The Rightful Place Project

Mike the Mad Biologist Says…

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.

Read more from Mike the Mad Biologist


  1. #1 Bill Gue
    January 28, 2009

    Mike, I think you’ve really hit on it, right at the end of your comment, here.

    As someone who is not scientifically trained beyond college intro biology, I am finding a renewed interest in science. Yet, as I have been receiving scienceblogs emails, the past month or so, I can’t help but feel I will be seen as inferior, as a person, by just about every contributor: 1) becuase I’m not an expert in any field of science, and 2) because I am a person of faith. This makes it very hard for me to want to try to enter the conversation. Hence, I have not until today.

    I think it’s a shame that faith is considered by so many in America to be the enemy of science and vice versa. I know the history, and I understand why, but I think it’s time for that to change. And since most Americans are people of faith, I think it would serve the scientific community well to stop calling people of faith “idiots” or “primative.”

    I would love to see top scientists take seriously the task of making genetics, evolution, and modern medicine and technology more understandable to the average adult, without making us feel like we’re stupid. (After all, not all knowledge is scientific knowledge.) Perhaps this would help everyday Joe’s like me not feel so intimidated and suspicious.

    It can really frighten people when the schools are teaching their kids things they never heard of or don’t understand. But I think if more adults understood some of these things, they would be less emotionally charged.

    For my part, I try to help people see that believing in the process of evolution is not abandoning your faith. And I am reading a lot, trying to play some catch-up from my break from studying things scientific.

    I would like to believe that faith and science dont’ need to be mortal enemies, and won’t be at some point in the future.

  2. #2 sikiƟ
    January 14, 2010

    I would like to believe that faith and science dont’ need to be mortal enemies, and won’t be at some point in the future.

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