whose public values are not entirely to be trusted.”

    I am not sure what he means by public values. Besides, I do not ask physics professors for moral counsel. OTOH, if money could by an appointment in a physics department, I would not trust what physics profs say about physics.

    And Galbraith’s suggestion that university appointments can be bought in other fields makes me more inclined to be suspicious of what profs in those fields say, and in addition, if that is so, I would not trust them at all on questions of public values. Galbraith seems to be saying that corruption confers moral superiority.

  19. #19 cym plus
    February 3, 2011

    cym plsu what he means by public values. Besides, I do not ask physics professors for moral counsel. OTOH, if money could by an appointment in a physics department, I would not trust what physics profs say about physics.

    And Galbraith’s suggestion that university appointments can be bought in other fields makes me more inclined to be suspicious of what profs in those fields say, and in addition, if that is so, I would not

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