Mike the Mad Biologist Says... [The Rightful Place Project]

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.

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